History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

In many societies around the globe today we see that the darker skinned peoples are generally of a lower social status than the fair skinned peoples of the same area, or that fair skin is considered preferable to dark skin. Even in India today women are marketed skin-lightening creams.

However, has there ever been society in which the fairer skinned peoples were either of a lower social standing than the dark-skinned people, or where darker skin was preferable to fair skin? I am aware of the phenomenon of sun-bathing to darken the skin, but so far as I know this is not used to convey the image of increased social status as the skin-lightening creams are, but rather used to convey the image of one who has an outdoor lifestyle or has "lazy time" to spend in the sun.

share|improve this question
Actually the very term "fair-skin" (as opposed to what, "unfair", "ugly"...) is questionable. – heltonbiker Jul 12 '12 at 23:17
@heltonbiker: I mean "fair" to be "light", the opposite of "dark". – dotancohen Jul 13 '12 at 6:35
I suggest to change it to "light" – Anixx Jul 16 '12 at 11:18
If it were "light" then some people would prefer "fair". From speaking to a British colleague before posting, the term "fair" was determined to be the preferred (British) way. – dotancohen Jul 16 '12 at 11:21
@heltonbiker, dotancohen: english.stackexchange.com/questions/74384/… – nic Jul 17 '12 at 2:39

14 Answers 14

up vote 40 down vote accepted

The Roman Empire routinely enslaved fair skinned Germans and Celts, and referred to those people derogatively as barbarians.

Pretty much all the ancient Mediterranean and Near East empires including Egypt, Mesopotamia, etc. practiced slavery, and like the Romans might also have drawn from more northerly, fairer skinned peoples.

However, we should be careful drawing too broad of comparisons. Slavery worked differently in different cultures. As bloodthirsty as the Roman Empire was, they actually had certain laws protecting slaves, that simply did not exist for slaves in the United States. In the Roman Empire, slavery was much more of a class-based institution; anyone could become a slave potentially - your excess children, prisoners of war, and debtors could all be sold into slavery. So, while the Romans did enslave Germans and Celts, it wasn't race-based / skin-color-based as happened in the Americas; the Romans were pretty much an equal opportunity enslavement empire.

Anyway, slavery has been rife throughout history. It's hard to find any culture that didn't enslave others in some form or other, and that hadn't existed as slaves for someone else. It's just one of those nasty things humans do to each other until they learn better; there's nothing fundamentally inherent about skin color in any of this. It's just the random quirks of history and geography why things turned out one way rather than another.

As to today's current correlation of skin color and social status, this is most likely an outcome of the several hundred years of European colonialism applied to every corner of the world between 1492 and 1945. It was pretty intense, and unfortunately left quite an impression, involving not just slavery but also a deliberate attempt to erect a racist social hierarchy based on skin tone. These days colonialism as a governance principal may largely be gone, but in some sense the global media carries on many of those same biases in mass-marketed entertainment and advertisement.

share|improve this answer
Thank you! When I mentally picture the barbarians, I do imagine dark skin and hide clothing but now I see how ridiculous that would be. I'm obviously influencing that picture with the very element that prompted this question in the first place! – dotancohen Jul 12 '12 at 7:57
+1ing this. There's a popular story that the word "Slav" originally meant "Slave". It is probably untrue, but the fact that the story is so prevalent tells you how well treated the (typically fair-skinned) slavs have been. – T.E.D. Jul 12 '12 at 14:18
Although in the case of ancient Egypt, I've heard that they weren't as dark as their neighbors in Cush (Ethiopia, if I remember right) - who they would also enslave. – Clockwork-Muse Jul 12 '12 at 16:04
@X-Zero - This comment actually inspired my answer. But to address the comment, The Kushites and the Ethiopians are different peoples (in different areas). Kush is basically the (often swampy) river valley area near the source of the Nile. Ethiopian society was generally centered around a highland area just inland from Somalia (and east of Sudan/Kush). The peoples inhabiting each area are quite different from each other (Semitic in Ethiopia, Nilo-Saharan in Kush/Sudan). – T.E.D. Jul 12 '12 at 21:40
@T.E.D., perhaps ironically, the word "Robot" originated from "rabota" which is Slavic for slave. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robot#Etymology – Bryce Jul 12 '12 at 22:23

The Ainu people come to mind, an ethnic minority in Japan.

Wikipedia says "Full-blooded Ainu are lighter skinned than their Japanese neighbors", and talks about "the long history of the oppression of the Ainu people by Japan's majority".

share|improve this answer
Thank you, I have never heard of the Ainu. – dotancohen Jul 12 '12 at 7:59
Since Hokkaido was de facto not occupied, but isolated by the Japanese till the late Edo, early Meiji era, I would say "long history of oppression" is a little misleading. The Japanese looked down on Ainu and Emishi, it is true, but they either fought them or melt them in, they have never represented a distinct group or class inside the Japanese society. – Greg Nov 8 '14 at 2:44

When the Moors conquered and ruled Spain, most Spanish were lighter-skinned than the ruling Moors. Moors denied education, at least to Christian Spaniards, in the part of the country they controlled, and Granada was considered "too beautiful for Christian eyes."

Also, the Mongols conquered and oppressed large parts of the former Soviet Union (especially the Ukraine), whose people were lighter-skinned than them.

share|improve this answer
+1 for Mongols. – Anixx Jul 16 '12 at 11:15

Oppression is all about political power, so really its just a matter of one group conquering another. Which of the two groups happens to do the conquering is just a matter of historical luck.

One good example of a darker-skinned group happening to do the conquering is the ancient civilization of Kush. The Kushites were a Nubian people, speaking a Nilo-Saharan language. Melanin doesn't preserve well in archeology, but modern speakers of these languages are about as dark-skinned as human beings come.

