Curriculum History Lesson Plans

Teaching Race in the Early Modern Atlantic

Lesson plan introducing students to the history of racial thinking in the early modern Atlantic world and encouraging them to think critically about the constructed nature of racial ideas.

Earlier this summer activist Bree Newsome Bass tweeted a thread on “white supremacy,” as a phrase and an ideology. All the tweets are worth a read, Toward the end she hit on something very important for history teachers.

A Curricular Problem

Race and racism have important histories. And, too often these histories are ignored. This issue is not confined to the new AP World History: Modern course, but also seems prevalent in secondary World and US History curricula (teacher readers, please comment on your experiences with this). So, my critique of AP World History: Modern applies to many more courses.

The new AP World course does not mention race until the 20th century, and only then in the context of movements that “challenged old assumptions about race.” This line was in the previous course and exam description, but that CED included race in discussion of the early modern world. The new topic 4.7 “Changing Social Hierarchies” could and should include the formation of racial ideologies in the Atlantic World, but it does not even suggest racial categories as an example. Eliding the development of racial thinking implies that, as Newsome Bass notes, white supremacy has always existed. It has not.

Such framing discourages students and teachers from considering the material developments that created these categories in the early modern world. Instead AP World History: Modern encourages students and teachers to conceptualize racism as simply a bad idea that has always existed. Such framing gives racially privileged teachers and students a way out of uncomfortable conversations, by denouncing the idea without grappling with its materiality, while BIPOC students bear the ongoing burden of our racial histories. Our BIPOC students, especially those in very white paces, do not have the luxury of ignoring these realities.

Addressing the Problem

As with capitalism I introduce my AP World History students to the historical construction of racial thinking with the slides embedded below (click here and make a copy, if you’re so inclined). It’s another Theory Thursday, more lecture heavy than most days in my class. I reserve these days for theoretically challenging topics. This lesson takes at least one sixty-seven minute class period with eleventh grade AP history students.

First: Destabilize students’ understanding of racial categories as natural

I start by introducing student to academic definitions of race. Students in small groups compare the definitions, and the whole class discusses what they have in common. Students need to understand that racial categories are cultural, not biological. I attempt this in a couple of ways. First, using slide 4, I pepper the students with examples of how phenotypically similar people would be seen as racially different in different times and different places. This year I hung a poster of the image below of two enslaved children in 1863 to reinforce this point. Most students could not read the caption from their seats and they were surprised to learn that both children would have been categorized as black or colored.

GLC 5111.02.1051. Issac & Rosa. Photograph: Two young slave children, boy and girl arm in arm, n.d. (The Gilder Lehrman Collection, courtesy of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Not to be reproduced without written permission.)

The hyperlinks in the text of slide 4 are also useful in showing variation in racial terminology. I also recount various US court cases, such as In re Ah Yup and US vs. Thind, that I learned about in Ian Haney Lopez’s White by Law (first chapter of Lopez’s book is very illuminating). The video embedded in slide 5 is the trailer for the first episode of Race: The Power of an Illusion. I have shown the entire episode, which my school owns on DVD, at times, too. I ask students to record evidence that race is not biological while they watch, and then we discuss this.

Second: Historicize racial terminology

Slides 6-10 explore the early modern origins of racial categorization. Each point on slide 6 requires explanation and space for questions. I reiterate that imagining definitive categories of people who share certain physical traits is a modern phenomenon. In discussing slavery’s role I invite students to imagine the crew of a slave ship, which would have been neither light skinned nor entirely free, and those would have desired social distance from the enslaved persons.

I illustrate the second and third points with examples from Spanish America. Criollo (or creole) and mestizo are common vocabulary words in World History classes. Students should know that these were legal terms that created racial thinking as much as they responded to it. Students are often surprised to learn that people not classified white at birth could purchase whiteness in colonial Spanish America, starting in the late 18th Century. In addition to seeing racial categories as constructed, in part, by law, students should see that the boundaries of these categories evolved.

Similarly, the Spanish concept of limpieza de sangre, purity of blood, which contributed to racial constructions, offers lessons for students. One way to help students to understand the newness of rational ideas in the early modern period is to point out that Spanish monarchs, for instance, did not see themselves as sharing the same “blood” as Spanish peasants, despite the fact that many decedents of both would be seen as white in the US today. As World History teacher Jason Fernades noted on Twitter, this is a problem with the shorter time span of AP World: Modern. Students see less of history that didn’t include racial thinking. But, with the course starting c. 1200 CE World History teachers do have time to discuss the world before racial thinking.

Folk tales and beliefs contributed to anti-blackness in Europe and this influenced racial thinking, but students need to understand that such prejudices do not, of themselves, constitute racial thinking. To understand this many white students will need to understand that they, too, are raced.

Science is the last factor in racial formation that I explain, emphasizing how it trailed labor systems and laws. Students should see that Enlightenment fascination with understanding the world as composed of natural and understandable patterns and categories contributed to rational thinking, but that this did not amount to scientific racism. Blumenbach’s skulls and categories on slides 7 and 8 demonstrate continuity and change over time. Blumenbach’s introduction of the word “Caucasian” as a racial designation based on a skull that he had collected always raises some eyebrows and serves as yet another reminder that race is social, not biological


Slides 9 and 10 describe how racial ideas supported hierarchies in the Atlantic World and in later European settler colonies in Oceania. I want students to consider how racial hierarchy is both a cause and an effect of racial categorizations. This work will continue into the next time period, c. 1750 -c. 1900 when scientific racism altered racial categorizations with new and narrower categories such as “Alpine” and “Anglo-Saxon”. These later ideas were of course themselves causes and effects of mid to late nineteenth-century imperialism, where the new AP World: Modern curriculum begins its limited discussion of race. World History teachers owe it to our students and our society to tell students much more of the story of race, however. Now, more than ever.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

2 replies on “Teaching Race in the Early Modern Atlantic”

Eric, I was just thinking about the last tweet you posted in quote, and reminded me of my early western civ class, as well as a theology class I took at (University of) Northwestern, and you answered my mental question (or reaffirmed it), about Jesus depicted as white. I drew this question very early as a believer (10-12), so I knew all depictions must be so to invite a majority of “Gentiles.”

As far as “white sup…” Issue, I realize that it exists, but I will reject that label as an identity from anyone who calls me or anyone by it. It seems as wrong as roping other people with a label, and I tried to instill my kids to appreciate what they have. While they may have opportunities, they should not be shamed for being white or for the values they hold to treat others equally. It seems that certain parties scream for equity, and I think they mean quite the opposite. For you to handle these issues with ethos and pathos, I salute you.

Let me know what you think!

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