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Universal preference of whiteness over blackness?

I was at a party when I overheard a Chinese acquaintance remark, "the fear of blacks is instinctive". To support his point, he mentioned the mainland Chinese distaste for African students in China despite limited media exposure to blacks. A white man disagreed with him, insisting that prejudice is learned. The Chinese man happened to have many white friends, but no black friends.

Sometimes, it seems the preference of white Europeans over black Africans (and black Asians and Australians) has reached worldwide epidemic proportions. This mentality travels beyond places where significant numbers of dark-skinned Australians/Africans and white Europeans actually live. Even natives of East Asia, which has no significant populations of blacks or whites, venerate whites and vilify blacks. In addition to this, many Asians prize 'European' features like 'high noses', 'oval faces' and 'light hair and eyes' over indigenous features like 'flat noses' and 'black hair and eyes'.

The prevalence of such attitudes easily lends support to the theory of the white "Master race," i.e. white people's superiority is so natural that even people of color instinctively recognize it and ascribe respect to different races according to their place on the color line. Just how far does this common world view go back in time?

By taking a look at the prejudices expressed by people at various points in history, we can see that whites are not immune to scorn and misunderstanding from Asians too. There is nothing innate or 'natural' about Asian perceptions of white superiority. The adoration of whites today could just as easily be the vilification of whites, depending on historical circumstances and the dictates of contemporary media.

The Arab World

Modern Arab attitudes towards blacks and whites

In 1989, Zein Isa, a Palestinian emigre in the United States, murdered his own daughter for dating a black boy. The story of Tina Isa's murder shocked the world - her mother held her down while Zein stabbed her to death. The irony is Zein Isa's wife and Tina Isa's mother is a white woman.

Many modern Egyptians view being black as an insult. Poe narrates in Black Spark White Fire:

In 1984, Columbia Pictures released a television mini-series on the life of the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. The title role was given to the distinguished black actor Loius Gossett, Jr... With makeup and costume, he was a dead ringer for Sadat.. But the Egyptians did not see it that way.

The mini-series Sadat was banned in Egypt. Indeed, so deeply were the Egyptians offended that all films produced or distributed by Columbia Pictures were similarly banned. ... prominent among the stated objections was a strong revulsion against the idea of a black actor playing Sadat. 1

Ann Macy Roth, a professor of Egyptology, once said, "I've been told by most of the modern Egyptians with whom I've discussed the question, that, if they had to use the categories of the modern Western world, they would describe themselves as whites. (There are some exceptions, but few would describe themselves as black)."2

Pre-modern Arab ideas on race

Medieval Arab literature indicates that West Asian views on black Africans during the medieval era were very dim and echo their modern prejudices. However, premodern Arab racial bigotry also extended to their opinions of Europeans. With shock and disgust, Medieval Arabs described the allegedly low hygiene standards, animal characteristics, stupidity and superstitious ignorance of Europeans:

Geographer and philologist al-Bakri (d 1094 CE) says of the Galatians:

"They are treacherous, dirty, and bathe once or twice a year, then with cold water. They never wash their clothes until they are worn out because they claim the dirt accumulated as the result of the sweat softens their body."3

Official and Historian Usamah Ibn Munqidh described Crusaders in the Holy Land:

"I saw Franks as like animals possessing courage and fighting prowess though their character is rude. Their medical knowledge is in a crude state for I saw a Frankish physician cut off a leg on which an abscess has grown, causing the man's death. A woman afflicted with imbecility was diagnosed as possessed by the devil, the physician recommended for her the shaving of her head, and as her case worsened, he made a deep cruciform incision on her head, to chase the devil away, but the woman died in the process."4

Arab Scholar Sa'id Al-Andalusi also had an unflattering opinion of whites:

"Their temperaments are frigid, their humors raw. They lack keenness of understanding and clarity of intelligence, and are overcome by ignorance and dullness, lack of discernment and stupidity."5

White slaves fetched higher prices than black slaves in Arab slave markets, which would indicate that medieval Arabs thought more lowly of blacks than they did of whites.6 Nevertheless, I am of the opinion that the gap in black/white status in Arab opinion has been magnified by modern Western influence on Arab world views. Medieval Arabs, unlike slavery-era Euro-Americans, often accepted the children they had with black slaves as their own heirs. A famous example is Al-Mustansir, the 18th Imam-Caliph of the Fatimid dynasty. His father was the previous Caliph and his mother was a Nubian concubine.7 And one of the most famous of Arab writers, Ibn Battuta, has repeatedly expressed favorable opinions of black Africans in his writings. He rates the women of Mali as being of "surpassing beauty".8 The medieval North African globetrotter traveled subSaharan Africa, Europe and Asia (as far as China) and never failed to record his observations of the women of various nations. This high praise for the beauty of West African women came from a man who has seen many races.

