The Origins of Racist Thought

The Origins of Racist Thought

By Libby Coleman


Because blindly trusting “science” can be dangerous.

By Libby Coleman

A young man sat for a self-portrait engraving, pulling open his shirt to reveal his skin: His face was black, as was his torso, except — and this was the draw — for a large white patch. His pants were rolled up too, revealing half-white, half-black legs. Below the resulting 1803 etching, which has found new life on the Internet, it reads “The Wonderful Spotted Indian.”

His actual name was John Boby and, like a bearded lady or a strongman, he traveled throughout England in the late 1700s and early 1800s as part of a freak show-like circus. Boby wasn’t just any old attraction: He was an oddity used to try to figure out why people had particular skin colors. It sounds crazy now, but many scientists back then believed race was based on the climate in which people lived, the theory being that if you take people out of their normal climate, their complexions would change within 10 to 12 generations. Slaves transplanted to America or England, for example, would one day be white, and Boby was held up as an accelerated example of this transition.

Abolition at that time could be very much anti-slavery, but still very much anti-Black.

Rana Hogarth, assistant professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Between the 1780s and the early 1800s, most Americans and Brits thought race was determined by environment and diet. The idea was so common that it was “the soup” in which they swam, according to Katy Chiles, associate professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Discussions of race often turned into fights about slavery and citizenship. Anti-slavery activists at the time, like Thomas Clarkson and Benjamin Rush, used the idea that race could change to assert that slavery should be abolished, while others used it to justify the slave trade. The darkest truth of all? “Abolition at that time could be very much anti-slavery, but still very much anti-Black,” says Rana Hogarth, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, referring to the fact that many abolitionists were eager to believe Blackness could go away. 


The child of Black Jamaican slaves, Boby was born in the 1770s with a skin disorder now known as vitiligo, which causes white spots. When Boby was a few months old, his master called him “the greatest curiosity in nature he ever saw,” William Granger wrote in an account of Boby’s life. People in Kingston soon heard about the curiosity and began paying 10 shillings to see Boby when he was just 2 years old. When Boby was not even a teen, his master’s son arranged for him to be sent to Liverpool, England, where he was baptized, sold to a showman and then exhibited. British spectators sometimes rubbed his skin patches to make sure they weren’t painted on. “People didn’t have a way to make sense of him because he didn’t fit their categories,” says Roxann Wheeler, associate professor at Ohio State University and author of The Complexion of Race.


Portrait of John Boby.

Source CC

As a young man, Boby resented his inferior treatment, once remarking as he went up for sale, “I can’t stand that; I will not be sold like the monkeys.” He was sold nonetheless. Later in life, with his indenture up, he was a freeman and earned a living by exhibiting himself. Exhibits were popular in England, featuring dwarfs, giants, dancing bears, animals with multiple heads and various other anomalies. Watching people was entertainment — twisted and voyeuristic, but so-called good old-fashioned fun. 

Before Boby, there was a girl with mottled pigmentation named Mary Sabina, born in the 1730s in Cartagena, Colombia, whom prominent scientist Comte de Buffon claimed supported his theory that skin color could change. And Virginian Henry Moss, a contemporary of Boby’s, had uneven skin pigmentation that baffled medical professionals who aspired to learn how to “remove Blackness,” Hogarth says.

Over time, the idea that race could be changed with climate — one of the earliest forms of eugenics — fell out of fashion. Progress? Sure, but in its place arose physiognomy, the judging of character based on facial characteristics. Johann Kaspar Lavater’s skull studies, with their emphasis on “proper” facial angles, took on a life of their own and hardened racial ideologies in England and the U.S. Through the 1800s, they formed the basis of countless racist opinions, and by the 1840s and ’50s, “racist science was firmly in place,” Chiles says.

Are we so different now? Today, a physiognomy 3.0 of sorts runs rampant: Studies show that people take one look before generalizing others’ personalities and intelligence levels. Expressions like a “face you want to punch,” “resting bitch face” and “honest face,” for example, illustrate how prone we are to judging books by their covers. And while some research suggests that these snap generalizations can often be accurate, inevitable misunderstandings and historical examples of misplaced “science” should serve as cautionary tales.