The History of White People

[This review of Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People originally appeared in the Cascadia Subduction Zone in 2011. Since I recently posted about her new book, Old in Art School, I wanted to share my praise of her previous one as well, especially since it is more relevant than ever.]

The History of White People “[B]eing white these days is not what it used to be,” Nell Irvin Painter says – not without irony – at the conclusion of her book The History of White People, pointing out that the “attractive qualities” once attributed only to white people are now to be found in such highly acclaimed persons as Venus and Serena Williams, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, and the President of the United States. In fact, Painter herself – a history professor emerita at Princeton who is African American – probably falls into the expanded category of white now in use. After all, as Painter says, “race is an idea, not a fact”: Improved understanding of human genetics has made it clear that the racial distinctions so carefully constructed over the centuries are utterly without biological foundation.

Not that racism has died out, as Painter makes clear – a fact amplified by some of the racist comments on her book found in Amazon.com’s customer reviews. In fact, her discourse on the enlargement of American whiteness can be read as an argument that we as a society have simply decided at various points in our history that some people once considered other – but not all of them – will be accepted as white. To understand how this came about, we need to understand the historical context in which whiteness was defined. That’s what Painter gives us in this important and fascinating book.

I must admit that I originally bought this book because I loved the idea of a book on white people written by an African American. After all, any number of books about African Americans and others considered non-white have been written by white people; it was well past time for someone to return the favor.

While I was curious about how Painter would look at white people, I didn’t expect to learn anything new from this book. After all, I grew up as white in segregated Texas during the years of the Civil Rights Movement, and then lived in Washington, D.C., for many years, primarily in African American neighborhoods. I thought I had a good grip on everything there is to know about race in the U.S.

But as it turned out, there were some large gaps in my knowledge, particularly about the construction of the idea of the white race over the years. Painter introduces us to “the earliest known human classification scheme,” developed by Francois Bernier, a physician, and published in 1684. It classed people as Europeans (in which he included American Indians); the people of sub-Saharan Africa; the Russians and most Asians; and alone in the last category, the Lapps. “It was really no odder than the thousands of other racial schemes to follow,” Painter says.

No odder, really, than the one we were all taught in school that divided us into Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid and was rather fuzzy on where various people – such as the Native Americans or indigenous Australians – actually fit in that taxonomy. (I was always confused by the distinctions.) In between those two definitions were any number of pseudo-scientific racial delineations, all of them putting some definition of “white” at the top.

Painter’s look at Ralph Waldo Emerson – an abolitionist considered the foremost intellectual of his day – and his obsession with being Saxon has apparently generated some controversy among those who revere Emerson. But her detailed discussion of his work in this area rings true to me, perhaps because I know far too many white people who oppose discrimination politically and yet do not really believe African Americans, Latin American immigrants, or others deemed nonwhite are intellectually their equals.

For Emerson, Saxon meant English – he apparently also rejected Germans – and it specifically did not include the Irish, who were often considered subhuman. By the latter half of the 19th Century, Painter writes, drawing on her reading of Emerson along with Thomas Carlyle, “The Anglo-Saxon myth of racial superiority now permeated concepts of race in the United States and virtually throughout the English-speaking world. To be American was to be Saxon.”

One point Painter makes that haunts me is that the white ideal of beauty for women came from white women slaves. “[T]he luxury slaves, those valued for sex and gendered as female – the Circassians, Georgians, and Caucasians of the Black Sea region – came to figure as epitomes of human beauty.” If feminine beauty is defined not just by a particular shape of the face and skin color – leaving out all who do not qualify on those grounds – but also by the inherently powerless person of the slave, no wonder even our current gender relationships are so confused. A powerful woman is inherently not beautiful.

The interrelationship between construction of gender and construction of race is not Painter’s primary point, but in scanning through the book for this review, I found those ideas leaping from the page. In her discussion of Emerson’s work, she observes, “Alongside the Saxons, all others are lesser, gendered, and, by default, female.” It appears to be difficult to separate the construction of the white race from the construction of the white man.

