The History of White People
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The History of White People

3.82 of 5 stars 3.82  ·  rating details  ·  585 ratings  ·  129 reviews
A mind-expanding and myth-destroying exploration of “whiteness”—an illuminating work on the history of race and power.

Eminent historian Nell Irvin Painter tells perhaps the most important forgotten story in American history. Beginning at the roots of Western civilization, she traces the invention of the idea of a white race—often for economic, scientific, and political en...more
Hardcover, 496 pages
Published March 15th 2010 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published January 1st 2010)
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Fun Fact: When I typed in "History of White People" on Goodreads search, their first result was not this book, but the Book of Mormon. I am not making this up. Try it and see. Somebody should tell our Amazon overlords to fix the Search Engine.

The title is a provocation, and will cause many a stifled giggle or edgy remark in the bookstore. The author says right in the beginning introduction that "Constructions of White Americans from Antiquity to the Present" would be another more fitting title,...more
This is a very difficult review and probably I don't even have a business on doing it - I have no proper history or biology background nor a strong enough grasp to adequately provide solid arguments. This book actually left me with much more uncertainties than when I started - which I'm sure at least it's not a bad thing. It also covers LOTS of history in only 500 pages, which as my friend Philip says: "Feels like Game of thrones in fast-forward". On top of that, I'm sure depending on where you...more
Yikes -- I know, the title of this book sounds vaguely Nazi-ish, but it couldn't be further from that. Nell Painter is a professor at Princeton, and is a black woman. Her book covers the historical concept of "white" -- where it came from, who's been "in" and "out" of that category over the centuries, etc. Chances are, if you count as "white" in America in 2011, not all of your ancestors were -- over the course of the last couple of thousand years -- also "white" according to the thinking of the...more
As we all have been told, history should not be just one darned thing after another. I’ve seen this attributed to several in various contexts, including Arnold Toynbee and Edna St. Vincent Millay, who would have it worse, that it should be one darned thing over and over. Well, whoever said this needs to be told that such histories make for dull reading.

There are two kinds of histories I like. The first presents a single story in one, big, sweeping, inevitable arc. The second sort presents itself...more
Do you think you're white? If your ancestors came from the western side of the British Isles, France, Spain, or southern Germany, little more than a century ago you would not have been considered white. Irish? Italian? Jewish? Most definitely not. African-American? Asian? Native American? Off the charts and beyond consideration. Painter documents centuries of scientific inquiry--measuring skull size and shape, eugenics and social Darwinism, intelligence testing, all of which were bent to confirm...more
This book really ought to be called "The Construction of Race in America," but a bold title like "The History of White People" is catchier - heck, I checked out the book.

Author Nell Irvin Painter starts with a very quick survey of pre-American concepts of race in Europe. Romans didn't classify people by skin color, but rather by tribe and region, we learn. As mainstream European views evolved for several centuries, they often fixated on groups of people, but rarely with a concept of "race" like...more
Race is a social, not a scientific, construct. This book is the most thorough exploration of how it came about beginning with classic Greek and Roman thoughts on the subject and proceeding through history to the modern day. Particularly fascinating are the various ways in which the desirable race--not just white but initially Germanic, Anglo-Saxon, or Nordic--has been enlarged in various stages to include some so that others might be more forcibly excluded.

This is not an easy book to read, and i...more
John Kammeyer-mueller
This book is a fascinating account of the history of definitions of "whiteness," emphasizing the relatively recent orgin of a unified white race as a construct, and the fluid lines regarding who is or is not part of the white identity. Although written in an accessible style, Painter is an academic historian who cites her primary sources throughout the book, and the writing has a scholar's detatchment and factual tone throughout. As a historian, Painter does tend to avoid digging into the sociol...more
Lorelei Yang
As a policy debater, I've always enjoyed reading critical studies of race — and Painter's examination of "whiteness" is a great example of critical investigation into the assumptions that underlie the status quo. The History of White People provides a lot of interesting insight into what it means to be white and how being white has become accepted as an enshrined status quo good. It also leads us as as readers to wonder, "Is this how it will always be?"

