In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Whiteness in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • Journals
  • Primary Sources
  • Legal Treatments
  • Artistic Treatments
  • Literary Treatments
  • Europeans and Native Americans
  • Europeans and Africans
  • British Atlantic
  • French Atlantic
  • Irish Atlantic
  • Portuguese Atlantic
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Atlantic History Whiteness in the Atlantic World
Tim Engles
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0167


Compared to studies of the concept of race, most of those directly focused on racial whiteness are relatively recent. Although nonwhite people have been “studying” whiteness for centuries by necessity, scholarly work concerned with this matter, in a field now called “critical whiteness studies,” first arose in the United States in the mid-1990s. The primary origins of the conscious, inherently dominant racial status of “white” lie in European contact with other, darker peoples and in subsequent efforts to distinguish Europeans as fundamentally different from, and in most respects superior to, members of other groups. The concept of “whiteness” as a favored and privileged status thus arose relationally, along with erroneous European conceptions of other peoples as essentially different from and inferior to Europeans themselves. The drive for colonial conquest and trade, and accompanying exploitation of indigenous peoples and enslavement of those of African descent, also shaped conceptions of “white” people among those of European descent, as did religious, scientific, and cultural beliefs. Who counted as white, and in what terms, varied greatly in terms of time and location; a trip across the Atlantic could turn a “black” person “white,” or vice versa, and groups with European roots excluded from whiteness by those who claimed that status for themselves often gained gradual recognition as white. While whiteness emerged as a widespread and explicitly conscious identity late in the Atlantic era, scholars emphasize that conceptions of what amount to racial difference arose prior to the idea of racial whiteness, and conceptions of seemingly inherent superiority among those with lighter skin emerged even earlier. And yet, who qualified as “white” has continually changed ever since the term’s conception as a racial marker, expanding and contracting in various places and eras to include and exclude various groups.

General Overviews

It is useful to divide overviews of this topic into Historical considerations, which discuss the development of the idea of whiteness over time and within certain historical settings, and Theoretical considerations, which define and examine both conceptions of whiteness itself and how it has operated in various settings.

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