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Callaloo 25.2 (2002) 705-707
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The Complexion of Race:
Categories of Difference in Eighteenth-Century British Culture
Wheeler, Roxann. The Complexion of Race: Categories of Difference in Eighteenth-Century British Culture. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.
Race has a history. In the past decade or so, a number of brilliant scholars, from Henry Louis Gates to Nancy Stepan, have demonstrated the socially constructed, and politically inflected nature of race as a category. By tracing attempts to attach standardized sets of data to human bodies, they have shown the concept to have no real physiological basis. Most such studies, however, have concentrated on the increasing dominance of biological explanations of human difference during the 19th century and after. Few scholars have investigated the cultural strategies for distinguishing groups of people that preceded this emphasis on physiology. Roxann Wheeler's book, The Complexion of Race, goes a long way towards filling this scholarly gap. The book clarifies much of what was murky about the long "pre-history" of race. Another major contribution of the book is to demonstrate that the history of race is not a linear progression. Instead, Wheeler argues, the power of racial theories can only be understood through probing the layered explanations of human variety that built up over time, and acknowledging the force of much older, even medieval, theories of human difference during the "Enlightenment" and beyond.
The Complexion of Race takes as its subject theories of race in 18th-century Britain. Wheeler accurately dubs her project an investigation of theories of human variety, an exploration of the on-going debates over the extent to which human beings from different places differed from each other. The book charts the topic from the late 17th century to the 1770s and 1780s. Britain is a good place to ground such a case study, since England expanded it colonial and trading empire into the Far East and India as well as into the Americas during these years, and wrestled, more and more energetically, with its role in the Atlantic slave trade, and slave production. Ironically, Wheeler finds that, while the causes and significance of human variation were relatively open and fluid topics during the early years of this period, by the time opponents to slavery made the first demands for racial equality at the end of the century, the distinctions between "races" had begun to calcify into what seemed to be biological facts. The book begins by returning us to a time before that certainty formed, and illuminates a number of the other, non-biological, categories that once defined human variety: types of clothing, hairstyles, and religious practice. Most importantly, Wheeler gives the most in-depth explanation I have yet seen of the long-standing theory that human skin color was determined by climate. Through much of the 18th century, she reveals, "it was commonly reckoned that it would take at least ten generations for Englishmen in the torrid zones to turn into Negroes or for Negroes [End Page 705] in England to turn into northern Europeans" (4). Throughout the book, Wheeler's focus is on how, before the rise of biological racism, the English distinguished themselves from groups that are even now often assumed to be racially other—black Africans, Native Americans, and Muslims from India and Arabia. She is less interested in groups, such as the Jews, or the Irish, whose radical difference from the English, while once widely assumed, now has subsided into superstition and prejudice. This emphasis makes sense, given the contemporary uses of race, but some discussion of the shifting groups at whom accusations of extreme and dangerous otherness were directed would have strengthened the book's argument.
The Complexion of Race illustrates the complexity of ideas about race in the period through a series of chapters investigating important instances of the way human variety was represented and mediated by texts, including Robinson Crusoe (1719), "inter-marriage" novels of the mid-century, and the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano (1779). Other chapters look at travel narratives of 18th-century Africa and the...