Posted on June 19, 2021

Anti-Blackness and Transphobia Are Older Than We Thought

Roland Betancourt, Washington Post, June 16, 2021

When did racism begin? Because of how ideas about race shape our contemporary world, some have argued that racism did not exist in the ancient and medieval worlds, that it was a modern invention. Proposing that there was a past before racism helped prop up the notion that Americans were living in a post-racial present, in the decades after the Civil Rights movement.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

More than just race thinking and varied forms of racialized prejudices, the ancient and medieval world provide us with a deep legacy of anti-Blackness. This history of anti-Blackness has not only defined modern racism as we know it, but also shaped how gender and sexuality have been explained and represented for centuries. Remembering this longer history of racism and transphobia should remind us of how deeply ingrained these ideas are — and how much effort it will take to root them out.

Recognizing anti-Blackness in the deep past, particularly the Christian Middle Ages, allows us to better understand how colorist prejudices were racialized and transmitted from Ancient Greece and Rome to the modern Western world. Throughout this period, Christianity attempted to position itself as a new “race” (genos) or group of people that transcended ethnic categories and civilizations by proselytizing across the known world from India to Ethiopia. But Christianity still retained the deep anti-Blackness rooted in ancient theories of racialized and gendered differences.

The Byzantine Empire (or, more accurately, the medieval Roman Empire) controlled the eastern Mediterranean from 330 to 1453 C.E. with its capital in Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul. Constantinople was the envy of the Western medieval world, a cosmopolitan center at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe and Asia. Because of its lineage dating to antiquity, the Byzantine Empire provides a unique lens on how racial tropes persisted across millennia and how they were transmitted and reconceived under Christian rule.

European visitors to Constantinople often remarked on the city’s racial diversity and commented on the darker skin of its emperors and peoples. Surprisingly, Byzantine sources were often silent on this racialized difference, potentially taking it for granted in their cosmopolitan empire. Yet while Byzantines were not White in the eyes of their European neighbors, they also privileged Whiteness in their descriptions of feminine beauty and often contoured their own identity through a prism of anti-Blackness.

For example, Byzantine intellectuals boasted about the students who came to work with them from around the globe and imperial authors praised the diversity of the imperial court. In 1174, Eustathios of Thessaloniki celebrated the diversity of the emperor’s entourage by listing all the various envoys from foreign lands present, including, “the Indian too, slightly tinged with black, and the Ethiopian with his whole skin burnt dark.” At the same time, the popular epic romance, “Digenes Akritas,” dating to the same period, described its hero’s Arab father as knowing the Romans’ (i.e. Byzantines’) language perfectly, having curly hair and saying that his complexion was “not black like the Ethiopians but fair and handsome.”

While outsiders could be scorned for their dark complexion, dark skin wasn’t considered bad in all cases for the subjects of the Byzantine Empire. In fact, it was associated with the admirable strength of ancient heroes, like Odysseus, who Homer described as “black skinned” (melanochroous) in the “Odyssey.” But whether dark skin was seen as virtue or ugliness depended on one’s gender and sexuality.

A dark complexion was prized as a sign of masculinity: Manly men were said to have dark skin. But dark skin was considered unfeminine, and therefore dark-skinned women were viewed negatively — as were light-skinned men. Since white skin was associated with feminine beauty, when translated onto the male body it became a sign of queerness and “effeminacy.”


{snip} Across history, racializing peoples as others often went far beyond epidermal, physiognomic or genetic markers of race alone. Accurately understanding the complex and intertwined history of these ideas is key to understanding our world where racism and transphobia have become the dominant ideologies of hatred.