Published by W. W. Norton & Company on March 15th 2010
A mind-expanding and myth-destroying exploration of “whiteness”—an illuminating work on the history of race and power.
Eminent historian Nell Irvin Painter tells perhaps the most important forgotten story in American history. Beginning at the roots of Western civilization, she traces the invention of the idea of a white race—often for economic, scientific, and political ends. She shows how the origins of American identity in the eighteenth century were intrinsically tied to the elevation of white skin into the embodiment of beauty, power, and intelligence; how the great American intellectuals— including Ralph Waldo Emerson—insisted that only Anglo Saxons were truly American; and how the definitions of who is “white” and who is “American” have evolved over time.
A story filled with towering historical figures, The History of White People closes an enormous gap in a literature that has long focused on the nonwhite, and it forcefully reminds us that the concept of “race” is an all-too-human invention whose meaning, importance, and reality have changed according to a long and rich history. 70 illustrations.
Nell Irvin Painter, an acclaimed American historian at the Princeton University in New Jersey, is undoubtedly challenging societal norms by being a black woman author to write about the ‘history’ of the white people. She even acknowledges this in a 2015 Rhodes College lecture and stated that people asked her if she was writing as a “black woman”, suggesting or accusing her of writing “revenge history”. To this, Painter responded, “why can’t a black historian write about white people without her race being a major focal point?”. Moreover, she contested this idea of how racial identity is only relevant when racialized people write about white people and not vice-versa, because whiteness is deemed the norm and neutral. Hence, to me, the dialogue surrounding her book is more fascinating than the book itself; it really speaks to the myth of ‘post-racial’ societies that is perpetuated in the 21st century liberal democracies. Even when I was checking for the availability of the book in the library, I got weird looks for asking the receptionist about its availability. The uneasiness around the idea of whiteness is telling about how the western liberal society remains uncomfortable in having an open discussion about it, despite the evident consequences as seen in recent unfolding of political events.
“Race is an idea, not a fact and it’s questions demand answers from the conceptual rather than a factual realm” (Painter, 2010, p. ix).
This quote in the introduction can perhaps summarize Painter’s whole book. The History of White People is a book that studies the invention of whiteness from antiquity all the way to the 21st century and how it continuously evolves as a social category. At first, the title of her book may seem satirical due to its bluntness and absurdity, similar to an amateur Buzzfeed article. However, after reading the book, the title could not be more accurate, as the book offers an insightful and accessible understanding of the history of the concept of race, specifically of “being white” (Painter, 2010, p. xi). In a supposed ‘post-racial’ world, the idea of race is still inherently linked with biology and treated as a fact. Painter’s book argues against this notion by demonstrating how ‘race’, at any given time in history, was relative to the social organization of the people. It should be noted that Painter is viewing the history of whiteness in the American context, which is not universal. Although the recent Americanization of the world has deemed its version of whiteness normal, there are still unique conceptions about race that derive from the relative history of any given place.
In the first few chapters of her book, Painter explores the ancient Greco-Roman civilizations, in an attempt to search for the genesis of whiteness. In contemporary times, these civilizations are thought of as exclusively white, as they are considered to be the ancestors of the ‘West’. She maintains that light-skinned people had always existed, as did brown-skinned people but these differences in melanin were not racialized in a sense they are today. Drawing upon the Greek categorization of differences in human, Painter states that they thought of people in terms of place, rather than race (p. 5). Specifically, this othering was done in order to determine the nature of relations each civilization would have with those of different origins (specifically Scythians and Germani) (p. 4). In a similar fashion, the Romans also derived differences based on geographical locations. For instance, Julius Caesar’s depictions of the northwestern tribes of Europe were heavily influenced by the barbaric/civilized binary, something that we would later see unfold on the American continent. However, one thing that I found interesting is that Caesar admired some features of barbarianism, such as warfare and hypermasculinity, as was prevalent in the Germani tribes (p. 28). For the historian Tacitus, this “simplicity trump[ed] Roman decadence” and led to his praise for the hunter-gatherer society (p. 29). Painter maintains that 18th and 19th-century German race-chauvinist history draws its ideas of superiority from Tacitus’s descriptions, which ultimately shaped the dominant view of racial categories today.
