When the cast of Exodus: Gods and Kings—Ridley Scott's upcoming Biblical epic—was announced a lot of people made the complaint that it was overwhelmingly white, a move they decried as both inaccurate and racist. They were right. Unfortunately, in response a lot of people have peddled another historical (and racist) error: that the ancient Egyptians were black and that modern Egyptians are imposters.
One thing that really irritates me is when I see people making bogus revisionist claims about ancient societies in order to pigeonhole them into one race or another, ignoring the fact that modern conceptions of race didn't even exist until the 19th century. Most of the time, this is done from a very Eurocentric point of view, such as in most Biblical films, where all the Semitic-speaking, Middle Eastern characters are portrayed as white Europeans. Which is how you get ridiculous casting like this, where an English actor is cast as a Hebrew-speaking Canaanite:
Now, Christian Bale's a fine actor and I'm sure he'll give the role all he's got, but the role really should have gone to a Middle Eastern or Jewish actor. It's not as if there aren't plenty to pick from in Hollywood (or abroad): Aki Avni, Oded Fehr, Tony Shalhoub, Alexander Siddig, Ali Suliman, Said Taghmaoui, etc... The issue isn't that they exist; the issue is that casting directors naturally assume a white/European actor whenever casting any "normal" role and because of the prevalence of Biblical mythology in our culture (which is white-dominated) it is presumed that Biblical characters were "normal" and therefore white. Which is obviously untrue if you actually look at the etymology of most Biblical names and the cultural context of the stories themselves.
This doesn't just happen with the Bible though. Cultures as different from one another (and Western Europe) as the Mongol Empire, northern India, Arabia, and Comanches have all been portrayed by white actors (not to mention the entire sordid history of blackface minstrel shows), because, again, the presumption is that a white actor is a blank slate within whom everyone can identify, including non-white people (while the reverse, apparently, doesn't hold true).
However, while the tendency usually is to whitewash historical peoples, the opposite also sometimes occurs. There is an increasing tendency I've noticed for some people, for example, to re-envision all of the ancient societies of the Old World as not simply non-white, but specifically "black." Putting aside for a moment the fact that within Africa itself "black" is a largely meaningless term (there's more genetic variety within Africa's "black" population than the rest of the world combined), this is just simply false. The samurai were no more black than they were white. And neither were the ancient Egyptians.
That's right, the ancient Egyptians weren't black. They weren't white either, mind you, but to presume that a culture has to be one or the other is to accept a racial dichotomy that white colonialists themselves invented for the purpose of sorting the world into "civilized" (white) and "savage" (colored) peoples. Most cultures in the world don't really fit neatly into either category: are Latinos white or colored? The answer depends partially on who's asking the question: most Latinos identify as white (both in the U.S. and Latin America) but most non-Latino Americans usually sort them as non-white.
The truth is that "white" is essentially a byword for "European" (sometimes northern European specifically) while "colored" basically just means everyone else. And these categories aren't static or unchanging either. In 19th century Europe, various ethnic groups were sometimes sorted into "more" or "less" white groups. According to many British anthropologists, the Irish were "less white" than the English. According to the Nazis, Slavic-speaking peoples like Poles or Russians were "subhuman" non-Aryans. Today, virtually all of these groups are considered "equally" white (and Jews, who weren't considered white at all, now often are).
The sad truth is that this outdated way of talking about race was so prevalent and so dominant in academic circles that it's been accepted as largely accurate even by lots of non-white people. Instead of challenging the arbitrary lines in the sand 19th century racists drew up to sort people into those who were worthy of self-rule and those who weren't, a lot of people have just flipped the idea on its head, arguing that the roots of all civilization are inherently "black" rather than "white," as Eurocentric scholars claimed.
Which brings us to Egypt. For some reason or another—possibly because of the highly publicized discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in the 1920s, possibly because the Great Pyramid of Giza is one of the last remaining wonders of the ancient world—everyone wants to claim ancient Egypt for themselves. Never mind, that Mesopotamia's an older civilization or that the ancient Chinese ruled a larger region for a longer period of time; Egypt is the holy grail of pseudohistorical racism. And no one apparently cares what the actual Egyptians think.
What were the ancient Egyptians? Were they black or were they white? Because of whitewashing in both popular culture and history classes, a lot of people tend to think they were white. Because they live in Africa (a continent, let's recall, which is substantially larger than Europe), other people assume they were black. Oddly, it's occurred to relatively few people to look at how modern Egyptians think of themselves, because we have divorced ancient and modern Egypt in our minds as if they're two completely unrelated cultures. Which (as I'll explain in a bit) is largely nonsense.
This is Egypt's national football (soccer) team. Are these guys black or white? Well, they're certain darker than most European teams. But compared to Nigeria's team they look pretty light-skinned. Which makes sense, given Egypt's quite a bit further from the equator than Nigeria is (and distance from the equator has a strong correlation to skin color). Here's the Turkish (a non-Arab, Middle Eastern people) football team for comparison. For their part, most Egyptians define themselves as Arabs.