Like any good book should, The History o...more
"And in the genetic sense all people-and all Americans-are African descended." P. 391
To recognize in 2014 that race was/is a social construct, does not take an abundance of mental capability. So perhaps the book is mis-titled, it is not a history of white people per se, but more a look at how the notion of whiteness became a symbol of power and privilege. To the author's credit she admits as much in her opening sentence, "I might have entitled this book Constructions of White Americans from Anti...more
Bastian Greshake
I'll just quote from the review of Jpablobr: I think the importance of this book is how it raises awareness on these social constructs that are causing a social decay and drifting us into wrong paths. Racial issues (in terms of white, brown, black) generate lots of tension (rightly so) that lead to many stereotypes and taboos limiting the proper discussion and study of the subject. For example, science has to deal with these racial sensitive issues where justifying the relevance of this differen...more
Apr 19, 2010 Elaine rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: all racists & interested others
This was very disappointing, especially since it came from the highly respected scholar Nell Irvin Painter. Whether she intended the ambiguity in the title or not, I don't know. The history of white people could mean a history chronicling the activities of people who thought of themselves as white, or of those who have been thought of as white. It also could mean that it's a history of the concept of "white" as an anthropological or social category. Or, it could mean that it is a history of peop...more
Amy L. Campbell
May 16, 2010 Amy L. Campbell rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: any one doing historical/social/etc work on race or social standing
Recommended to Amy L. by: Stephen Colbert (indirectly)
As someone who did historical research on the concept of perceived race and race perceptions regarding "whiteness," this is one of the most important and comprehensive books written on the subject in the last decade. Painter covers a broad historical range, but focuses mainly on American perceptions of whiteness. While I'm sure European perceptions have changed throughout time, America presents the ideal catalyst for changing perceptions of race, etc.

This book is filled to the brim with informa...more
What this actually is, is the history of conceptions of race, and the history of exclusion and inclusion as it pertains to the white race. There is lots of great information here, some of which I knew in part but here it is presented in lots more detail and is really fascinating. For example, why do we even call white people Caucasians? The Caucasus is a smallish region south of Russia near the black sea, seems an odd place to name all white people after. Well, apparently, in ancient history, li...more
When my kid was three, he came home from preschool and rattled on prosaically about a new friend who had just started school. Then he got poetic; his new friend wore a red shirt, had curly hair and his skin was colored with a different crayon.

That's all race is to my kid; a matter of pigment.

Nell Irvin Painter's book, boldly and sensationally entitled A History of White People makes this same point but with many (many) more words and a lot of history backing it up. Her main point seems to be "Wh...more
Elliot Ratzman
Race is a social construction not merely an index of skin color or biological essence. Being “white” is not something always obvious, and “white people” have a tortuous history. I try to unpack these claims to my students in my course “Race and Judaism”, often without lasting success. Whiteness is a long story, and this long book is evidence of that problem. One has to review the history of natural history, Western science of the last few centuries, 18th and 19th century novels and travel litera...more
Aaron Culley
Wow. This is an incredibly thorough and honest examination of how the concept of "race" has evolved throughout the history of Europe and the United States. As the title suggests, it focuses on "white people," in large part because they were the ones obsessed with trying to define and classify people into racial categories. It does a very thorough job of explaining why the concept of race has no scientific validity whatsoever (for example, documenting how various "race theorists" or attempts to c...more
Raul Ramos y Sanchez
"Race is an illusion. But racism is real." These words most closely capture the essence of this important book.

By tracing the ever-changing concept of race and "whiteness" through history, Painter unveils the tortured path that has led us to the irrational racial paradigm widely accepted in the U.S. of the 21st century.

For those who think White, Black, Asian and Hispanic are "races," this book is a must-read. Unfortunately, this includes the bulk of today's journalists, educators and media pro...more
Lauren Albert
While Painter's subject is ultimately race in America, she starts in ancient times and works through centuries of racial theory. I have to say that her sarcasms about some of the inane "race" theorists and theories are pretty gentle; I don't think I could have been so even tempered. But her overall portrait is balanced and fair. While I knew she was African-American (if one can use the term after her totally smashing of race theories!) from seeing her head shots on other books I've read, she cou...more
Jeannie Miernik
I had no idea Ralph Waldo Emerson was such a potty mouth! This was one of many enlightening historical facts dug up by Painter in her search for a definition of the "white" race concept through human history.

