White People Did Not Exist Until 1681

By Jacqueline Battalora
Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice
Saint Xavier University, Chicago
Former Chicago Police Officer


While a graduate student at Northwestern University, I was researching marriage restrictions in law. While sitting at a desk overlooking Lake Shore Drive and beautiful Lake Michigan, I was going through a book that codified enactments of the Virginia Colony. The pages seemed as though they were crumbling in my hands and I carefully turned the pages. It was fascinating to read the enactments. Besides sometimes struggling with the English used, something else was troubling. I could not put my finger on it at the exact moment. However, in the early hours of the next day I realized what seemed so unusual about the laws I was reading from the first half of the Seventeenth Century. There was no reference to white people.


I had just enough graduate studies in sociology and cultural studies to ask my self: Was the human grouping called white people invented? Why did the human category arise? How was it made normal? What purpose did it serve? Who benefited and how? A number of years later I had the opportunity to research these questions and I discovered that “white people” did not exist before 1681.


I often begin lectures with this claim hoping that it will serve as a hook to keep my audience’s attention. I need adequate time to lay out the historical context, the strains and opportunities, the rebellion, and the legal response that constitute the facts in support of the claim.  While it is true that many people on the planet had low levels of melanin in their skin for centuries before 1681, it is also true that they neither conceived of themselves as white nor were they referred to as a group called white people prior to that date. These people with low levels of melanin were referenced in law in a variety of ways including “freeborns,” “Christians” or by their nation of origin such as the Irishman, Scot, Spaniard, or Fin.


Before exploring the human category in and through law, it is critical to understand the social context within which the masses of people within the British colonies of Maryland and Virginia labored. The vast majority of laborers were poor British men, there were some men and women from Africa who were rendered slaves within the colonies, there were also Irish, Dutch, Portugese, and other Europeans. These laborers can be compared to the 99% from an economic standpoint. The landholding and ruling elite consisted of British men and they can be thought of as the 1%.


What few know of this early colonial period is that the vast majority of the people in these colonies worked, ate and slept together whether from Africa or England. Historian, Edmund Morgan, highlights that they lived lives under the same conditions. Once free of service, whether via enslavement or indenture, men faced the same rights and obligations as a matter of law. So let’s be clear, there were free persons of African descent throughout the colonies. There are records of some being freed through a landholder’s will or trust and some purchased their own freedom or that of family members.


A free man of African descent could vote, own property, run for public office, testify in court, own slaves, own indentured servants, and marry a person of the opposite sex regardless of her country of origin. Furthermore court records reveal that it was the norm for a person of European descent and a person of African descent to receive similar punishments for similar crimes. There are some exceptions but they are just that, exceptions. As a matter of historical record and law being a laborer from Africa, Holland or from England made little difference.


The right to marry was challenged in Maryland where lawmakers in 1664 sought not to prohibit but to punish British or other freeborn women who married enslaved men of African descent. It is worth noting that there was a significant gender imbalance, roughly 10 men for every woman and it was not uncommon for a British woman to selected an African man as a spouse. The Maryland law did not deter such marriages but had the opposite result.


Tensions in the colonies of Maryland and Virginia grew in the mid-1600s when the ready supply of laborers coming from England stopped while the demand for laborers by large landholders growing tobacco continued. Landholders turned their sights to Africa to fill the labor supply shortage. Enslaved African people were disgruntled laborers by virtue of enslavement but European laborers were increasingly frustrated. Harsh punishment began to be imposed for minor infractions often adding many years to one’s term of service. Tobacco prices fell and taxes increased. Even if a laborer survived the term of indenture, there was little farmable land because the king gave most of it to friends. Even if one could farm land it was virtually impossible to complete with large landholders who had a largely unpaid or certainly highly underpaid labor force.


These stresses found a voice and specific targets for their aim through the leadership of Nathaniel Bacon who lead a rebellion. The rebellion was enormous uniting laborers across nationalities, indentured, enslaved, and free and engulfed Virginia for more than a year and was ultimately quashed when England shipped troops to the colony. Bacon’s Rebellion made a significant impression upon the ruling elite having posed a threat to the version of capitalism they were fostering, one dependent upon unpaid and underpaid labor. In letters to the legal oversight authority in England, the ruling elite communicated the intent to deploy a divide and conquer strategy to ensure that such a rebellion would never arise again.


Recalling that laborers and free persons of African descent and of English descent faced the same rights and opportunities as a matter of law, this social structure would be radically altered transforming colonial society. It is only after Bacon’s Rebellion and following the express intent to divide and conquer that we see the use of the term “white people” in law. The first law appeared in 1681 in Maryland. Colonial lawmakers amended the law punishing British and other freeborn women who married enslaved African men by imposing punishment upon the person who performed the marriage and any landholder who may have encouraged it. It is in this amendment to the law of 1664 that the first appearance of “white” to reference a group of people is found.


It was followed by a slew of laws in Virginia that imposed the category, worked to give it clear meaning, and simultaneously transformed colonial society. These laws created an entirely new bottom to society and tossed people of African descent and members of Native Tribes down in it. The laws prohibited free persons of African descent from being in possession of a weapon, prohibited persons of African descent from testifying against whites, prohibited whites from marrying persons of African descent and members of Native Tribes, among many, many others.


The laws did little to advance the material wealth of the group of people called white laborers but it gave them authority to rule over those excluded from whiteness and the power to treat them however badly they wished without threat of prosecution. The laws also worked to create a link between the white laborers and the ruling elite through a shared labeled called white imbued with the presumption of superiority relative to nonwhites.


The invented human category called white people served many purposes: it divided laborers from each other; located patriarchal power among white men; connected white laborers to the ruling elite via supremacy; disempowered and degraded nonwhites; and began the deep damage to people’s humanity whites and nonwhites.