Racial group boundaries and identities: People of ‘mixed‐race’ in slavery across the Americas

Racial group boundaries and identities: People of ‘mixed‐race’ in slavery across the Americas

Slavery & Abolition
Volume 15, Issue 3 (1994)
pages 17-37
DOI: 10.1080/01440399408575137

Stephen Small, Associate Professor of African American Studies
University of California, Berkeley

One of the fundamental developments to arise as a result of the settling of the Americas by Europeans was the creation of racial barriers, group boundaries and identities both in law and in practice. Contact between diverse ethnic and national groups from Europe and from Africa was closely followed by social and sexual interaction. These relations were increasingly interpreted and explained by Europeans by employing the idea of ‘race’ (and ‘race’ purity and domination). The idea of ‘race’ inevitably led to the idea of ‘race-mixing’, an idea saturated in imagery and mysticism, but very clearly framed by the powerful group and individual economic, political and psychological interests of Europeans.

A significant section of the voluminous literature on slavery across the Americas focuses on the creation of racial barriers, boundaries and identities. Most attention has focused on the ways in which notions of Europe and Christianity interacted with notions of Africa and heathens to demarcate group boundaries. But significant attention has also been devoted to people of ‘mixed-race’. There are studies of single territories, as well as comparative studies. As one reads this literature one can detect a consensus around the characterizations of the definitions, circumstances and attitudes of people of ‘mixed-race’. It is argued that there arc fundamental differences in their ‘treatment’ in the territories of the British Caribbean and North America. It is maintained that in the British Caribbean people of ‘mixed-race’ received preferential ‘treatment’ and occupied an intermediate status between black slaves and free whites, while in North America they were placed in the same category as blacks. It is further suggested that in the Caribbean people of ‘mixed race’ rejected any association with blacks and sought to establish a distinctive ‘mulatto’ identity. This characterization of three-tier and two-tier systems is often described as ‘racial continuum’ and ‘racial caste’ and the primary explanation offered for the growth of this intermediate group is demographic: it developed where Blacks vastly outnumbered whites…

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