Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The History of White People” as Want to Read:
The History of White People
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

The History of White People

3.90  ·  Rating Details  ·  990 Ratings  ·  176 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
Hardcover, 512 pages
Published March 15th 2010 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published January 1st 2010)
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The History of White People, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about The History of White People

Bloodlines by Lindsay Anne KendalEven the Dogs by Jon McGregorThe History of White People by Nell Irvin PainterMidnight Sun by Stephenie MeyerShadowland by Alyson Noel
Can't Wait to Read That One
3rd out of 43 books — 47 voters
The New Jim Crow by Michelle AlexanderBeloved by Toni MorrisonBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi CoatesKindred by Octavia E. ButlerThe Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
18th out of 183 books — 66 voters

More lists with this book...

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
filter  |  sort: default (?)  |  Rating Details
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,
Vannessa Anderson
Oct 18, 2014 Vannessa Anderson rated it it was amazing
From the book

Can the average man win political office without the backing of Superpacs?

Does poor=slaves and rich=masters

The many ways slavery can be identified today.

―minimum wage
―religious fighting to force their values on others
―inability to get a fair trail
―The rich making rules for the non-rich
―Men’s attitudes concerning women

Author Nell Irvin Painter did an extraordinary job in researching The History of White People from Antiquity to the present. The History of White People show
Jul 15, 2012 Tam rated it it was amazing
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
Apr 02, 2010 Bruce rated it it was ok
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
Amy L. Campbell
May 16, 2010 Amy L. Campbell rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 22, 2010 Courtney rated it really liked it
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
Jan 02, 2011 Kathleen rated it really liked it
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
Lorelei Yang
Feb 24, 2011 Lorelei Yang rated it it was amazing
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
Apr 19, 2010 Elaine rated it liked it
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
Jun 09, 2010 Jennifer rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
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
John Kammeyer-mueller
Dec 31, 2013 John Kammeyer-mueller rated it it was amazing
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
Raul Sanchez
Jun 09, 2012 Raul Sanchez rated it it was amazing
"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
Mar 19, 2016 Bianca rated it it was amazing
Nell Irvin Painter‘s most recent text, The History of White People, dives deeply into the concept of race. With a solid foundation in the research, Painter attempts to find out when, why, where (and by who) humans began differentiating themselves by skin color. It felt more like a journey than anything else: Painter cuddled me into a time machine that dated back to Ancient Greece where it is confirmed that human beings were (once upon a time) identified solely based off of geographical location ...more
Oct 28, 2015 Chris rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
I'd picked up Painter expecting, in retrospect, something more of a timeline of social movements and attitudes. Like, say, Irish people became White in 1920, Jews in 1950. Instead, it's an intellectual history of the U.S./American idea of whiteness, with a prologue on ancient attitudes toward the Circassian or Caucasian "types" as a grounding for modern race theory. The archive Painter is working from, full of French and German and New England aristocrats holding forth on the value of good breed ...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
Mar 22, 2014 Andre rated it really liked it
"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
Jul 13, 2011 Krista rated it liked it
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
Bastian Greshake
Jun 30, 2014 Bastian Greshake rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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
An important read. This book was dense. Sometimes, I got bored. Mostly, though, I was totally enraptured by Painter's clear - and frequently, pointedly sardonic - layout of the history of the construction of whiteness. What always grabs me about historical non-fiction is seeing clear patterns play out in history, that are playing out in exactly the same way today, with very little current awareness that it has happened before. This book is a testament to the powerful tropes of racist thought con ...more
Aaron Culley
Mar 01, 2012 Aaron Culley rated it it was amazing
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
Aug 13, 2015 Chris rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very interesting book about how arbitrary the term "whiteness" is, and how it is specifically defined to give privileges for some people and not for others. Sometimes a history of how people got so wrong-headed is important in debunking these notions.
Robert Owen
May 04, 2016 Robert Owen rated it really liked it
Nell Irvin Painter’s “The History of White People” is a multi-millennial historical inquiry into the almost limitless human capacity to rationalize difference where none exists. Beginning with Herodotus and the Ancient Greeks through the European and American eugenicists of the early 20th century and sociologists of the mid-20th century, Painter explores the various arguments brought to forward by learned men (and women) to explain others who would seem to exist outside of one’s own relatable co ...more
Bethany Johnsen
Being personally a descendant of the Vikings (on my father's side) and conquistadors (maternally), on one fine autumn day in the fourteenth year of the postracial 21st century I decided to settle down with a glass of wine and have a nice reminisce about the glory days when my people still held the power in this country. Fellow Americans, I recommend you pick a stronger drink.

The book gets off to a bit of a slow start, talking at first about long forgotten times (antiquity, when skin color wasn't
Dec 05, 2010 Meg rated it really liked it
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
May 21, 2011 Rachel rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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
May 10, 2010 John rated it really liked it
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
Elliot Ratzman
Jun 21, 2011 Elliot Ratzman rated it liked it
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
Aug 29, 2014 David rated it really liked it
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
Queen Ifama
Feb 26, 2015 Queen Ifama rated it it was amazing
Very detailed trip back through history to determine origin of how white people actually began the GROUP called white people. It was a great read, I enjoyed the book.
Anna Graham Hunter
Jun 22, 2014 Anna Graham Hunter rated it really liked it
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
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 99 100 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »
  • How the Irish Became White
  • Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race
  • The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class
  • Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States
  • The Possessive Investment In Whiteness
  • The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism, and White Privilege
  • When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America
  • American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass
  • Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America
  • Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity
  • White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812
  • Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities
  • Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty
  • Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement
  • Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy
  • Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White
  • Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life
  • The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
Nell Irvin Painter is an American historian notable for her works on southern history of the nineteenth century. She is retired from Princeton University, and served as president of the Organization of American Historians. She also served as president of the Southern Historical Association.

She was born Nell Irvin to Dona and Frank E. Irvin, Sr. She had an older brother Frank who died young. Her fa
More about Nell Irvin Painter...

Share This Book

“This millennium of Venetian and Iberian hegemony barely appears in American white race history as it jelled over the past two hundred years. Rather, race-chauvinist history depends on Tacitus’s ancient Germani and medieval German heroes called Saxons. The race narrative ignores early European slavery and the mixing it entailed, leading today’s readers to find the idea of white slavery far-fetched. But in the land we now call Europe, most slaves were white, and that fact was unremarkable.” 0 likes
“It is still assumed, wrongly, that slavery anywhere in the world must rest on a foundation of racial difference. Time and again, the better classes have concluded that those people deserve their lot; it must be something within them that puts them at the bottom. In modern times, we recognize this kind of reasoning as it relates to black race, but in other times the same logic was applied to people who were white, especially when they were impoverished immigrants seeking work.” 0 likes
More quotes…