Krista's Reviews > The History of White People

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter
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Jul 13, 11

Read in July, 2011

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 "What we can see depends on what our culture has trained us to look for." Hence race.

Slaves weren't always black, of course. Even the word "slave" comes from "slav" because after the plague wiped out most of Europe, those kind and generous Christian Crusaders (an oxymoron for the ages) enslaved unfortunates in the Balkans. The pilgrims, hailed as lovers of freedom, brought indentured servants with them; all white. The first US census didn't have a category for unfree white persons, though there were many. But the simple fact that "free" needed to be a qualifier for the other categories (free white males, free white females) alludes to the nonfree status of many whites who were still in servitude. Tracking the categories of each census probably makes for an interesting study (though Painter didn't not go into detail) about the genesis of race ideals in the United States. Then we eventually get to the idea that one is not white if one's blood is tainted. By the time Toqueville wrote Democracy in America this flight of odd fancy was fully developed; Toqueville's traveling partner, Beaumont, also wrote a book that pointed out some of the hypocrisy of enslaved peoples in a country where all men are created equals; "white Americans belong to a hereditary aristocracy by dint of a mythology driven by the notion of tainted blood and a belief in invisible ancestry."

Tracing the prejudice against immigrants is enlightening, too; our bad guys keep changing. Those nasty hispanics were considered "white" for many years while the American people were harping on about the Irish Catholic dregs muddying up the pool. Now Irish Catholics are perpetrating violence against hispanic immigrants. Interesting.

Then there's the idea of racial purity; in the 1850s, French aristocrat Gobineau wrote an essay about race that spoke warmly of racial mixing. "...Gobineau says quite clearly that Africans contribute positively to the mixture of races in prosperous metropolitan centers by offering Dionysian gifts such as passion, dance, music, rhythm, lightheartedness, and sensuality. Whites, for their part, contribute energy, action, perseverance, rationality, and technical aptitude." While Gobineau obviously sees whites as superior, they still need the contributions of other races to best develop civilization. Of course, Josiah Nott, who translated Gobineau's writings for distribution in English was denounced by Gobineau, as Nott took much of the positive language about nonwhite races out of the work.

Then there's anti-Semitism. And head measurements. And attempts to classify physical characteristics of each race. A whole rigamarole. Teddy Roosevelt freely spoke of "race suicide" and worried aloud about the declining birthrate among old-stock New Englanders. "If all our nice friends in Beacon Street, 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 multiplication table. How are you going to get away from it?"

But by the 1920s, race hysteria has become the sign of the weak-minded hypocrite; Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby goes on quite a tear about whites being the dominant race, based on writings that were considered gospel just a few years before. His tirade is met with winking flapper disdain; he is "nothing but a boor whose Nordic chauvinism signals his boorishness." And Irish Catholics were white and not a danger (using their intelligence to rock the system by actually voting and filling the government with people to lobby for their eventual inclusion as true Americans).

By the 1940s, the watchword was "cultural pluralism." Henry Ford and his melting pot ran parallel to this, the idea that "ethnic types" would become Anglo-Saxons by giving up talismans of their culture and identity like language, clothing and food. He even had a program at his engineered-society-car-manufacturing-plant where the ethnics would wear their native clothing and walk up stairs towards a huge paper-mache melting pot. They would come out the other side in American clothing, waving American flags. Reeducation at its finest.

Notice Asians aren't even in the picture yet? Yeah. They were worse than blacks. Until the 1960s; now they are considered smarter and richer than native-born American whites.

And that's not even scratching the surface of what Painter is trying to convey. Her subject is a big one and impossible to encapsulate in 400 pages. Her lines of reasoning could also use a clearer sense of beginning, middle and end. She structures her book chronologically and because she tried to cover so much information, points were potentially lost. For example, she introduced Gobineau and Nott and then left them. By the time she returned to Gobineau (to make the point that it was he that developed the word "Aryan" and it was another, more faithful translation that inspired the Nazis to adopt the term) you had forgotten who Gobineau was ... a chapter on Gobineau and how he was interpreted through time would have been more helpful.

And perhaps the whole book might have been structured that way; a chapter on the genesis of Irish Catholics. A chapter on Jews in America. Etc.

But, overall, a thoughtful book worth reading.

Or you could just read the following sentences and get the gist; "Incessant human migration has made us all multiracial. 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."
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