Review of The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter
The History of White People
by Nell Irvin Painter
This is a small thing, but I feel like it’s rare these days for a non-fiction book to lack a subtitle. The History of White People is minimalist in this sense: the title says it all. So too does the cover of my edition: pure white with a black circle in the centre containing the title and author in white block letters; nothing else on the front cover, blurbs pushed to the back and even to the spine. Between these covers, however, is a book that is far from minimalist. Historian Nell Irvin Painter has clearly Done the Research necessary to present a truly detailed, monumental look at the history of whiteness as a concept, an identity, a label. If you have questions about white people, this book probably has answers.
I can’t really summarize this book because it is so information dense. It’s more textbook than summer-read-on-the-deck, more reference read than cover-to-cover read. I learned a lot from it, but I’ll probably forget a lot too—and that’s fine. Just know going in that while this isn’t what I would term inaccessible, it is definitely quite academic.
Basically, Painter begins in ancient Greece and Rome and expands outwards from there as she takes along the timeline to the modern era. Along the way, she examines who counted as “white.” She explains the origins of the term Caucasian and its synonym with whiteness. She affirms that whiteness is a racial identity, yes, but also an economic one. That is to say that the scope of whiteness conveniently enlarges or contracts in order to further the economic gains of those in power. As Rome enlarged, so too did the definition of whiteness. Later, as Painter moves forward through the medieval period into the Renaissance and Enlightenment, we see how various thinkers in England and the Continent diverged in how they understood races and whiteness. Painter then moves focus to America, and the bulk of the final third of the book focuses on how American thinkers (including, notably, Ralph Waldo Emerson whom I wasn’t aware was so regarded a race scholar) enlarged whiteness.
This is a book that is exactly what it claims to be: it’s about race, but it’s about white people. I think we are—at least, I am—used to discussing race by focusing on non-white people. By placing the focus squarely on white people defining whiteness, Painter reminds us that our discussions of race invariably centre whiteness by assuming it is normative and non-white people are “racialized.” For this reason, Painter obviously discusses things like the American enslavement of Black people, yet she devotes less time to that than one might expect in a book about race. As she notes in her introduction, this is because there are literally libraries’ worth of books about African American history, inevitably a history that deals intimately with enslavement. In The History of White People, Painter is more interested in understanding how whiteness operates.
Painter is very careful here, and I am trying to be similarly careful in the language I use. Neither of us mean to suggest there is such a thing as a “white race” any more than the idea that all Black people belong to a “Black race” (or whatever label you want to use). Part of Painter’s overall thesis is that whiteness is a mutable, permeable label rather than a hard-and-fast biological, genetic, or even social construct. In this way, Painter seeks to undermine any hope of white supremacists to claim that there is a historical or scientific basis for whiteness-as-race, whiteness-as-national-identity, etc.
Sometimes the ways in which Painter addresses this ideas are surprising. Early in the book, Painter stresses that across the past two millennia of European history, the majority of enslaved people have been what we nowadays would consider white people. This is not meant to diminish the atrocities of later colonial enslavement. Rather, Painter seeks to establish the economic origin of slavery—that is to say, enslavement came first as a means of profit-making, and the racialized connotations of enslavement in the 17th century emerged later as justification for the institutionalization of enslavement in a society that otherwise prides itself on liberty. Racism and ideas of racial superiority, then, are ultimately a form of cognitive dissonance, a house of cards from which oppressive systems can be built.
Similarly, when Painter arrives to the American era, she focuses a lot on the oppression of the Irish. This is a common talking about that white people use when they want to diminish the history of Black enslavement in the States; people love to claim Irish ancestry and talk about how their ancestors were slaves too. Yes and no, Painter says, because of course it’s far more nuanced. By actually referring to primary sources (shocking, I know), Painter helps us ground this oppression in the context of British colonialism and the fluctuating American attitudes towards immigration. I know those white people who would say, “But what about the Irish?” aren’t the people who would read this book, but they should be.
I’ll stop short of recommending this book to everyone, because honestly it is a slog. It took me so long mostly because I was busy with work while reading it, but it is also a very dense book. I consider this only a plus, however, because this book is loaded with great research and sources. My overall takeaway actually emerged early in my reading: Painter reminds me of how complex, how dense our history really is. No matter how much you study, no matter how much you think you know about these concepts, there is always more to learn, deeper to go. When I first started The History of White People, I thought I had a good comprehension of how modern concepts of race emerged. Indeed, Painter affirms a lot of what I thought I understood—but she goes so much deeper, making connections I never would have heard of otherwise, such as between Emerson and transcendentalism.
So this book reminds me to be humble. I love learning and love passing on my knowledge to others. But I also want to acknowledge that there is always more learning for me to do. I wish more people, especially people on the Internet, would recognize this instead of holding forth on everything as if they are the last word on that subject. I don’t debate with people on these types of topics on Twitter, for instance, because there is no way to squeeze this nuance into tweets. Instead, I’m going to spend my time reading more intense, interesting, edifying books like this.