A large portion of the book is devoted to what Painter calls the “enlargement” of American whiteness. Those periods of enlargement also include times of vicious attacks on those considered less than white, particularly immigrants. One cannot read her discussion of the Know-Nothings, the virulently anti-Irish and anti-Catholic movement founded in 1850, without seeing the parallels with today’s Tea Party movement, anti-Islamic crusades, and anti-immigrant efforts currently directed primarily at immigrants from Mexico and Central America and expressed most blatantly in Arizona’s recent laws on checking citizenship status.

The Know-Nothings themselves did not last long as a group – they splintered over slavery as the Civil War came upon the country – but their ideas pop up in various anti-immigrant and nativist movements of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, when immigration to the U.S. from Europe was at its height. It is these sections on immigration that give force to Painter’s thesis that white in that period was not simply white versus black, but native born Americans of Anglo-Saxon descent against those from the rest of the world. As Painter notes, in the 1950s even the reviled members of the Communist Party took English-sounding names – Gus Hall, of Finnish heritage, was originally named Avro Halberg – and “the CP’s worker iconography gave the American worker a Nordic face and a tall, muscular body.”

The enlargement of whiteness to include these others of European heritage was built in part on the discrimination against blacks very familiar to those of us who grew up during the years of the Civil Rights Movement. “With real American identity coded according to race, being a real American often meant joining antiblack racism and seeing oneself as white against the blacks,” Painter writes.

And while the idea of race in the U.S. has now expanded to include some African Americans, along with many others once considered less than “white,” Painter harbors no illusions about the end of racism. She ends the book with this observation: “Nonetheless, 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.”

In a country in which the gap between the haves and have-nots is growing by leaps and bounds, superior whiteness as a concept is not yet on its way out. I find myself wondering if eventually we will have a reduction in whiteness in which impoverished whites will become non-white in the same way economically successful blacks have become white. In some ways, one could argue that such a shift has already happened, except in the racist rhetoric used to keep poor people separated by race and ethnicity so that they will not unite.

But while the politics of today may echo the Know-Nothings, the science and history have improved markedly. The clear voices of scholars like Painter who can parse the history and make it readable for the lay person can give us the tools to undermine the racism that endures. But don’t hold your breath waiting for it to disappear.

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The History of White People — 2 Comments

  1. The shifting of ‘whiteness’ is visible if you read widely. In LITTLE WOMEN the Germans are pitiable objects. Marmee and Beth give them soup and mittens; Professor Bhaer is a refugee scraping a living and Jo is clearly marrying beneath herself. You can watch ethnic groups come in, be denigrated, and gradually climb up into ‘whiteness’. It’s particularly fun to watch Asians do this, in our time — a lot of top colleges have had to set up a quiet quota system otherwise Harvard and Stanford would be solidly Asians. I have told my kids (exactly 50-50 Asian-American) to play the system, and reallocate their ethnicity if it’s convenient. Be white when you apply to Yale, be Asian when you apply to get onto Worldcon program.

  2. [ ” In a country in which the gap between the haves and have-nots is growing by leaps and bounds, superior whiteness as a concept is not yet on its way out. I find myself wondering if eventually we will have a reduction in whiteness in which impoverished whites will become non-white in the same way economically successful blacks have become white. In some ways, one could argue that such a shift has already happened, except in the racist rhetoric used to keep poor people separated by race and ethnicity so that they will not unite. ” ]

    As you say, in the political realm, this will never happen, at least as long as most people holding office are white. Setting white MEN against everyone else has been the primary political tool since the days of colonization, when we invented ‘race’. However, one can see how deep already we are in the white MEN doesn’t include women — unless, um, when voting.

    As far as the value of white-skinned sex slaves, see the history of fancy girls in the luxury sex trade of New Orleans, and to a lesser degree, Lexington KY. They were far to expensive to exist as an actual separate market anywhere else in the US, though that would likely have changed soon if the slave markets hadn’t been destroyed by the slave power’s war of the rebellion.