Elaine's Reviews > The History of White People

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter
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Apr 19, 10

Recommended for: all racists & interested others
Read in April, 2010

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 people who actually are white. That is, it could indicate an assumption that whiteness is not in doubt as a category, and there are white people and they have a history different from people who aren't white.

To some extent, all of these meanings of "white" make an appearance in the book, although Painter clearly shows that being white is not an inherent category, except for Nordic people. Different ethnic groups in America, such as the Jews and the Italians, have been thought of as not being white, especially in the early days of immigration from Europe. As they assimilated culturally, however, their status changed to being white. This is a very different matter than the racial category of African Americans and Orientals who are differentiated from whites no matter how assimilated they become to the dominant culture. The fact that Jews and Italians miraculously became "white" in a generation or two, but the others can't be "white" ever, indicates that the concept of being white racially is different from being white socially. At least it does to me.

Painter starts out by noting that the Romans had no word for race in Latin. They spoke of the Barbarians as belonging to tribes. The problem with her long disquisition of this phenomenon is that (1) she doesn't define what race means and (2) she doesn't define what tribe meant to the Romans.

In all languages, words are polysemous, which means that most words have several meanings. This poses a problem in translation because a word that one uses to translate one meaning in one's language, will also have other meanings that the languages don't share. As she describes how the Romans viewed tribes, it becomes apparent that they ascribed physical and mental characteristics as inherent in each tribe. No, they didn't call themselves white, nor did they call anybody else white (or so Painter says.) However, going by her descriptions, and my own understanding of the many things that the word race can mean, the Romans were using a word that we translate as tribe in the same way that English speakers use the word race. If whiteness wasn't a criterion for the Romans, that doesn't mean that they didn't believe in the category of an inherent, genetic set of physical and mental traits amongst different groups.

In other words, they believed in race as a discriminator between peoples. The Romans being Mediterranean were, in the main, darker skinned than the Norsemen and many Celts, so they certainly wouldn't have thought of skin lighter than theirs as a mark of superiority. She doesn't mention if the Romans were familiar with the much darker skin colorings of some Africans. Since the Romans did go to Egypt, I presume they must have at least seen Nubians, but Painter doesn't say what Romans thought of Nubians in terms of color. Maybe there is no record of that. In any event, the Romans did mention the complexions of various tribes, but color itself seems to have been only one possible factor in ranking people intellectually or otherwise. Often it didn't count at all.

It certainly had nothing to do with slaves. The Romans and many other peoples of the time had numerous slaves and those slaves were not African. In fact, Greek slaves in Rome actually were in charge of educating the Romans. Painter dwells on the fact that slaves throughout history were "white." This was true even in America with indentured servants from the British Isles who were often very blond.

Painter devotes much of the book to the slipperiness and vagueness of the notion of race. Certainly, it has meant very different things at different times in the history of English. In the 18th and 19th centuries, that term was used to indicate cultural differences, so that people spoke of the French race, the German race, the Russian race, the Norwegian race, and so on. In the 20th Century, speaking of the Jewish race was not only common, but tragic. Most Americans today, when speaking of race mean African Americans as contrasted with the white race. I just filled out the US census form. I don't recall it using the word race, but it did ask you to check off Caucasian, Hispanic, African American, Native American, or Oriental (I think those were the categories.) I know on college applications, they also had "Pacific Islanders." There is no definition of any of these terms on any form. I don't know if the government has any criteria which it uses to define those groups, nor if anthropologists have come up with any such definitions. Actually, so far as I know, they haven't come close.

In short, I agree with most of what Painter says. Little of it is original, at least to a social scientist. She is very sloppy in her terminology, which is partially a result of the sloppiness of the words white, when used to designate people, and the word race. As a scholar, however, she should have made very clear her own definitions of these terms. That she didn't causes a great many questions to be raised about her conclusions.

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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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Elaine I don't question that the Romans didn't think of themselves as white. I noted that skin color did not seem to be a criterion for the Romans. I agree that race is a social construct. It has also been used--and is being used--as a scholarly criterion.

All books are subject to negative as well as positive reviews. And all commentators can agree or disagree with the review. I haven't looked at this book for a few months, but I recall that it bothered me that she didn't make it clear enough that the concept of race is a fiction (in my "roundly misdirected" opinion.)


message 2: by Evan (new)

Evan Elaine, you're so bold and that's why you're often a lightning rod for people who disagree in what might charitably be called a less than gracious manner. Frankly, I have little idea what this book is about from reading your review, from your critic's rebuttal of your review, and from your response to that. But I do bristle at the disrespectful, condescending tone of your debater and would be disinclined to thus take her POV very seriously. That and the fact that she gives that piece of garbage, The Reader, five stars and Nabokov's Lolita one. And because she won't show her face on her profile, preferring rather to be an anonymous keyboard commando, a position from which it is easy to snipe. Bafflement also attends the fact that she is dedicating so much heat in reaction to your review instead of actually penning her own; since--if she believes reviews will affect book sales--she should thus have written one herself. You should take it as a compliment that she believes your opinion is so widely sought after that sales of the book would suffer as a result. I think anyone inclined to look into the subject would buy the book or check it out, regardless.


Elaine Hi Evan,

Thanks for the good words. I wasn't upset by her rather incoherent diatribe. I love your observation that it's a compliment to me that my "opinion is so sought after the sales of the book would suffer as a result." I found her comment amusing, actually. I also found her dissing my writing in the review childish. I felt like responding, "And my feet smell and I don't love Jesus," (no disrespect to Jesus--I'd say it only to show how off the wall she was.) This is not the first time I've been roasted in print. You should see the reviews on Amazon for the book The 10,000 Year Revolution. The authors ganged up on me--although I liked their book and gave it a good review. However, I dared to correct one of their mistaken notions.


message 4: by Evan (new)

Evan Thanks Elaine, and you're welcome. I think another thing I admire about you is your thick skin, which is something I could develop by learning from your example. Be well. -e

Elaine wrote: "Hi Evan,

Thanks for the good words. I wasn't upset by her rather incoherent diatribe. I love your observation that it's a compliment to me that my "opinion is so sought after the sales of the boo..."



Elaine Actually, I'm a vat filled with self-doubts and secret fears that I'll be exposed as a fraud. Seriously, if I am proven wrong, I immediately admit it. I don't find it a shame to be wrong at times. However, that review didn't answer my valid criticism that the author didn't define her categories. That is a grave error in the social sciences. She used terms like whiteness very loosely. I actually agree with her major conclusions: race and color are both social constructs and carry social rewards and punishments.

I'm not all that thick-skinned. When I think I've hurt someone, I feel it immediately and seek forgiveness, realizing that I can be blunt.


message 6: by Evan (new)

Evan Well, I think you let things roll off better than I do. Still, I'm getting better at being less knee-jerk, but sometimes it's just fun to be in a good scrap.


message 7: by Travelin (last edited Dec 26, 2014 07:56AM) (new) - added it

Travelin Am adding this to my TBR. I also think the Romans would have had visual representations of race. Although it would have been impossible to define race by her and your view, it would have much more interesting to show all the approximate definitions and how none of them worked, as potentially dangerous as an exercise that is. I've just read that white supremacist groups in Sweden have brought back the practice of measuring people's heads.


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