National identities, foreign physiognomies, and the advent of whiteness

in Bodies complexioned
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Although early accounts imply that African, American, and Asian indigenes recognised the skins of English men and women as ‘white’, historiography suggests that a monochromatic racial binary came into use only from about the mid-seventeenth century in the Anglo-Atlantic colonies. Resort to humoralism slowed acceptance of an abiding whiteness common to all English folk, even as the same paradigm variously coloured perceptions of foreigners. As a survey of travel literature shows, observers typically estimated people’s nationality as well as their social status. If, for much of our period, we cannot say that the process of discerning bodily difference was exclusively and definitively coloured, it was certainly and variously humoured, in a way that made such differences seem part of nature’s course. When meeting with darker skin-tones, the English were prone to think these indicative of humbler constitutions inherently suited to some degree of laboured subordination. English society learned to perceive fair skin as a signifier of elite identity before it identified itself as universally white. Slowly, however, ordinary people began thinking of themselves as ‘white’ too. Fair skin was recoded, helping to achieve a solidarity among Britons and with other Europeans.

Bodies complexioned

Human variation and racism in early modern English culture, c. 1600–1750

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