[Those curious about the history of the Victorian Web (which began before the WWW in another hypermedia system) might be interested to learn that this document was one of the very first written specifically for what became this site by someone outside Brown University. (The materials on public health that Professor Wohl also contributed came from his previously published book [GPL].]

What psychological needs did racism fulfill in Victorian England? According to one psychological explanation, racism results from transferring or projecting fears of an "in-group" upon a convenient "out-group." In the age of Lyell, Spencer, Wallace, and Darwin, the close relationship between man and nature (or between man and ape) became increasingly apparent. (The gorilla created a sensation when it was first brought to England in 1861.)

Victorians might fear their sexuality or dread the animal within, but many claimed that, compared to those "beneath" us, just look how we have suppressed and controlled them, how advanced and civilized we are. Thus to denigrate or point up the bestial, brute, savage nature of an outside group is to point up our own advanced state and protect ourselves against inner fears or tensions. Racism and class prejudice, in other words, not only serve as agents of political power, but also serve as buffers between a community and a nature that seems to be getting too close to it for psychological comfort.

Where in the Victorian works you have read does this mechanism appear? How can you distinguish between accurate descriptions of the working classes and ones informed by such racist thinking?

Last modified 1990