Skip to content What it means to be white in America | COMMENTARY

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In early Colonial America, if you had asked the average white man to describe himself, any number of characterizations might have sprung from his lips — Englishman, planter, father, Bostonian — but the word “white” might never have occurred to him.

That’s because “white,” as the personal identifier we recognize today, had not yet been established.

When the concept of “white” first emerged in the 1500s, it was as a synonym for “ladylike.” It referred to a class of woman so wealthy that she never had to go out into the sun, and so her skin was as white as cream.

She was a “white-skinned beauty.” If a man was referred to as white, it was derogatory, he was a “white-skinned dandy.”

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