Off-campus UNL users: To download campus access dissertations, please use the following link to log into our proxy server with your NU ID and password. When you are done browsing please remember to return to this page and log out.

Non-UNL users: Please talk to your librarian about requesting this dissertation through interlibrary loan.

Complex Complexions: A Comparative Study of Colorism Across the Long Nineteenth Century

Robb Nelson, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


This dissertation demonstrates the complex nature that skin complexion has played within four different racial communities in the United States during the Early Republic and antebellum periods. Each chapter investigates the cultural, social, and political relationships between a local settler colonial Anglo-American population, and a socially significant, non-white population(s) in the same area. The four chapters individually focus on Blacks in Charleston, South Carolina, the relationship between Indigenous Hawaiians, Japanese immigrants, and Anglo-Americans in Hawaii, Californios in Alta California, and Mormons in Utah.This dissertation contends that the practices associated with empire building and imperial expansion which include manifest destiny, settler colonialism, indentured servitude and slavery all lead to the creation of racial hierarchies within communities. In each of the four case studies discussed, one or more of these practices took form and led directly to the emergence of a racial hierarchy. Once formed, these racial hierarchies led to damaging legal, political, and social outcomes for the individuals perceived as nonwhite by the local Anglo-American settler colonial class. As a result, each of these geographic locations saw the development of cultures that favored either white skin idealization and/or developed divisive practices of colorism within their communities.Most importantly, this dissertation addresses the significance that a perceived skin complexion, hair texture, eye shape, facial angle, body type, or mythical fantasy racial heritage has had on the lives of individuals across multiple communities and how the experiences in those communities have compared with one another. An individual’s complexion, and the traits often associated with it, have affected the lives of countless individuals in real ways at the micro and macro levels. While complexion and other physical traits were just one factor of many, everything from the churches people attended and the social clubs they joined, to the marriage partners they selected and even the cemeteries that housed their remains were impacted due to their perceived skin shade.

Subject Area

History|Ethnic studies

Recommended Citation

Nelson, Robb, "Complex Complexions: A Comparative Study of Colorism Across the Long Nineteenth Century" (2023). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI30692504.