Past Event

Getting under the skin: Book explores the “The History of White People”

The publication of The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter is a “mind-expanding and myth-destroying exploration of notions of white race,” as described by its publisher, W.W. Norton.  For many, it is a long overdue examination of America’s endless and often lopsided discussion of race.

Painter, a Princeton emerita professor of American history, covers a lot of territory in her book, beginning her story in Greek and Roman antiquity, where the concept of race did not exist. She then looks at white slavery, a historical fact given slight scholarly coverage, by most accounts. Her point about slavery, she says is “that the people who get caught up are vulnerable aliens. …It’s who can be caught up and victimized.”

In an interview with Café Society, Painter said she didn’t set out to prove or disprove anything. She merely wanted to find out why white people are called Caucasian. She explores the answer to that question in a chapter on Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, an 18th century German academic who advanced the science of human taxonomy, or classification. “In addition to the now commonly accepted index of skin color, he factored in a series of other bodily measurements, notably of skulls,” Painter writes. Blumenbach’s meticulous measurements “endowed the ‘Caucasian’ variety with an unimpeachable scientific pedigree.” This aesthetic judgment into classification in 1795 introduced the term “Caucasian.”

Painter says that before race became such a troublesome social construct—and certainly before people were even viewed as white or black or yellow or brown, skin color was not a big determinant of fate. “Rather than as ‘white’ people, northern Europeans were known by vague tribal names: Scythians and Celts, then Gauls and Germani.”

It’s also been well-documented, that “Evolutionary biologists now reckon that the six to seven billion people now living share the same small number of ancestors living two or three thousand years ago,” she writes. ‘These circumstances make nonsense of anybody’s pretensions to find a pure racial ancestry.

The History of White People has been widely reviewed. It was the cover review in recent edition of The New York Times Book Review section. That a book exploring the history of white people was penned by a noted African-American scholar makes it all the more intriguing. Reviewer Paul Devlin in the San Francisco Chronicle writes, “The History of White People is perhaps the definitive story of a most curious adjective. It is a scholarly, non-polemical masterpiece of broad historical synthesis, combining political, scientific, economic and cultural history.”

Continuing, Devlin writes:

“[Painter] postulates four ‘enlargements’ of American whiteness. First, white meant roughly Anglo-Saxon and lowland Scots. Then, after the Civil War in the United States, the Irish (and some Scandinavians) were slowly but generally allowed to opt in for anti-black political reasons. After World War II, other Catholics, Italians, Eastern Europeans and some Southwestern Latinos were quietly allowed under the big, white tent.

Finally, whiteness today is elusive, but Painter seems to imply that people can almost know it when they see it, as it is associated less with skin color than with difference-subordinating ambition and taste. After presenting a long list of successful people of color, Painter observes that “none of these individuals is white, but being white these days is not what it is used to be.” While not ignoring class throughout the study, she brings it home at the end, stating that “poverty in a dark skin endures as the opposite of whiteness, driven by an age-old social yearning to characterize the poor as permanently other and inherently inferior.”

Today when you consider the Census form that Americans are filling out, you’ll note only one box for White. But Painter tells us that the Census really “started as a way to tax people and find who’s eligible for the militia. In the first Census sheet, there are five different categories under White.”

Contrasts only show when there is something or someone to whom something or someone can be compared. Some will doubtless argue that the idea of “white studies” was a reaction to the growth of “black studies” in the 1960s and ’70s.

“Whiteness studies,” The New York Times reviewer Linda Gordon writes, “have so proliferated in the last two decades that historians might be forgiven a yawn in response to being told that racial divisions are fundamentally arbitrary, and that deciding who is white has been not only fluid but also heavily influenced by class and culture.”

Is the history of how notions of race developed important for us to understand? If so, what can we learn about being “black” or “white?” How much does being labeled white have to do with skin color?  Do you think the Census form is correct to have only one category for white people? How does the idea of whiteness impact your view of the current social order? Do you see “white” and “Caucasian” as being the same? Why or why not? How would you describe race privilege? In what ways does race privilege impact a democracy?

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