- The History of White People
Racial theorists from Johann Friedrich Blumenbach in the late 1700s to the eugenicists of the twentieth century measured and classified the races of man, invariably demonstrating that the white races were more beautiful, intelligent, and superior than all other people. Thus, there is something deliciously subversive about Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People. As an African American scholar, Painter turns the tables on these long-dead white race scientists in her readable and engaging work. While “whiteness” theory has produced dozens of monographs in the last two decades, few have found an audience outside academia, and no one has attempted a synthesis. That may all change with Painter’s new and important contribution to our [End Page 716] understanding of race, but specialists in whiteness studies or the history of race will not find many new insights.
Being white conferred citizenship and status, defining who was truly an American. Scholars of race and racial theory, however, had long overlooked this obvious fact. Only in the 1990s did they begin to demonstrate how whiteness was a social construct, its membership flexible and ever-changing as formerly nonwhite groups were able to claim whiteness—and its privileges—for themselves. The origins of whiteness theory, however, stem from Winthrop Jordan’s seminal 1968 work White over Black. Jordan looked at how African Americans came to be defined by their blackness and how being black relegated them to an inferior position in American society.
A generation later scholars began to look at the white side of Jordan’s racial equation. Barbara J. Fields in a 1982 essay titled “Ideology and Race in American History” (in Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward) argued that race was socially constructed and not based in genetics, an idea that soon took hold among scholars. Noel Ignatiev (How the Irish Became White, 1995) and David Roediger (The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, 1991) led efforts to show how white racial identity was indeed conditioned by culture. Following these pioneering works, scholars have searched for whiteness among orphaned children in Arizona (Linda Gordon’s Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, 1999), among rural, lower-class whites (Matt Wray’s Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness, 2006), in popular culture (Linda Frost’s Never One Nation: Freaks, Savages, and Whiteness in U.S. Popular Culture, 1850–1877 in 2005), and in the court system as demonstrated by Ian Haney López in White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race (1996) and Ariela J. Gross’s What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America (2008). These are but a few examples.
Painter notes that she “might have entitled this book Constructions of White Americans from Antiquity to the Present” (p. ix). Indeed, her gaze is long, beginning with the ancient Greeks and ending with the Obama presidency, and her focus is squarely on the American scene. Painter’s goals are to show the long and often contradictory development of white racial identity and demonstrate the ways in which “the meanings of the white race reach into concepts of labor, gender, and class and images of personal beauty that seldom appear in analyses of race” (p. xi). She succeeds on both counts.
Her first eight chapters set the stage for American views on race by tracing the gradual development of racial consciousness from antiquity to the Enlightenment. The ancient Greeks did not see the world [End Page 717] through the lens of race, preferring to categorize people based on the physical and environmental attributes of their homelands. Hot climates produced languid peoples; colder climates produced stronger and more vigorous peoples. The Greeks, however, had a limited knowledge of the distant tribes beyond their borders and it was not until the rise of Rome that rumored tribes were finally encountered and named: the Celts, the Germani, the Gauls, and so on. Romans like Julius Caesar and Tacitus admired these...