Race matters — so much does it matter to us now that our current conceptions of it may hamper our understanding of how it mattered (or didn’t matter) in the past. Tracing the history of ideas of race can make sense of what they may have meant in the past while also showing that the Atlantic dimension of this history is precisely what has shaped our current ideas of race. Indeed, racism in its present form is a specific product of Atlantic history. That is, if race is a perceived physical difference that is assumed to be inherited, is strongly associated with skin color, and is crafted to support systems of human subjugation, this idea was peculiar to the Atlantic world created by European colonization. To be sure, it had precedents in certain theories that had emerged in pre-Columbian Europe. Yet its most distinctive elements would have been alien to Europeans in the classical and medieval worlds, despite their considerable experience with exploitation, xenophobia, and imperialism. Perhaps more than any other set of ideas, race was Atlantic. The history of slavery makes especially clear that racism took strong hold in the western Atlantic, with powerful implications for the populations that mingled in the Americas, for the social structures of colonial societies, and for ideas of political rights on either side of the Atlantic.
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Joyce E. Chaplin
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