This article first appeared on Aeon.
The Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton invented the concept of “white people” on October 29, 1613, the date his play The Triumphs of Truth was first performed. The phrase was first uttered by the character of an African king who looks out upon an English audience and declares: “I see amazement set upon the faces/Of these white people, wond’rings and strange gazes.” As far as I, and others, have been able to tell, Middleton’s play is the earliest printed example of a European author referring to fellow Europeans as “white people”.
A year later, the English commoner John Rolfe of Jamestown in Virginia took as his bride an Algonquin princess named Matoaka, whom we call Pocahontas. The literary critic Christopher Hodgkins reports that King James I was “at first perturbed when he learned of the marriage”. But this was not out of fear of miscegenation: James’s reluctance, Hodgkins explained, was because “Rolfe, a commoner, had without his sovereign’s permission wed the daughter of a foreign prince”. King James was not worried about the pollution of Rolfe’s line; he was worried about the pollution of Matoaka’s.
The concept of race
Both examples might seem surprising to contemporary readers, but they serve to prove the historian Nell Irvin Painter’s reminder in The History of White People (2010) that “race is an idea, not a fact”. Middleton alone did not invent the idea of whiteness, but the fact that anyone could definitely be the author of such a phrase, one that seems so obvious from a modern perspective, underscores Painter’s point. By examining how and when racial concepts became hardened, we can see how historically conditional these concepts are. There is nothing essential about them. As the literature scholar Roxann Wheeler reminds us in The Complexion of Race (2000), there was “an earlier moment in which biological racism… [was] not inevitable”. Since Europeans did not always think of themselves as white, there is good reason to think that race is socially constructed, indeed arbitrary. If the idea of “white people” (and thus every other race as well) has a history – and a short one at that – then the concept itself is based less on any kind of biological reality than it is in the variable contingencies of social construction.