Being White in England and Other Illusions

Published:June 10, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe


A couple of years ago, the VFH radio program With Good Reason produced a series of five episodes called New Perspectives on Jamestown. (If for no other reason, listen to hear experts like Helen Rountree pronounce Opechancanough and Werowocomoco. It’s mouth music!)

Anyway, I was struck by one particular exchange during “Jamestown and the African Experience.” Joining host Sarah McConnell are guests Jennifer Morgan of Rutgers University, Stephanie Smallwood of the University of California at San Diego, and Joseph Miller of the University of Virginia. They’re talking about early slavery in the Americas, and in particular they’re making the point that skin color did not always determine one’s status. Something changed, and it changed for particular reasons.

MORGAN: We’re trying to say, okay, at what point does a man of the gentry understand himself to be white and free and understand that those two categories are connected.

McCONNELL: I mean, why wouldn’t he understand himself to be white and free? What’s so tough about that?

MORGAN: Because he came [to Jamestown] conscious of himself as an Englishman.


MORGAN: Not as a white person but as an Englishman.

MILLER: Or as a gentleman.

McCONNELL: But still, I think of course, somebody who’s white and free knows they’re white and free. Understands it. He knew it in England. What is your point?

MORGAN: No, he didn’t know he was white in England because color wasn’t—there was no need to use color as a conscious way of identifying yourself in England.

MILLER: Or as a way of categorizing, coding others.

SMALLWOOD: He would have known himself to be English, not French; to be Protestant, not Catholic; to be gentry, not a laborer. It’s important to remember that this process is not happening just in Virginia. It’s happening in places all over the Americas, right? This encounter of people of European descent, people of  African descent, people of Native American descent, coming together and having their understanding of who they are transformed. And it happens differently in different places. And so that raises a question that historians have to ask: Well, why did color become important in a particular way in Virginia or in a particular way maybe among English colonists that was different than how it happened elsewhere?

It was, in other words, a complicated story. And it still is.

IMAGE: George Washington as a Farmer (1851), an oil painting by Junius B. Stears; from The Atlantic Slave Trade and Life in the Americas