The Kushites certianly did their time as Egptian vassals themselves. However, sometime around 727 BCE they invaded Egypt, starting an 80 year period where they ruled the country as the 25th Dynasty.

Maximum extent of Kush in 700 BC

Maximum extent of Kush in 700 BC

share|improve this answer
Even today, in modern Hebrew the word Kush is used as a derogatory word for dark-skinned people, much like Nigger is used in English. – dotancohen Feb 3 '15 at 6:55

The Barbary Pirates raided as far north as Iceland and Scotland to capture slaves. While still Caucasian, North Africans typically have darker skin than northern Europeans.

share|improve this answer
+1 Thank you. Around one million Europeans were enslaved by the Barbary Pirates over the course of their plundering. – Sardathrion Jul 13 '12 at 6:27
I don't see how this implies that the "fair"-skinned were in the "lower" or "oppressed" class. – coleopterist Jul 16 '12 at 12:52
@JubalHarshaw I don't see how being slaves could be anything but... – Dan Neely Jul 16 '12 at 14:19
@DanNeely - that's because some people only see what their ideology conforms to. – DVK Jul 21 '12 at 9:40

In 1627 a Turkish pirate ship attacked Icelandic coastal villages. Hundreds of people were killed and 300 more were taken hostage and sold as slaves in Africa. A priest from the Westman islands(a group of small islands in Iceland's south) was amongst them, he managed to escape from Algiers, through Italy, France, Holland and then to Denmark from where he got back to Iceland. He wrote down his memoirs in a book called Reisubok, which quite accurately describes his journey.

Reisubok: http://reisubok.net/Home/default.aspx,
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkish_Abductions

share|improve this answer

Wikipedia documents the present day persecution of people with albinism in parts of East Africa.

share|improve this answer

I'm quite sure white people have been the target for lynch mobs and even ethnic cleansing in certain African nations. Zimbabwe and Uganda comes to mind, but I am quite certain white people are looked down on in many places in Africa, mostly due to a history of imperialism.

(Sadly, I don't have time to find sources right now).

share|improve this answer

Well here is an African example of the darker the better. Southern Africa was invaded from the north by black tribes (intentionally no names as there were a number) who then oppressed the lighter skinned San, Koisan etc. The conquering tribes were agriculturalists while the indigenous people were mainly hunter gatherers. The black tribes also worked metal and went on to establish gold mining in conjunction with Arab traders. This dominance continued until the Dutch invaded from the south by ship. The indigenous people were used as slaves, particularly of the Xhosa, who seem to have picked up the click used in their language from the slaves. There was also interbreeding as the Xhosa often have features similar to the indigenous peoples. The Xhosa were part of the Nguni people and led the invasion down the east coast, with the Zulus behind them. They were very warlike and caused the invading Europeans many problems for all that they had no firearms. I have been vague about the dates as there was no written history of when the blacks moved south and it was a very slow migration. The Europeans encountered the Xhosa at the Fish River in South Africa around the 1700’s. Also note I have used common Western spelling for the black tribes.

share|improve this answer
Thank you. Unless one goes out specifically to look for it, African history is largely ignored. I am very glad to see this contribution. – dotancohen Nov 8 '14 at 11:17

Ethnically differentiated rulers regularly reduce the status of the majority population, and often these peoples are constructed as racially identical in terms of late 19th century racial theories. See the Norman dominance over a predominantly Anglo-Saxon population in England for an example. (Here comes the new lord, slightly more Frenchified than the old lord).

For an example that uses the racial constructs from the 19th century exactly, wouldn't http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mongol_invasion_of_Rus%27#The_age_of_Tatar_rule match your interests? Obviously neither the population of Rus nor the Mongols perceived of themselves in terms of 19th century racial categories.

Finally, societies that are perceived to be largely ethnically homogeneous regularly reduce the status of their own members, see the tribal crises of antiquity, or the regular internal subjugation of peasants into serfs, or the vast emiseration of the English working class during the period 1750 to 1850. This is class war as usual.

share|improve this answer

The Catholic/Nationalist community in Northern Ireland was socially opressed by the dominate Protestand/Loyalist community for a lot of the 20th century. Both were white.

share|improve this answer

It's important to remember that the concept of "white people" (or fair-skinned people) as a single, all-encompassing term for Caucasians is a fairly recent development. As recently as a hundred years ago (or even today, in super-conservative areas), "white people" meant Anglo-Saxons, exclusively. People as closely-related as Irish or Germans may not have been considered "white," depending on the speaker and the context.

Plenty of empires in the south of Europe, such as Greece and Rome or Spain, held biases against their paler, northern "barbarian" neighbors like the Celts and the Germans. Even today, there are biases against redheads in many parts of the world. Terms like "pasty" and "pale" are almost always derogatory, so from a purely aesthetic standpoint there is a point at which darker skin is preferred over lighter skin in pretty much any culture.

If you're looking for a culture that generally believed "the darker the better," you'll need to check the other answers, but there are plenty of periods in which the powerful majority had consistently darker skin than the oppressed minority. Just think back to the Julius Caesar's (Italian) conquest of Britain, for a famous example.

share|improve this answer

Another example is of the Hutu and Tutsi peoples of Rwanda we remember the recent genocide attempted by the Hutus who while both are African tribes and the Hutus are generally darker skinned they took turns over many generations oppressing each other killing thousands from both tribes over the years

share|improve this answer

Russian Serfs were white.


It is officially ended in 1861. In some sense it was continued until 1907 when redemption payments were abolished.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.