Asia (outside the Arab World)

Modern Asian attitudes towards black and white

The Shanghainese are known for admiring Western civilization. One in four Shanghainese sons-in-law are foreign (including foreign-born Chinese and other Asians). Many Chinese parents boast proudly of daughters married to European/Euro-North American men. This enthusiastic reception for white foreigners contrasts with the prevalent Chinese belief, held even by members of the supposedly non-racist Communist party, that people of African descent are unredeemably savage. But was the white-good-black-bad mentality part of Chinese tradition? Or is it a product of Western imperialism?

Koreans and Japanese have similar attitudes towards blacks and whites. Japanese animation is full of beautiful, sexy and heroic white characters. A European woman who saw Sailor Moon noted with much amusement, "If this is Japanese animation, why do none of the characters look Japanese?" The few black characters in other works of Japanese animation are mostly negative or marginal. The recent LA riots in the US testify to the damaging effects of Korean attitudes towards blacks. Generally, white consumers are treated better than black consumers in Korean establishments. Many Koreans and Japanese dye their hair blond, brown or red. Blue and green contact lenses are also popular among young East Asians.

Southeast Asians, wherever they're living in the world, also express similar white-is-better-than-black attitudes. A black Amerasian living in Vietnam said he wished he was a white Amerasian instead. A Filipino American woman remarked that a woman's beauty is marred by dark skin. A South Asian woman recalled with horror a stranger knocking on her door, expressly noting it was "an African American man". Race is almost never tagged onto descriptions of white strangers.

Pre-modern Asian ideas on 'race'

Apparently, the white-is-right attitude so prevalent today was not always the norm.

Standards of beauty in South and Southeast Asia:

Marco Polo reports on the Dravidians of South India:

"It is a fact that in this country when a child is born they anoint him once a week with oil of sesame, and this makes him grow much darker than when he was born. For I assure you that the darkest man is here the most highly esteemed and considered better than those who are not so dark. Let me add that in very truth these people portray and depict their gods and idols black and their devils white as snow. For they say that God and all the saints are black and the devils are all white..." 9

An early Chinese traveler to Southeast Asia wrote that the local people "consider black the most beautiful." 10 Although modern Filipinos prize the 'high-nosed', oval-faced European-blooded individual as beautiful, some even going as far as to pinch their children's nose bridges in the hopes of achieving a higher nose, this has not always been the case. Prior to European colonization, the ancient Visayans of the Philippines considered the very opposite of high noses and oval faces handsome. Visayans, as well as some other Austronesian peoples in Malaysia and Indonesia, compressed their babies' skulls to achieve broad faces with receding foreheads and flat noses . The Minahasa of Celebes even restricted binding with a forehead board to the nobility.11

Old Chinese views on Caucasians:

By traditional Chinese opera conventions, a black face is considered nobler. Actors wear masks that denote the character's qualities. A pre-dominantly black face indicates courage, righteousness and incorruptibility. A pre-dominantly white face indicates craftiness, deceit and knavery. Ming Dynasty China records even state that Caucasians, in particular blonds, are physically unattractive:

Huihui are shaggy with big noses, and Qipchags have light hair and blue eyes. Their appearance is vile and peculiar, so there are those (Chinese) who do not wish to marry them. 12

This distaste for blondes is a stark contrast to the worship of European standards of beauty so prevalent among modern Asians. Today's Chinese boast about their Caucasian sons-in-law or husbands. Instead of attributing the worship of whites, or the vilification of whites for that matter, to "natural" perceptions of racial hierarchy, it should be remembered that standards of beauty shift through time.