In the next few chapters of her book, Painter discusses the history of intra-European Slavery, which was not racialized in the same sense that the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was. Specifically, slavery was nothing more than a business exchange, as majority of slaves were determined by “geography, not race” (p. 38). This was another part of the othering that was featured in Greco-Roman societies and any “vulnerable aliens” were up for grabs (p. 38). The enslavement of Europeans, (what Painter dubs as ‘white slavery’) continued to be a dominant part of European economy even after the establishment of colonies in the Americas, as indicated by the 300,000- 400,000 unfree labour that came in the 18th century to the 13 colonies (p. 42). Moreover, the ‘odalisques’ or white slave women, became the epitome of human beauty, due to their frequent depictions as naked, young, and sexually available beings in Western art (p. 43). These slave women often came from the Caucasus region, as slavery was a large part of the Black Sea economy. According to Painter, this also solidified the two major racial categories: beautiful and ugly, with the former being attached to European whiteness and the latter being attached to the rest of the world. This binary of beauty was the key in Immanuel Kant’s declaration that standards of beauty are universal, with white being the standard everyone wanted to reach (p. 49). Furthermore, he confirmed this theory by pointing out to the harems of the Orient, in which almost all sexually desirable slaves were from the Black Sea Region (of course, he was referring to the people of the Caucus Mountains). However, Kant’s view of the Orient was deluded and did not take into account the presence of dark skinned slaves in harems of the Orient.
This notion of beauty was further expanded on in form of scientific racism in the 18th and 19th centuries. Just as the rest of the natural world was being classified, there was a need to create taxonomies of human beings, with their categories being defined by ‘racial categories’.
Initially, there was also a belief that God had “decreed one’s outer appearance […] to reflect one’s inner state” (p.67). This meant that the people of Christendom were the most beautiful ones, and non-believers were considered ugly, reinforcing the association of whiteness with beauty. Moreover, German thinkers like Blumenbach also placed beauty within the ‘European race’. In 1779, he divided the human species into five races, founded on the description of human skulls. However, he classified western Europeans as ‘Caucasian’, even though the Caucasus, a mountain range in southern Russia near the Black Sea, was far removed from western Europe. This was mainly due to a beautiful skull that had been sitting in his lab, that came from a Georgian slave woman. He was so aesthetically pleased by the skull that he determined that all of Western Europe must be descendants of her people (the actual Caucasians), as he considered them the most beautiful peoples amongst the world. This cognitive frame is still prevalent in most white nationalist circles today.
After establishing a groundwork for the historical contextualization and development of the concept of race, the rest of The History of White People is focused primarily on whiteness in the United States. In the late 18th century, race was primarily linked with slavery or being ‘unfree’, which was later attributed to blackness. In other terms, the emergence of race in America was inherently linked with class, as indicated by the constant need to enlarge the idea of American whiteness. For instance, at the beginning of the nation’s history, the ‘free property-owning white male’ were the elite class. However, with the implementation of ‘universal suffrage’, the elite class was comprised of all white males, who had exclusive rights to voting, shaping America into a “white man’s country” (p.107). Citizens of lower economic status could engage in citizenship as long as they fit the categories of maleness and whiteness. This category was institutionalized through several legislations prompted by the state, but was also open to enlargement. Essentially, being white had nothing to do with biology and everything to do with class, economic power, status and access to societal privileges.
In the next section of the book, Painter goes into detail about the development of a degenerate white race and the social consequences that followed it. “Degeneracy” was a label applied to poor, unsavory whites that were considered to be ‘polluting’ whiteness (p. 258). Such people possessed specific characteristics that set them apart as degenerates, such as children out of wedlock, poor living conditions, and just general mannerlessness (p. 260). In order to keep their population under control, forced sterilization was deployed in impoverished neighborhoods. Between 1930s and 1968, 65,000 Americans were affected by this practice because of existing notions of racial impurity. Law enforcement and welfare officials collaborated to enforce state sterilization policies targeted specifically against women labeled a criminals or mentally “enfeebled”, or some combination (p. 280). Ultimately, whiteness was a tool to be used against the poor which excluded them from mainstream society (p. 276). Furthermore, Painter expresses that these sterilizations were in fact, specifically motivated by gender, as most of the victims also happened to be women.
It’s interesting to note here that in modern society, these concepts of racial purity and sterilization are solely connected to the Nazis in Third Reich. However, it should be noted that the Nazis themselves were ultimately inspired by Americans, and just as it was in the U.S., the majority of the victims of Germany’s forced sterilizations were also poor. Moreover, these policies lasted in the U.S. long after Hitler was defeated, the last recorded case being in 1968 (p. 283).
With advances in science and technology, along with the rise of globalization, the concept of ‘race’ was starting to be questioned. In particular, Ruth Benedict began to refute the idea that there were different races and made the important distinction between culture and biology, claiming that there is no proven connection between the two. This was a fundamental shift from the centuries of American belief and one that was further reinforced by America joining the Allies in the war against the Third Reich, as the unity of Europe meant there was finally a sole white race. Due to this, there was further need at home to dismantle scientific racism (at least the one that targeted the Europeans) as that was the ideology of the Nazis (p. 336). Specifically, politicians seized this opportunity to emphasize a unity in the American identity that made it unique from anywhere else. No longer were the differences of Slavs, Italians, Jews, Greeks, British, Irish, German and Nordic considered a significant; they all became one European race. This unity was also needed in order to recruit soldiers against the war in Europe. In 1938, President Roosevelt announced that “we are all immigrants” and that this is what composed of the American identity (p.356). Noticeably, the ‘Negro’ was also reluctantly included in that message, mostly due to the fact that it was not a formal legislation. However, Native Americans and Asian Americans were completely missing from being defined as American, as they were not considered of any importance during the war against the Third Reich. Painter concludes that World War II caused the largest expansion of American whiteness, as it was strategic in order to win the war and differentiate oneself from the enemy.
