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The History of White People

Nell Irvin Painter

(W.W. Norton and Company; US: Mar 2010)

The title of acclaimed historian Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People may sound a bit like Christian Landers satirical Stuff White People Like. In fact, it’s a deeply serious, and highly accessible study, of the concept of race itself. Its also a much needed book at a time when, despite the mapping of the human genome that tells us otherwise, public opinion tends to regard race as a biological fact rather than a social construction.


Painter’s brilliant study forces its readers to look hard at the concept of race, specifically the meaning of “being white”. She shows, through the weight of historical evidence, that whiteness is a construction of the powerful, a metaphor the privileged use to define themselves, and a concept “driven by an age old social yearning to characterize the poor as permanently other and inherently inferior”.


Painter takes us deep into antiquity to accomplish her task, examining ideas of human difference in the Greco-Roman world and the growth of the pernicious notion that beauty and whiteness are the peanut butter and jelly of cultural identity. “White is beautiful” slowly became the dangerous idea that piloted western conceptions of identity and difference.


The alleged connection between beauty and whiteness emerged from disparate sources. Painter examines one of the more interesting when she looks at the history of the odalisque, 19th century artistic representations of white (usually glistening white) female slaves in Ottoman Turkish settings. These paintings and sculptures became hugely popular in the United States and Europe and even German Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant made use of their image in his argument that standards of beauty are universal (and that white people are the universal standard).


Europeans used their emergent scientific revolution to buttress their self-serving conceptions of aesthetics and race. A significant portion of the book deals with the history of “scientific racism”, an effort to establish the concept of race as a biological category. Just as scientists sought to create a taxonomy of the natural world, many of the same thinkers sought to create taxonomies of human beings, categorizing them by allegedly unique racial characteristics. 


Whiteness received the authoritative imprint of the emerging sciences in the 18th century. German thinkers classified western Europeans, counterintuitively,  as ‘Caucasian’. Although the Caucasus, a mountain range in southern Russia near the Black Sea, seems far removed from western Europe, the mythology of scientific racism viewed this region as the having the most aesthetically pleasing peoples on earth. Obviously, these European thinkers concluded, that’s where great-great-great-great granddad must have come from.


Although giving due attention to the long and complex background of developing notions of race, the bulk of The History of White People focuses on the history of ‘being white’ in the United States. Painter obviously details how, in the United States, race became linked with slavery. She also emphasizes that American society periodically enlarged its conception of whiteness rejecting, for example, the Irish at first and later accepting them. Asian Americans, she argues came to be accepted as white by the late 20th century. Clearly, “being white” has had nothing to do with biology and everything to do with class, economic power, and access to cultural privileges.


‘White’ as a restricted status parceled out by the privileged has had horrifying results in the United States. Painter insists that her readers understand how noxious notions of race undergirded massive violence against African American people. She also explores how concepts of racial purity had effects we generally only connect to National Socialism in Germany. Most readers will be shocked to learn that between the 1930s and 1968, 65,000 Americans were sterilized against their will because of notions of racial impurity and “degeneracy”. Law enforcement and welfare officials collaborated to enforce state sterilization policies against women labeled criminal, mentally “enfeebled”, or some combination.


Involuntary sterilization in the United States fully underscores Painter’s argument about the nature of whiteness. This was primarily a weapon of the privileged against the poor. Painter very compassionately tells the story of the first victim of these laws, Carrie Buck of Virginia. Buck, although she appeared ‘white’,  was an unmarried woman in a state institution. Buck embodies for the author the typical victim of such laws. A poor woman, raped at a young age, she was institutionalized. After giving birth, she was sterilized. Skin color sometimes provided no protection from the savagery of ‘white people’.


Painter’s description of racial concepts in 20th century America sometimes touches on American popular culture though she tends to stick close to intellectual history and politics. She rightly describes feature films until the ‘60s as having an “omnipresent nordicism”. The good guys are not only white, they perform their deeds against what Painter calls “an all-American Anglo-Saxon backdrop” where even crowd scenes in urban areas are made up of white extras. 


It’s also the case, though not explored here, that standards of feminine beauty in American film hewed close to the ‘marble whiteness’ of the odalisque figure. A full examination of this would have been worthwhile. How, for example, did the emergence of tanned skin and the ‘beach beauty’ ideal affect concepts of whiteness? Cultural shifts like these have arguably more effect on public attitudes than anthropological discussions about race. Both, in fact, tend to feed off one another in complex way.


One of the disappointing aspects of The History of White People is how truncated Painter’s discussion of the ‘60s to the present becomes. The book comes somewhat startlingly to a halt in a short chapter exploding with insights Painter never fully explores. She notes, for example, that “a string of nonwhite Misses America, Jennifer Lopez and Beyonce Knowles” have fundamentally shifted the dominant cultures’ centuries old coupling of pale skin with beauty. She of course notes the election of Barack Obama as a definitive moment in the history of racial constructions.


Unfortunately, Painter mostly leaves us with rhetorical questions about what these changes over the last 40 years might mean. She evokes the possibility that what we are witnessing is yet another enlargement of the concept of whiteness rather than a transformation of America into a post-racial society as some, at both ends of the political spectrum, like to claim.


One of the many strengths of Painter’s effort is her highly accessible style. The massive historiography of the nature and history of whiteness as a concept tends toward theoretical obscurity. Much of it is utterly inaccessible to the general reader. Painter deftly delivers a sometimes complex intellectual history. This is a hefty book, but a less skilled writer could not have delivered so much material without drowning her reader in the intricacies of that history.


There are moments when this large read does become frustrating and Painter’s stylistic chops begin to lapse. The abrupt transitions from thinker to thinker and concept to concept feels choppy. Painter’s best effort to avoid turning the book into a very interesting college textbook sometimes fails. Not unexpectedly in a book this size, attempts at brevity and the pointed phrase sometimes end in disaster. Perhaps the worst example being her description of anthropologist Ruth Benedict as “trying to dig her way out of a very deep race hole, and she could only get halfway into clarity, as befit the confusions of her era”. Um, what?


Stylistic issues mar, but never mangle, this truly brilliant and usually elegant work of popular scholarship. To borrow the infelicitous phrase, the United States has been in a bit of a ‘race hole’ for much of its history. Painter’s work deserves to makes its way into many a dinner table and water-cooler conversation since it is the kind of historical work that should become a rallying point for social change. Hopefully its publication and positive reception is a sign that we are coming to the end of the history of white people.

Rating:

W. Scott Poole is a writer and an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. He's the author of Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror, a book about the life and strange times of America's first horror host out in September 2014 from Counterpoint/Soft Skull. He is also the author of the award-winning Monsters in America (2011). Follow him on twitter @monstersamerica.


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By Nell Irvin Painter
21 Apr 2010
Evolutionary biologists reckon that all living peoples share the same small number of ancestors... thereby making nonsense of anybody’s pretensions to find a pure racial ancestry.
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