The Invention of Race, Part II

Lavender Menace poster by Angela Davis Fegan.

A millennial buzzword that has quickly become essential to me (a mixed-race, queer woman) is intersectionality. Intersectionality is the theory that all forms of oppression overlap, and we should be carefully examine any bias, any hatred, to consider as many elements as possible. Much of what I learned when researching this post made it apparent how necessary this concept is.

Since I’m a language nerd, let’s talk about the origins of a few words we all know and kinda hate: negro, mulatto, and Sambo. You may recognize these words as ways to describe, in one way or another, a black person. The first literally translates to “black,” and has been used as a descriptor for anyone with African blood (it was considered the proper English-language term to refer to black people from the 1800s until the 1960s). The second word means biracial, specifically half-white, half-black. The word “Sambo” is mostly archaic, now, although some racist grandparents probably cling to it; it’s a disparaging term to refer to a black person, and has connotations of primitive thought and behavior.

Anyone with rudimentary Spanish skills knows that’s where the adjective negro is used. Sambo is derived from the Spanish word zambo, a term referring to a person of mixed Native American and African heritage. The etymology of the word mulatto is disputed, but the chief hypothesis leads, once again, to Spanish(/Portuguese), and an unflattering reference to the mule, the (sterile) offspring of a horse and a donkey. All three words are assumed to have a common origin. They are all, also, words that delineate–create–racial divisions.

You see, what the Spanish gifted the world was a code known as limpieza de sangre, which translates as cleanliness of blood. In English, we tend to call it something more like blood purity. This concept is as immoral, and as disgusting, as it sounds, and it has done unfathomable damage across the world for centuries.

Limpieza doesn’t actually originate with skin color, or even country of origin, but religion. In 1391, threatened by the growing Jewish population in Spain, a priest who was unashamed of being a completely bloodthirsty smegma-muncher coined the phrase, “Convert or die.” He used this slogan to whip a mob of his fellow Christians into a malicious frenzy, and to inspire terror in the local Jewry. Until that point, Spain had had the highest Jewish population in all of Europe, but the threat of murder was very effective, convincing 1/3 to 1/2 of them to become Christians. That was the largest mass conversion in modern Jewish history, which is such an inspiring story, really, because neither they nor their descendants were ever molested again.


Yeah… Come the 15th century, Spain was in political turmoil that basically boiled down to pro- and anti-monarchy factions. The descendants of the aforementioned converted Jews (known as conversos, New Christians, or, more nastily, marranos, which translates to something like “crypto-Jews,” hinting at “deviants”), were seen as supporters of the kings, and judged as having received disproportionate financial benefits from the church. They became scapegoats for the shitty policies and characters of the ruling class; tensions led to slander, then grew to physical fights, and led to the eventual arrests and torture of converso leaders, who were accused of secretly practicing Judaism. Of having practiced Judaism all along. Once a Jew, always a Jew, amirite?

June 5th, 1449, following a major riot, a statute of devastating importance was passed: limpieza de sangre asserted that, regardless of whether or not a person had converted to Christianity, if his family couldn’t prove they’d been Christian for the past four generations, it didn’t count. Conversos were thereby banned from holding public or private office, receiving land from church benefices, and, eventually, banned from emigrating to the New World. Furthermore, those who could prove blood purity, even if they were commoners, were now considered to be of higher status than upwardly mobile “false Christians.”

This meant that Judaism was no longer considered to be a religion so much as an ethnicity. Limpieza was, perhaps, the first example of legalized racism, the first codified example of anti-Semitism, and it provided the basis for future laws that would discriminate against people of African descent.

Spain entered the African slave trade in the 1440s. Between 1500 and 1580, Spain shipped around 74,000 Africans to the Americas; that number swelled to 714,000 between 1580 and 1640. Limpieza went with the Spaniards and Portuguese (they shared the same monarch from 1580-1640) to New Spain and Brazil, and at that point, “cleanliness” began to signify not only absence of the taint of Jewish blood, but of African blood as well.

As the British colonies struggled to figure out how to handle slavery as an institution, they looked to the experienced Spaniards as their guide. The stigma of miscegenation–the mixing of black and white blood, making the latter impure–and the correlation between tainted blood and tainted character, were adopted wholesale. These ideas, as we well know, persist in our nationalist mythos to this day.

Tell it like it is.

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