I just got thinking about this and really cannot think of a possible answer to it. In old literature, for example, the works of Shakespeare (which I know were plays but this question may still apply to it), from before there was any sort of aversion to racism, and in some cases, an encouragement to discriminate against anyone of a non-white ethnicity, are there any prominent examples of racism, which no-one would have really noticed as it was the norm, but which would get a writer today jailed, or even any underlying tones of racism?

  • 1
    Merchant of Venice - stereotyping of Jews as mean and merciless?
    – WS2
    Sep 11, 2015 at 20:12
  • I remember a Scherlock Holmes episode featuring a "nigger" little girl that had to be hidden. Today that'd be considered racist however the text do not attempt to spread hate of "niggers" or anything, on the other side it is about a tragic episode of a littel girl being hidden by her mom because she did an infidelity with an indigenous - and obviously everyone would have noticed ! By the way, racism has probably been "invented" in the 1400s in Spain.
    – Bregalad
    Sep 11, 2015 at 20:23
  • 2
    I'm afraid this question will be closed as too broad: literature before 20th century was infused with enormous amount of casual racism and contained significant amount of hateful racism. I wouldn't be surprised if racism or antisemitism or similar bigotry would be found in writings of 90% of writers up to and including 19th century.
    – Michael
    Sep 11, 2015 at 21:11
  • 1
    @Bregalad: unfortunately, today's US society is excessively obsessed with political correctness, to the point that even works that have nothing to do with spreading hate are branded as such merely for using words that were not racist at the time of writing. The strongest example of that (in my eyes) is removal from school libraries of Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn", a magnificent anti-slavery book, for using the word you mentioned. How twisted the obsession with political correctness must be to brand anti-slavery book as racist for using the word that was acceptable then!
    – Michael
    Sep 11, 2015 at 21:17
  • 1
    I don't see how this question is either specific or has anything to do with history. Going on a witchhunt through old novels for "racism" is not on topic here" Sep 11, 2015 at 21:31

1 Answer 1


As I already wrote on another occasion, How did people categorize each other in the middle ages, how did racism work? racism seems to be a relatively modern invention. In the works of historians of ancient Greece and Rome I could not find ANY trace of it. To the extent that we do not know from the work of these historians what was the race or skin color of the main personages. (What was the race of Hannibal? What were the races of African kings who waged the wars with the Romans?) It seems that this situation prevailed until the Enlightenment age, or perhaps even later.

It seems that the very word "race" did not appear in European languages before 17 s century. I challenge anyone who voted this answer down to give a reference for the use of the word "race" before 1600.

EDIT. Of course all kinds of discrimination by religion, language, noble or not noble origin and even a place of birth were very common. But "race" was not. The notion of race is of modern origin. Race is a "biological" notion, or more precisely pseudobiological, based on skin color, form of eyes, nose, hair etc.

  • 1
    Sorry but no, modern racism has been invented in the middle ages, long before enlightenment age. In Spain in the late 1400s, Jews and Muslims were qualified as inferior even if they converted to Christianity thus the notion of different races rather than religions.
    – Bregalad
    Sep 11, 2015 at 20:41
  • 3
    "Jews and Muslims" are not races. These are religions. Most of the Muslims in space were of the same race as the Spaniards. Special attitude to those converted was because a relapse was suspected not because of the race. There is a hard evidence that American Indians converted to Christianity were treated as equal by the Spanish and Portuguese.
    – Alex
    Sep 11, 2015 at 20:50
  • 2
    Just because people historically tended to blend the concepts of foreign religions and foreign people doesn't mean they weren't judging people based on their background rather than personal beliefs. For instance, the entire concept of a Shibboleth comes from a passage in the Hebrew Bible set sometime in the second millennium BC (more than 3000 years ago).
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 11, 2015 at 21:05
  • 1
    One could argue that Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan was a homily for racists. The Samaritans were a despised and rejected people among the Jews. A modern equivalent in Britain would be a parable about a Good Islamist, a Good Pakistani, a Good Jamaican, or a Good Gypsy.
    – WS2
    Sep 11, 2015 at 21:14
  • 8
    The words "racism" and "racist", especially with negative connotation to the person described as such, may be modern inventions; however, xenophobia is as old as humankind, and racism, which is a form of xenophobia, appeared as soon as people started to travel far enough to encounter different races. For millennia clans would fight other clans, tribes would fight other tribes, etc., and physical appearance would often be the first indicator to trigger xenophobia. Race is the most obvious such indicators.
    – Michael
    Sep 11, 2015 at 21:26

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