In the 1980s and 1990s, the Cherokee nation has seen a couple of lawsuits involving the denial of citizenship to Cherokee Freedmen (African descendants living in the Cherokee nation). The Cherokee leaders denied that the Freedmen had any Cherokee blood. But most of them did. A Black Indian was typically descended from a Cherokee man and a black woman. Faced with evidence of Cherokee blood in plaintiffs, the Cherokee nation came up with the argument that the matrilineal Cherokee were not required to extend Cherokee identity to the Freedmen. But this strict requirement for matriliny does not apply to descendants of Cherokee men and white women.13 Other nations too had similar lawsuits involving the alleged denial of membership to Freedmen.14 But is this modern preference for whites over blacks characteristic of traditional Native American views?

Native Americans initially prefer blacks to whites

York, the black slave of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition, fascinated Native Americans on his expedition to the Northwest. Indian women all the way to the Pacific Coast were "very fond" of York, Clark wrote. Once a Flathead Indian tried to explain how his people saw York:

"Those who had been brave and fearless, the victorious ones in battle, painted themselves in charcoal. So the black man, they thought, had been the bravest of the party." 15

Colonel James Stevenson of the Bureau of American Ethnology spent thirty years living among and studying Native Americans. In 1888 he wrote: "... the old fur traders always got a Negro if possible to negotiate for them with the Indians, because of their 'pacifying effect.' They could manage them better than the white men, with less friction." 16 In 1738, Nantucket, Rhode Island, residents uncovered an Indian plot to attack their city at night and spare only Africans. 17 These are only a few examples of Indians killing Europeans and rescuing their African slaves. For a more in-depth treatment of this history, see the book "Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples" in the sidebar.

The idea of white superiority/black inferiority a European import?

Unfortunately the goodwill Native Americans bore towards Africans would dissipate under deliberate European efforts to sabotage black-Indian relations. Indian agents sent by Washington to the 5 Civilized Nations openly encouraged slaveholding. Soon each Indian Nation had a small class of "mixed bloods" who felt that they were superior because they owned slaves and usually had some white ancestry. The amount of "white" blood came to be viewed a positive, much as the amount of "black" blood came to be viewed as a negative. 18


Ancient Romans disdain all non-Romans regardless of color

The ancient Romans believed that their civilization was superior to all, but they held Africans and non-Roman Europeans in equal contempt. In his book On Architecture, Roman architect Vitruvius described three basic types of human beings: the tall, blue-eyed, fair people of the north; the curly-haired, black-eyed, dark people of the south; and Vitruvius' own people, the Romans, who lay somewhere in the middle. The Roman believes the dark people are more intelligent than the light people, a view quite different from that of later Europeans:

"Now while the southern peoples are of acute intelligence and infinite resource, they give way when courage is demanded because their strength is drained away by the sun, but those who are born in colder regions by their fearless courage are better equipped for the clash of arms, yet by their slowness of mind they rush on without reflection, and through lack of tactics are balked of their purpose... Italy presents good qualities which are tempered by admixture from either side both north and south, and are consequently unsurpassed. And so, by its policy, it curbs the courage of the northern barbarians, by its strength, the imaginative south. Thu the divine mind has allotted to the Roman state an excellent and temperate region in order to rule the world." 19

The character and beauty of Ethiopians admired by ancient Europeans

"The Ethiopians," wrote Herodotos, "are said to be the tallest and best-looking people in the world." (In ancient Roman/Greek writings, the term "Ethiopian" is loosely used to refer to all black Africans)

Greek writer Diodoros wrote of the Ethiopians: "their piety has been published abroad among all men, and it is generally held that the sacrifices practised among the Ethiopians are those which are the most pleasing to heaven." 20

Pre-Modern Encounters between Europeans and non-whites

Roman army defeats all nations encountered except the Ethiopians

The only nation which successfully resisted Roman domination was the Ethiopians. After conquering nations all the way from Italy to Egypt, the Roman legions were finally stopped by the Ethiopian military. Three times, Augustus sent his armies into Nubia, but he never conquered the Nubians.

