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Book review: The History of White People

12 Sep 2010


Nell Painter (Photo credit: Robin Holland)

"Most Americans envision whiteness as racially indivisible, though ethnically divided; this is the scheme anthropologists laid out in the mid 20th Century. By this reckoning, there were only three real races (Mongoloid, Negroid and Caucasoid) but countless ethnicities. Today, however, biologists and geneticists no longer believe in the physical existence of races—though they recognize the continuing power of racism (the belief that races exist, and that some are better than others)...

Although science today denies race any standing as objective truth, and the U.S. censes faces taxonomic meltdown, many Americans cling to race as the unschooled cling to superstition. So long as racial discrimination remains a fact of life and statistics can be arranged to support racial difference, the American belief in race will endure.

But confronted with the actually existing American population—its distribution of wealth, power and beauty—the notion of American whiteness will continue to evolve, as it has since the creation of the American Republic.”
- Excerpted from the Introduction (pages xi-xii)

A quarter century ago, comedian Martin Mull published “The History of White People in America” a book which took a lighthearted look at the contributions of Caucasians to this society. The droll humorist even served as the host for a made-for-TV adaptation of the popular best-seller, a tongue-in-cheek mockumentary starring Steve Martin, Harry Shearer and Fred Willard.

As might be expected, Nell Irvin Painter’s version of “The History of White People” tackles the same subject-matter, only in the deadly-serious, methodical and academic fashion expected of a Princeton University professor who also happens to be African-American. Weighing-in at 500+ pages, her informative, encyclopedic opus ponders whether white people even belong to a separate race, which one might presume to be the case, judging by this country’s long legacy of a strictly-enforced color line.

But the author’s examination of the history of Western Civilization from ancient Greece and Rome to the present reveals the emergence of “whiteness” to be a relatively-recent phenomenon, having only really caught hold as a viable philosophy in the 1700s in the wake of a Germanic propagating the notion of Caucasian features as the epitome of beauty. Professor Painter’s persuasive thesis that there is only one race, the human race, rests on evidence unearthed in recent years by the Genome Project. Yet, in spite of conclusive scientific proof, we see that the arbitrary, artificial construct of race tends to persist, even if undergoing alterations in accordance with dictates of ever-evolving cultural mores to a certain degree.

If there is any hope in finally making racism obsolete once and for all, it rests in the widespread embrace of the sort of sensible conclusions upon which Nell Painter’s monumental research and scholarship were based.

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