We See What We Expect

This won’t be a usual blog post discussing a topic but rather excerpts from notes on a lecture that I was attending at my University.

Me and my friends (two black girls) were the only minority students in a room of 60 people while we had a lecture on the study of race, by philosophers, in early modern Europe. It is eye-opening and shocking when you realise how recent these texts are and JUST WHO the people who wrote them were these weren’t common men, these were educated philosophers or men of science.


Funny how time shows us how wrong we can be….Imagine how wrong some of our most smartest are now…

I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufacturers amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartars, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe, of whom none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; though low people without education will start up amongst us and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly 

– David Hume ‘Of National Characters’ 1742

And moving from a British philosopher to a German philosopher:

“This fellow was quite black…a clear proof that what he said was stupid” -Kant (1764)

In the essay below, Kant argues that there are 4 distinct races of the human species each with a specific natural skills and tendencies.Each race however must derive from an ideal, an original and Kant believes this to be the ‘white brunette’.

“Among the deviations – i.e, the hereditary differences of animals belonging to a single stock – those which, when transplanted (displaced to other areas), maintain themselves over protracted generation, and which also generate hybrid young whenever they interbreed with other deviations of the same stock, are called races…

…In  this way Negroes and Whites are not different species of humans (for they belong presumably to one stock), but they are different races, for each perpetuates itself in every area, and they generate between them children that are necessarily hybrid, or blendings (mulattoes)…

…We can therefore reckon this as at least an approach to the genuine races; and thereupon they may be brought into the following sketch in connection with the natural causes of their origin:

                Stem genus: white brunette

First race: very blond (northern Europe), of damp cold.

Second race: copper-red (America), of dry cold.

Third race: black (Senegambia), of dry heat.

Fourth race: olive-yellow (Indians), of dry heat. “

–Immanuel Kant -1804

“Man who inhabits different parts of the earth, from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn, Africa has no other inhabitants but the blacks. Not only the color, but also the facial traits distinguish them from other men: large and flat noses, thick lips and wool instead of hair. They appear to constitute a new species of mankind.


If one moves further away from the Equator toward the Antarctic, the black skin becomes lighter, but the ugliness remains: one finds there this same wicked people that inhabits the African Meridian. If one goes east, the features soften and become more regular, but the skin color remains black as inside Africa…

…Many physicians have researched the causes of the blackness of the negro. The major opinions that the physicians hold on this matter can be reduced to two; one attributes the cause to bile, the other to some fluid contained in the veins of the mucous membrane. Malpighi, Ruysch, Littre, Santorini, Heifter, and Albinus have done intriguing researches on the skin of the negroes.

The first opinion on the blackness of the negro is entirely supported by proofs in a work entitled ‘Dissertation sur la cause physique de la couleur des negres, etc. by M. Barrere (Paris, 1741). The following is how he deduced his hypothesis: when, after a long maceration of the black skin in water, the outer skin is removed and attentively examined, one finds that it is black, very thing, and transparent when held up to daylight. That is how I saw it in America, and it has been remarked upon as well by the anatomists of our time, such as M. Winslow…

It needs to be further observed, however, that if the outer skin of the negro is transparent, the color becomes pronounced in the under-skin, which is reddish-brown, bordering on the dark, But since the skin of the black, like that of the white, is made up of veins, it must necessarily contain some juice. The results of the examination of this juice are at present in question. However, one can say with some basis that the juice is analogous to the bile, an opinion supported by observation.

-Denis Diderot: published in the Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers. 1751

These ‘proofs’ of bile and mucous in the skin exist because people see what they want to see. Their were also studies of negro males having smaller skulls than that of white males,  in an effort to put across white males as having bigger brains and superior. I don’t know what skulls they were looking at that could’ve proved that…

We see what we want to see- thats the point of this post. And that we can’t be sure of anything because 250 years ago, with all their science, they came to these conclusions.




2 thoughts on “We See What We Expect

  1. Pingback: Jim and the Indians – A moral dilemma « Come Think With Me

  2. Thank you for this article. That is a shame. Kant, who always wanted people to use their own minds, was stuck in this stereotype.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s