Poe describes in Black Spark, White Fire:

"From the moment Augustus occupied Egypt in 30 B.C, the Romans had nothing but trouble from their southern frontier... the Ethiopians ... attacked the Thebais... took Syene and Elephantine and Philae, and enslaved the inhabitants, and also pulled down the statues of Caesar...The Emperor Diocletian was obliged, at the end of the third century A.D, to pay tribute to two Ethiopian tribes called the Nobatae and the Blemyes in order to stop their raids. These tribes continued collecting Roman tribute for the next two hundred years."21

White Slavery in Asia and Africa

During the Middle Ages, European slaves were sold to Africans and Asians. White people, particularly Slavs, were despised as an inferior race in the non-European world.22 The 8th century conquests of the Abbassids in Europe, Asia, and Africa resulted in the enslavement of native populations. Romans, Franks, Persians, Hindus, Kurds, Ethiopians, Sudanese, Berbers and Armenians were brought to Baghdad as slaves. Ibn Batalan, an 11th century Baghdadi doctor wrote a book Risala fi shari al-raqiq on the purchase of slaves, giving advice about making purchase decisions based on the physical traits of slaves - according to Ibn Batalan, blue eyes denote stupidity and wide eyes indicate laziness. He also warned of slave traders who color the hair of blond slaves black, presumably to make them more attractive to buyers.23

Europeans continued to be slaves in the Arab world for centuries to come. When the Mongols conquered large parts of Russia in the 13th century, they sold their new subjects in the slave markets of West Asia and North Africa. One Russian chronicler, describing the enslavement of his people by the Mongols, wrote, "The (Mongols) ... learn warfare from their youth. Therefore, they are stern, fearless and fierce towards us ... We cannot oppose them, but humiliate ourselves before them..." 24 The Mongol's Slavic slave trade filled the harems of Turkish sultans with Slavic women. Slavic men did hard labor for Muslim masters, while Slavic children were sold in slave auctions from Cairo to Baghdad. While Eastern Europeans comprised of the bulk of European slaves, Scandinavians captured by marauding pirates were also trafficked to Arab lands.25

Contrary to the common belief that sub-Saharan Africa had a strictly one-sided role in the slave trade - only exporting slaves and not importing them - medieval writings show it is not so. When 14th century North African travel writer Ibn Battuta journeyed to West Africa, he noted without any surprise that a black governor he visited owned an Arab slave girl from Syria.26 When the the 60,000-strong entourage of Emperor Musa of the Mali empire passed through Cairo on their way to Mecca in 1324, Cairo-born historian al-Maqurizi reported that the West Africans purchased Turkish slave girls, in addition to slaves of other ethnicities.27 In fact, the Mandingoes spent so much gold on slaves and goods in the markets of Cairo that they caused an inflation which lasted more than 12 years.28

With a less Eurocentric perspective on history, it is clear there is nothing natural or universal about the notion of white superiority. Is the Master Race idea an artificial modern construct? Instead of swallowing this belief in white superiority so blindly and blithely, more people of color should start examining their deeply-ingrained attitudes toward their own race and other people of color.

  1. Richard Poe, Black Spark White Fire, p. 480
  2. Poe, p. 481
  3. Anwar G Chejne, Islam and the West: The Moriscos (State University of New York Press, Albany 1983), p. 77
  4. Anwar G Chejne, Islam and the West: The Moriscos (State University of New York Press, Albany 1983), p. 77
  5. Poe, p. 357
  6. Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East
  7. Talib Y and F. Samir, "The African Diaspora in Asia", UNESCO General History of Africa Vol 3, ed. M. El Fasi
  8. Basil Davidson, The Lost Cities of Africa, p. 93
  9. Marco Polo (translated by R Latham), The Travels of Marco Polo (Middlesex, Penguin Books, 1982), p. 276
  10. James E. Brunson, "Unexpected Faces in Early Asia", African Presence in Early Asia, ed. Runoko Rashidi, p. 221
  11. William Henry Scott, Barangay: Sixteenth Century Philippine Culture and Society, p. 22
  12. Jonathan Lipman, Familiar Strangers: A History of Muslims in Northwest China, p. 38
  13. Cherokee Freedmen Story as presented by Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association
  14. Trial concludes in Freedmen membership case
  15. William Katz, Black Indians, pp. 97-99
  16. Katz, p. 115
  17. Katz, p. 111
  18. Katz, p. 138
  19. Poe, pp. 341-342
  20. Poe, p. 349
  21. Poe, p. 348
  22. Poe, p. 356
  23. Fatima Mernissi, The Forgotten Queens of Islam, p. 59
  24. Poe, pp. 356-357
  25. Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East
  26. Ibn Battuta (translated by Said Hamdun and Noel King), Ibn Battuta in Black Africa, p. 65
  27. Story of Africa - BBC World Service
  28. Mansa Musa, An African Builder
    Kingdom of Mali