Ancient Egyptian Race Debate

Talking about what race the Ancient Egyptians is a fascinatingly controversial topic that, even today, ignites angry passions. There exists a fierce argument between Afro-centrists and those who would love to discredit them (the latter group is almost hilarious in their desperation to discredit the former) over whether or not the Ancient Egyptians were black. But trying to “retcon” them into our narrow parameters of race is difficult to say the least as, most importantly, race is not even real in the biological sense. Human DNA does not vary much between one population to the next–in fact, more genetic variation can be found within a population–and as such it is impossible to determine race based on DNA alone.

King Tutankhamen reconstructed (source)

Race is based on phenotypic characteristics with skin color being the first indication of one’s background, but this process is flawed due to the simple fact of clinal distribution and other, highly variable factors such as diet. There is simply no place where “black” skin ends and white “skin” begins, though many are hoping that by studying the DNA of mummies the racial background of the Ancient Egyptians will be revealed.

Queen Nefertiti bust (source)

Moreover, race as we know it is a modern concept. Our pattern of white supremacy, which was birthed out of economic concern, only began after African slaves had been brought to the Americas. For the ancients, nationality as we understand it was much more important than whatever shade of skin might have. The Ancient Greeks, for example, considered themselves the premier race based on culture, not color. But these racist ideals were too blinding to early archaeologists, who practically fabricated reason after reason the Ancient Egyptians could only be white. Even more desperately, the Nubians were not escape this pattern of whitewashing.

Nubians in Egyptian art (source)

Regardless of the race of the Egyptian people, does it matter?

It doesn’t matter to me in the sense that it proves the superiority of one race or another at any given time. It doesn’t matter to me in the sense that I feel moved to prove the Egyptians as one race or another. It is important because of our recent history with race, one that leaves children feeling lesser and some feeling cheated as the race of famous individuals is left out of history books. If the Egyptians were truly a white race I wouldn’t care; they would still be an amazing people. But what is so offensive about this argument is that for so many it is literally impossible to imagine the Egyptians not being of European descent, that while researching I found comments ranging from ignorant to outright hateful and racist, that there exists a rhetoric that Africans could never have accomplished so much. And that is exceedingly problematic.

Queen Tiye, cover image (source)

One thought on “Ancient Egyptian Race Debate

  1. I found your blog post very interesting as I completed an Anthropology class over the summer for socio-cultural anthropology. In that class, we learned that race is a social creation not based on biology. Sociologists Omi and Winant’s theories of racial formation describe how “race is a concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies.” One of the biggest constructions of race was during the colonial period when Europe was settling the Americas. Uncomfortable questions arose when the Church claimed that all men were equal before God, but that didn’t translate to equal rights among men. The concept of the purity and power of blood began in the noble courts of Europe as a way to control marriage between colonials and the Native Americans. Eventually it led to a way of clearing their conscience about the issue of slavery. Slavery at one point was even tied to the bible with the theory that Africans came from one of Noah’s sons who was said to be cursed.

    The white washing of historical and powerful figures is also seen in the paintings and depiction of Jesus. While there are no descriptions of Jesus outside of the Bible, the majority of popular depictions have him as a light brunette with white skin.

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