If the book was a little convoluted and hard to follow at times, filled with footnotes and tangents, its style accurately reflects the tangled, nonsensical thread of race as a social construct and racism throughout the past millennium of self-identified "civilized" or "white" thought.

The am...more
The book traces the changing idea of who is white. The idea changes over time and place. But mostly the idea of who is white is used as a weapon by those in power to deny those they feel are inferior similar rights. Terms such as "Caucasian" and "Anglo-saxon" are used almost interchangably today to refer to white looking people. But those terms in 19th and early 20th century held political power. Caucasian was a term of beauty. Anglo-saxon was a term reserved for those who felt a hereditary tie...more
Albeit a slightly sensationalist title, Painter's research reveals not so much the history of white people but the the history of the word "race". Starting with early European's fascination with Greek culture (not realizing Greeks had darker skin tones than the statues they left behind), various academics have attempted to show how certain people were superior to others. What's amazing as this unfolds is the amount of pseudo science used to prove the above (skull size, temperament, IQ testing) a...more
While the construction of race throughout history is a wildly interesting topic, Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People is poorly structured and, unfortunately, bland. Seek this topic elsewhere.
Jacob Frank
Interesting, but not particularly well-written. It was more like a collection of semi-connected facts than a cohesive argument.
Anna Graham Hunter
What did I learn in this overview of my people? Besides finally understanding how the term caucasian came to mean white, I learned the amazing and tortuous lengths to which pundits ("scientists," anthropologists, essayists) have gone to preserve the idea of whiteness and superiority. Just about every single one of "us" would have have been excluded at some point in history. Plus, I'm probably not going to read Herodotus anytime soon and certainly never Tacitus or Germaine de Stael or Goethe, so...more
Apr 25, 2012 Fauxmaux rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: history lovers, people who question race terms
Recommended to Fauxmaux by: saw it at Barnes and Noble
Shelves: history
Well, it was written for the "average Joe" so there are parts where it gets a little boring, esp. to those who know history. And the writing could have been better edited. It sorta jumped around.

BUT FINALLY! As a lover of human history and particularly sociology, finally, a book that not only defines the words "White and Black" as they are used today in common parlance but shows how slavery is nothing new (as continues to this day despite laws against it.)

Irish people may now pull their head of...more
An extremely thorough investigation into the history of white people applying racial classification theories to other white people. Really puts things into perspective - for example, check out this quote from Theodore Roosevelt:
"If all our nice friends in Beacon Street, and Newport, and Fifth Avenue, and Philadelphia, have one child, or no child at all, while all the Finnegans, Hooligans, Antonios, Mandelbaums and Rabinskis have eight, or nine, or ten - it's simply a question of the multiplicati...more
Ms. Painter's book covers an impressive range of recorded history (from ancient Greece through the Gilded Age and the Nation of Islam to the Human Genome Project) to just shy of 400 pages, highlighting the appalling arrogance and ignorance that led even the well-intentioned to separate people into "races." With a dizzying succession of scientists, writers, politicians, and philosophers she traces the initial appearance of the concept of "race" through its various iterations and up to the present...more
Pinter's history of race perceptions in Western Europe and the United States was an illuminating read, providing insights into current and past understandings of race, culture, and identity. Pinter begins her account with ancient Greeks and Romans, describing their historical account of other peoples they encountered as they stretched their empires. While hardly providing flattering descriptions of Asian and northern European tribes, the ancients' understanding of race was largely based on the c...more
Jun 21, 2011 Travis rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: 2011
This was an interesting book, but I often felt like I was slogging through a textbook trying to read it (especially the early chapters), so I kept setting it down and it actually took me several months to finally finish. I just didn't find the writing style engaging at all, otherwise I would probably have given it five stars.

But it was interesting, and I learned a lot of things about famous people of the past (none of them good) that I didn't know before. It was also interesting to see how littl...more
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