There were two specific contexts in which institutional racism flourished in the West’s sphere of influence between the 16th and 20th centuries – colonial rule, and nationalism.

From the 16th to the 18th century, slavery fostered the categorization of people into different kinds amid a prevailing, colonization-induced climate of violence and domination. This phenomenon was given a new lease of life in the 19th century as the major European powers colonized new territories.

The geopolitical situation influenced scholars in their attempts to use the concept of “race” to classify the many diverse types of human being. Categorization morphed into racialization and eventually developed into “institutional racism”. Racial segregation in the United States had its roots in the racialization that emerged during slavery.

Nationalism was a second vector of racism. In the 20th century the Nazis pushed their obsession with racial purity to its most horrifying conclusion – genocide. Rwanda was an emblematic case, because it combined the two principal vectors of racialization: colonialism, which laid the groundwork for the phenomenon, and nationalism, which rekindled it. Racism is not restricted to European countries and their colonies, since it also exists, or used to exist, in other cultures.

Nous et les autres - La racialisation des identités collectives
Nous et les autres - La racialisation des identités collectives, by © MNHN - JC Domenech