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

4.05  ·  Rating details ·  2,470 ratings  ·  396 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
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

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 4.05  · 
Rating details
 ·  2,470 ratings  ·  396 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of The History of White People
J.L.   Sutton
Nov 27, 2016 rated it really liked it
Painter outlines an evolving story of whiteness (and construction of race) from ancient Greece to the present. The historical depth of this account was interesting, but it was most compelling when the focus shifted to the New World, especially 19th and 20th century America. Painter convincingly ties whiteness to what it means (or meant) to be a real American. She also shows how this identity converges with religion, patriotism and politics. Recommended read!
Alok Vaid-Menon
Painter traces the intellectual history of whiteness with attention to how the socially constructed category of “race” comes into formation. This is a critical project, not just a US History syllabus. She shows how people fabricated the idea of race as a means to justify subordination: specifically, how a set of cultural stereotypes became solidified as fixed and then how these entrenched ideas of groups created even more stereotypes which further bolstered the idea of inherent difference betwee ...more
Like many other racists, Gobineau had seemingly mastered the multilingual contents of entire libraries to formulate a universal truth that energetic races, certainly the Aryan, create national greatness.

Preaching empire and racial cleansing in the name of science in National Life from the Standpoint of Science (1905), [Karl] Pearson said, "[M]y view—and I think it may be called the scientific view of a nation—is that of an organized whole, kept up to a high pitch of internal efficiency by in
Jan 02, 2011 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
Vagabond of Letters, DLitt
Aug 18, 2019 rated it did not like it
Shelves: dont-read
Imagine a White author writing 'The History of Black People', and you have the inverse of this book, if he were an ill-informed racist with a complete inability to use and weigh the literature and scholarly sources, unless those sources be of 'critical theory'. Not even just American blacks, but all blacks all over the world! The very attempt would be considered racist, and would in truth be terrible ethnography: that hypothetical author would examine American blacks (under the delusion that rac ...more
Lorelei Yang
Feb 24, 2011 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
Sep 22, 2010 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
Lady H
Sep 01, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-in-2017
This is a difficult book for me to accurately assess, since I am trying to be objective regarding the book's content while also expressing my disappointed expectations.

Objectively speaking, this book is a powerful scholarly work, a history of whiteness as determined by White Europeans. Painter delves into obscure European anthropological and sociological tomes on racial classification. This is part of why my interest started to wander; Painter spends way too much time on these European scholars
Jul 19, 2011 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
Vannessa Anderson
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 sho
Apr 19, 2010 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
Morgan Blackledge
Mar 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
The primary takeaway from The History of White People is that whiteness, and the entire construct of race, is like a really recent thing.

Of course I had heard this before, but for some reason, the gravity of this fact never really registered for me before reading this book.

That force of nature we call race, with whiteness at the center of the shit storm, is like a 100% made up thing, and not even that long ago.


This is not to say that difference isn't real, or that culture is trivial. No no
Mar 18, 2010 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history
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
May 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Patty by: william barber
“Evolutionary biologists now reckon that the six to seven billion people now living share the same small number of ancestors living two or three thousand years ago. These circumstances make nonsense of anybody’s pretensions to find a pure racial ancestry.”

I have had a really good reading year. I am, once again, mostly retired and my reading list shows this. I have not only had time to read, but time to concentrate on some tough subjects. My brain is willing to slow down and try to understand som
Amy L. Campbell
Mar 18, 2010 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
This book will cut the nonsense and open your eyes.

It’s not about the history of any people. It’s about the (completely boloney) ever evolving idea of “whiteness.” It’s a long, sad and occasionally ridiculous story about how privilege was handed out to the chosen. Apparently, there was a time when pale-skinned Irish people were not considered “white.”

It’s an idea that needs to be trashed as soon as possible.
Jun 09, 2010 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
Raul Ramos y Sanchez
Mar 02, 2012 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 28, 2010 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
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
Justin Evans
Mar 09, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: history-etc
My reading experience was DESTROYED by the publicity for this book: from the title, which must have been imposed by an agent or editor, to the silly levels of praise ("mind-expanding and myth-destroying"). That's a shame, because the book is okay for what it is: a recounting of the various ways people have defined 'white people,' in America. Any time the book leaves America, it becomes tedious at best; the opening chapters on the ancients are unnecessary; the enormous chapter on de Stael is enti ...more
Jan 11, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Very interesting and readable history of how white as a race developed through time with a focus on the United States. Science played a larger role than I expected. And of course, in spite of the unscientific nature of all the "studies" and in spite of real evidence that contradicted everything, excuses and reasons were always found or the data that didn't work was just left out or dismissed. Really fascinating learning about how the Irish, who as Celts were not considered white, eventually beca ...more
Mar 18, 2014 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
Bianca Christine
Feb 10, 2016 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
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
Oct 02, 2014 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
May 10, 2013 rated it it was ok
I was disappointed. Fascinating topic, but the writing is very pedestrian and the content felt bland. Part of it may be that intellectual history is not my thing, but Painter also seemed to do a particularly clunky job of wedding her very detailed exegesis of what this or that writer or academic was saying about race in a certain time period with a few broad and unsatisfying paragraphs about what was going on in society at the same time. The footnotes were irritating, too - not quirky enough to ...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
Guinevere Norman
Aug 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Painter is very smart and I sped through this book and have a feeling I will need to go back through with a highlighter and a pen. There were so many excellent points and the evidence was all there! Why isn’t this a documentary?! I was most entertained by the beginning of the book and the outlay of how our understanding of the human races developed from understandings of antiquity, which revolved around the humors and the influence of home environment. Painter suggests things as absolute fact th ...more
Jared Gibson
Jan 19, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I ran across this one at a bookstore in Bloomington, IN. Had I read the first couple of pages instead of just the back cover, I would have known that it was going to be more of an academic read--or rather, an academic "listen." Yes, I listened to this one, and it was quite the challenge. Starting with ancient Greek historians, Nell Irvin Painter analyzes how they divide the people of their known world according to physical appearance and cultural habits. The two were (surprise, surprise) linked ...more
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »

Readers also enjoyed

  • Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery
  • No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age
  • My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Mending of Our Bodies and Hearts
  • The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment
  • The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America
  • Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us
  • When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America
  • Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States
  • Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own
  • Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul
  • Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals (Emergent Strategy)
  • Crippled: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People
  • Bigger Than Bernie: How We Go from the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism
  • Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law
  • Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story
  • The Balkans: A Short History
  • The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X
  • The Archaeology of Race in the Northeast
See similar books…
See top shelves…
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

Related Articles

You’d never know it from reading the books listed here, but good science writing is incredibly difficult to pull off. There is both an art...
103 likes · 7 comments
“Evolutionary biologists now reckon that the six to seven billion people now living share the same small number of ancestors living two or three thousand years ago. These circumstances make nonsense of anybody’s pretensions to find a pure racial ancestry.” 7 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.” 5 likes
More quotes…