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In medieval Europe all the descendants of Noah were portrayed as white since the lineage of Noah’s sons was somewhat confused; indeed Ham’s descendants were often believed to have populated Asia rather than Africa.During the early modern period, however, the Arab version that Canaan’s descendants had been “marked” as servants by altered skin color became widespread in Europe as well.10 This belief fitted in neatly with preexisting negative attitudes towards black people and helped to confirm the idea that black skin was a mark of subordinate and inferior status.But, if “race” was a construct, why did Europeans begin to “invent” it and, subsequently, denigrate “black” Africans?One answer is that all European elites at the time were obsessed with hierarchy and its preservation, believing that it denoted order in contrast to chaos.6 Peasants and serfs were meant to pay due homage to their local lords who in their turn were part of a detailed hierarchy of earls, counts, and dukes.Yet, as biologists and geneticists have conclu- sivelv shown, there is only one human race, with the degree of genetic difference among whites tire same as between whites and blacks, or between any so-called “racial group.” When scholars use “race” as a useful category of historical inquiry they are not suggesting that white people and black people, for instance, belong to different species.Instead they are concerned with the sociological meanings of race, whereby racial terms only have meaning because individuals or groups either attribute a significance to the differences between themselves and others, or impose such a significance on others.The word “race” has become synonymous in modern parlance with skin color and is often associated with prejudice and violence: news bulletins, for instance, report “racially aggravated” attacks among Asians, whites, and blacks, while the “racial” issues of the United States, South Africa, Zimbabwe, or any other nation for that matter, invariably focus on the different treatment and experiences of those with specific skin tones.

It was understood to be a natural part of life that some were “better” while others were “lesser” and the chances of moving from the lower order to the higher ranks were slim indeed.Race in this early period was not only about more than physical differences, it was also a flexible and adaptable identity.It was possible for non-whites to effectively “become white” by adopting Christianity, and by dressing or living like Europeans.The Arab overlords of North Africa generally believed that sub-Saharan darker-skinned peoples were culturally and intellectually inferior, mocking their “wisdom, ingenuity, religion, justice and regular government,” and they imported those attitudes with the conquest of most of Spain in the eighth century.8 During the long Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula by the Christian kings of Castile and Aragon these negative stereotypes crossed over the cultural divide between Muslim and Christian.Winthrop Jordan was perfectly correct to point out the negative connotations of the word “black” in early modern English, and other tongues, and that people with black skin in effect suffered by association because of it, but the roots of European racism went even deeper than that.9 There is a clear lineage of negative racial imagery from Arabic to Hispanic to English thought.