But does any of this matter? After all, the ancient Egyptians didn't speak Arabic; they spoke their own language, attested in hieroglyphics. Well yes, they did, although Coptic (spoken by some Egyptian Christians) is actually a descendant of that language so that's not a particularly strong argument. Coptic and Arabic are also both Afro-Asiatic languages (along with Hebrew, the Berber languages, Amhara, and Hausa), so it's not as if the languages are completely unrelated.
But what about how Egypt got invaded and conquered by a whole bunch of people, including the Arabs? Couldn't that have impacted the Egyptians' race? Well sure, that happened. Libyans, Nubians, Canaanites, Mesopotamians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans have all ruled Egypt at one point or another and the Arabs are the most recent bunch (not counting the Turks or the British). But the truth is that conquest only very rarely leads to a massive shift in the native population; the conquest of the Americas aside (which was aided very significantly by the natives' vulnerability to Afro-Eurasian diseases), the genetic makeup of a country's populace before and after conquest is usually pretty similar, to a point that it's almost not worth talking about. And genetic studies in Egypt back this up: the genetic profile of modern Egyptians has been affected less than 15% by foreign admixture.
There's also the fact that ancient Egyptians didn't really perceive themselves as either "black" or "white." Just look at the above painting from Pharaoh Seti I's tomb. The top right group, with the palest skin are Libyans (Berbers), the next one over to the left are Nubians, followed by "Asiatics" (Mesopotamians). The bottom central group are Egyptians. By their own perception Egyptians were neither particularly dark nor particularly pale, and given their xenophobic attitude towards outside cultures (which was fairly common for most ancient peoples) they would probably resent being sorted into either "race."
So why does this matter? Why is it important that we acknowledge the Egyptians don't fit into our constructed dichotomy of black vs. white, of European or African? Well, for one thing many modern Egyptians find it kind of offensive. Despite their modern self-identification as Arabs, most Egyptians still feel a strong claim to the historical legacy of their ancient forebears and find it pretty annoying when American scholars (and, black or white, it is mostly Americans) try to pigeonhole the pharaohs into one racial category or another for political purposes.
Secondly, it's pretty clearly false as I've shown above. The ancient Egyptians were African, but that's a pretty broad label, just like the word "Asian" includes within its meaning Turks, Indians, Samoyeds, Han Chinese, and Malays. There's a lot of similarity between Egyptians and Nubians, that's true. There's also a lot of resemblance between Egyptians and Palestinians. They don't fit neatly into one super-category or the other, not when you peel away the labels and look at the actual facts.
It's also, when you get right down it, kind of imperialistic. Remember, separating people into groups like "white" and "black" or "colored" were ways for European colonialists to determine what rights certain people were entitled to (and more importantly, which people to deny rights to). Whether intentionally or not, the continuance of these categories, even by non-racists, continues to embody this. By separating people around the world into either white Europeans or dark-skinned people we're implicitly saying that the differences within the latter group are equivalent to the differences within the former group. And that's incredibly reductive.
There's a world of difference between the ancient Egyptians and the Chinese, as big as the difference between China and the ancient Celts. Pyramid-building aside (which is a fairly shallow similarity), the cultures of ancient Mesoamerica and ancient Egypt are pretty distinct. The Mauryan Empire is not the same as the Songhai Empire, nor is it any closer in similarity to it than it is to ancient Greece. Instead of celebrating diversity, Afrocentric perspectives on ancient history suppress it despite their good intentions.
Now, that isn't to say there isn't any value in talking about "people of color" as one group. There is; with the exception of just one country (Thailand), every nation in the world has been under European domination at some point during the last two centuries. Only one non-European country (Japan) has been a colonial power in modern times. And with the exception of a handful of countries like Japan (again) or China (which per capita is still quite poor), the vast majority of the world's wealth is concentrated in European nations or countries dominated by the descendants European colonists. So in some sense, it's perfectly reasonable to talk about "people of color" as a byword for ethnic minorities (and majorities) who continue to be oppressed in a number of individual and systematic ways throughout the world.
But it's not a historically accurate term and it's important to recognize its limitations. While it's an incredibly useful way to talk about race relations and power in modern society, it has virtually no meaning when we're talking about ancient cultures, who didn't exist in the same Western-dominated world that we now do.
Besides, shouldn't we really move on from ancient Egypt? There's plenty of other ancient societies to obsess over. What about Mesopotamia? Or the Indus Valley civilization? How about the Kingdoms of Kush or Aksum? Ancient China? The Maya? The historical world is a wonderful and diverse place. There's no reason we have to define it by one culture or another. There's no reason one race must lay claim to the entire heritage of world civilization. Ancient Egypt is an alluring subject to be sure, but it's just one of many, all of which deserve to be represented accurately.