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The History of White People Paperback – April 18, 2011

3.7 out of 5 stars 84 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Who are white people and where did they come from? Elementary questions with elusive, contradictory, and complicated answers set historian Painter's inquiry into motion. From notions of whiteness in Greek literature to the changing nature of white identity in direct response to Malcolm X and his black power successors, Painter's wide-ranging response is a who's who of racial thinkers and a synoptic guide to their work. Her commodious history of an idea accommodates Caesar; Saint Patrick, history's most famous British slave of the early medieval period; Madame de Staël; and Emerson, the philosopher king of American white race theory. Painter (Sojourner Truth) reviews the diverse cast in their intellectual milieus, linking them to one another across time and language barriers. Conceptions of beauty (ideals of white beauty [became] firmly embedded in the science of race), social science research, and persistent North/South stereotypes prove relevant to defining whiteness. What we can see, the author observes, depends heavily on what our culture has trained us to look for. For the variable, changing, and often capricious definition of whiteness, Painter offers a kaleidoscopic lens. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Painter is the author of Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (1996) and several other scholarly works on the history of slavery and race relations in America, most recently Creating Black Americans (2006). Her latest selection examines the history of “whiteness” as a racial category and rhetorical weapon: who is considered to be “white,” who is not, what such distinctions mean, and how notions of whiteness have morphed over time in response to shifting demographics, aesthetic tastes, and political exigencies. After a brief look at how the ancients conceptualized the differences between European peoples, Painter focuses primarily on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There, the artistic idealization of beautiful white slaves from the Caucasus combined with German Romantic racial theories and lots of spurious science to construct an ideology of white superiority which, picked up by Ralph Waldo Emerson and other race-obsessed American intellectuals, quickly became an essential component of the nation’s uniquely racialized discourse about who could be considered an American. Presenting vivid psychological portraits of Emerson and dozens of other figures variously famous and obscure, and carefully mapping the links between them, Painter’s narrative succeeds as an engaging and sophisticated intellectual history, as well as an eloquent reminder of the fluidity (and perhaps futility) of racial categories. --Brendan Driscoll --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (April 18, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393339742
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393339741
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.4 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (84 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #10,148 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Todd Bartholomew VINE VOICE on March 16, 2010
Format: Hardcover
At first blush readers may be a bit off-put at a black woman writing a history of white people and the usual questions are likely to arise. But as a historian it is Nell Irvin Painter's job to transcend identities such as race and gender and to remain objective about her subject matter. There are many compelling arguments about the relative pros and cons of writing about a part of your identity or about an identity other than your own. Those arguments aside, Painter sets an ambitious goal of writing a history on the construct of the white race; the who, what, where, when, why and how of its origins, its evolution and change over time, and its greater societal significance and meaning to our present day and age. Rather than an angry diatribe against racism Painter seeks to provide a narrative of the evolution of white identity.

Painter begins in antiquity, a time in which race was not important so much as place; where you were from, a time of social hierarchy and class more so than racial consciousness. The disturbing truth is that class served more to define one's status and place than ethnicity or race for many centuries. Slavery, the great sin of any age, was racially colorblind in antiquity, and even in colonial America it was initially colorblind if indentured servitude is included. Painter guides readers through the evolution and construct of whiteness leading up to the harsh realities of the 19th Century, a time where whiteness took on further nuances, differences, and distinctions owing to increased immigration. It was a time when the Irish, Italians, Jews, and "others" were denigrated for their otherness; for not fitting the Anglo-Saxon ideal of whiteness.
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Format: Hardcover
Apparently, some who have read this book misunderstand what the author's aim was. The goal of the book was to document the historical foundations of the term "race" and Anglo-Saxon racial theory, which began in Europe and gained supporters across the Pond here in the United States. She also made very clear at the beginning that the term "race" began in the 1800s and that scholars now recognize that people are ethnicities, not races.

I was very impressed by her thorough research into the lives of the people who created the theory of race. Yes, she does make a point to highlight that the main actors were Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic Nordics. So what? Yes, she's a black woman and yes she has a leftist viewpoint. But she would be less than competent as a historian if she had not pointed this out.

My only objection is that sometimes she gets bogged down in too much minutiae on the lives of the scholars she's describing. On the other hand, she also delves into the personal and collegial relationships of these race theorists to each other and that's interesting.

Very good book and well worth reading.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a fascinating book, scholarly and erudite, well researched and well documented by a respected historian. I was expecting something a great deal more angry and focused on white oppression of African Americans. That is apparently what a number of reviewers saw, so I was pleasantly surprised as well as instructed. I always wondered why white people are called `Caucasian'. Anyone who has had a few history courses will have known something about the craniometry craze in the late nineteenth century, but Dr. Painter draws it all together by showing who the influential scientists were and how they became spread the idea of seeing everything in racial terms through an imagined glorious, pure Saxon past. It was startling to see how deeply Ralph Waldo Emerson was involved. A description of the stunning amount of scholarship devoted to dividing up Europeans into races and ranking them according to `Saxon' cultural ideals of beauty while largely ignoring the rest of humanity occupies the first twenty-six chapters; relations with blacks do not come up until the last two short chapters (of 28). Measuring skulls and blathering on and on about some imagined Saxon golden age now seems daft and laughable, but it should be a continuing lesson to science. Many of these people saw that their data had problems but ignored the contradictions, and ignored even common sense. When they were taken up by the Nazi party and implemented into government policy, they were a contributing factor to the holocaust the Germans visited on Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, anyone perceived to be deficient breeding stock.

I was in university before black studies and had not even heard of white studies until I read this book.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It is very interesting to me that the fact that the author is Black gives readers pause or prompts a question as to "why" she is writing about white people. Haven't white people (educators or otherwise) been writing about people of color throughout our history. No one ever seems to question their ability to articulate their research or the validity of their perspective.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Spanning from Ancient Greece to the present, the goal of The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter goal is both simple and impossible: to track the elusive definition of what it means to be a white person -- particularly to be white in America -- and do so in a readable way. In meeting those goals, Painter is remarkably successful. It is informative without being plodding, is frequently funny, and is often poignant. She does gloss over certain periods (as should be expected in a book with such a wide scope), but it rarely feels like lacking.

From the role of art in defining beauty, to measuring skulls, to studies of degenerate families and eugenics, the overall story she tells is of the use of “whiteness” as a marker that has been used to separate “us” from “them.” She takes special care to point out how frequently the definition of “us” – and therefore the definition of whiteness – shifted throughout history. As someone with some Irish roots, I was aware of some of this. No group was as big a mover from “them” to “us” as the Irish, often at the expense of new immigrants as well as those left behind in the “them” group. But seeing each new wave of immigrants working their way through the same obstacles and prejudices, and then inflict those same prejudices on others, was still startling.

Painter also spends a great deal of time on different historical figures and how they influenced our understanding of whiteness. Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Teddy Roosevelt in particular come off poorly.

The lasting impression the book left with me was one of tempered optimism. The final chapter goes into DNA sequencing as the final nail in the “science” of “racial science.” In short, there is very little that divides us biologically.
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