Review: The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter

So it’s been a while since I posted a review. Mostly because the book I’ve been reading was intense. But it was a good intense.

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. Skin is only skin deep, as it were. But the question remains: as skin color becomes less important as a marker, will we evolve past the fear of “them?” Or will we simply invent new ways to keep “us” divided? We can hope, but the hard work and the real change will come only from striving.


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