Now that European became a united race, there was a need to impose the previous ideals of ‘degeneracy’ and ‘alien races’ onto another group: The Negros. The successful assimilation of Italians and Jews into the American mainstream culture meant that they were no longer explicitly targeted by the mightier Anglo-Saxons. Rather, everyone was on the same scale (or at least in theory). To be American meant to be middle-class and to be middle-class meant to be white (p.370). This union of whiteness and class was the direct result of postwar politics. However, the Negros still remained on the outskirts of American identity and they were now, more than ever before, seen as inferior to whites. Painter argues that the union of the European races caused this radical shift in the emergence of explicitly discriminate legislations against the Negros, such as their inaccessibility to housing subsidies. These practices led directly to the mobilization of the Negros, leading to the Civil Rights movement, specifically in the American South.
Moreover, the rise of Black Nationalist movements caused another radical change in the fabric of American whiteness, the creation of ‘white ethnics’. By blaming all white people for crimes against the ‘Negros’, Black power leaders, such as Malcolm X, created insecurity amongst ‘ethnic’ whites who maintained that they had nothing to do with that part of history. Nevertheless, they had embraced that aspect of history when they became ‘white’ and reaped the benefits of whiteness that were not granted to Blacks (p. 381). Rejecting this burden of white guilt, white Americans started morphing themselves into cultural categories such as, Italian Americans, Jewish Americans, and Irish Americans, a label they strived to remove in earlier decades. However, what they had in common was “not being black” (p. 382), which gave them an inherent social privilege. The ultimate effect of this was the reinforcement of white versus black racial scheme as being the defining one in America today.
The book ends with Painter arguing that there may be a fourth enlargement of whiteness happening in the modern era. For instance, in the 21st century, race does not seem to have the same importance it did a few decades ago, nor does it have the same boundaries. She notes 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, while more dark skin people have been able to get rich, such as Oprah Winfrey (p.389). Furthermore, the election of President Barack Obama proved that American is beyond ‘race’ and that there is a more inclusive idea of American whiteness, right?
Not so fast, as Painter states that though there may seem to be more inclusion, it is at a very superficial level. Perhaps there is a fourth enlargement of American whiteness but it is not extended to all types of dark-skin people, just those that are deemed worthy (such as the ones that are extremely rich). Even though the category of whiteness, or as she changes it to ‘nonblackness’, expands, the fundamental black/white binary endures (p.396). There may be a diversification of suburbs and college campuses but the faces of the poor, segregated inner cities still remain black. Ultimately, “poverty in a dark skin ensures as the opposite of whiteness, driven by an age-old social yearning to characterize the poor as permanent other and inherently inferior” (p. 397).
I thoroughly enjoyed reading The History of White People as Nell Irvin Painter does a marvellous job at showing the concept of whiteness at any given time in history. Usually, when there are books written about the history of race and racism, it primarily focuses on blackness or the subordination of dark-skinned people. Painter instead shines a light on whiteness and the thought that went behind creating the arbitrary concept. A point of criticism I have for Painter is that although her research is extensive and impressive, it misses out certain elements of whiteness that I personally was curious about. For instance, I have read about early Arab immigrants to America being granted the status of being ‘white’ in the early 20th century, mainly due to intense lobbying. However, why were they encompassed into the American whiteness and not Italians or the Jews? Moreover, what effect, if any, did this historic connection to whiteness have on the racialization of Muslim Americans post 9/11. Being a Muslim myself, I found myself drawn to this question. In addition, this book was published in 2010 and many things have changed since then. In a post-Ferguson, Trump era, it would be worth examining the resurgence of some concepts of whiteness, such as racial supremacy and pride in a European ancestry based in mythology. In my opinion, the election of Trump represents a backlash against the fourth enlargement of American whiteness, which was putting wealthy Black Americans and dark-skinned people above white people, who were poor. In the era of Trump, the idea of race seems more important than ever before, especially to white folks.
As I mentioned in the introduction, I believe one of the many strengths of this book was its highly accessible style. The massive anthropology and history of whiteness as a concept is very heavy in theory, which can get extremely dry. However, Painter skilfully delivers an enjoyable book that an average reader can enjoy. The book is intricate and beautifully crafted. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in race and racialization.
Painter, N. I. (2010). The History of White people. New York: W.W. Norton. Painter, N.I. (2015). Dr. Nell Irvin Painter – “The History of White People”
(Rhodes College Lecture). Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LiYiMi_tEe82