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The History of White People – Nell Irvin Painter

Nell Irvin Painter is a professor at Princeton who has written several books. Her most recent foray is entitled “The History of White People“. and examination of the changing definition of whiteness starting with the Greeks through today.

Nell Irvin Painter's New Book - "The History of White People"

A sample of the book can be read here. It is available through Amazon Books. In America, we have seen this metamorphosis from “not white” to white as each successive generation of immigrants, starting with the Irish prior to the Civil War fought for their place in America – and eventually were rewarded with “whiteness”. The last major group to successfully make the transition in the American context being Jewish people.  Asians appear to be the leading non-white group which are in “transition” based on the Model Minority stereotype.

So how does this impact the racial dynamic in “Post-racial” America?

History reveals multiple classifications of whites, ranked by power, privilege, and physical characteristics

Race, Nell Irvin Painter writes, “is an idea, not a fact.’’ Painter, a professor of history at Princeton, has written several books chronicling African-American history, but the story she tells here mostly sidesteps the dichotomy of black and white. This terrific new book spins a less familiar narrative: the “notion of American whiteness,’’ an idea as dangerous as it is seductive.

Painter’s tale begins in the ancient world, where Greeks and Romans wrote about the mysterious, warlike people they encountered to the west and north. In antiquity there was no notion of race — what mattered was geography, language, culture, clan. The tribes living in what is now Georgia and Ukraine were called Scythians by the Greeks, whose great historian Herodotus described them as being fond of hemp and not in the habit of regular bathing. Romans ventured even farther west, meeting and conquering people they classified as Celts, Gauls, and Germani (the classifications morphed over time, as racial categories always do). Roman observers found much to admire in these men, ancestors of today’s Germans; in writings later embraced by race scientists (and then by Nazis), Tacitus praised them as “a distinct and pure people’’ with “fierce blue eyes, tawny hair, bodies that are big but strong only in attack.’’

Professor Nell Irvin Painter

The violence of ancient white peoples, lauded by the Greeks and Romans, was also attractive to those who claimed them as ancestors. Ralph Waldo Emerson, father of American transcendentalism, saw himself as a son of these Saxons (who, in the goofy myth-making this book so ably mocks, were said to spring from Germany and Scandinavia but bestowed their manly beauty and superiority on American whites by way of the early English settlers). In his 1856 book “English Traits,’’ Emerson writes of the qualities passed on by such virile white stock, including “good sense, steadiness, wise speech, and prompt action,’’ but also “a singular turn for homicide.’’ Strangely, he means this as a compliment, though observers from different backgrounds saw the same quality less favorably. Black Bostonian David Walker, in his famous Appeal of 1829, pointed out that “whites have always been an unjust, jealous, unmerciful, avaricious and blood-thirsty set of beings, always seeking after power and authority.’’ Painter avoids taking sides, but she wields a withering deadpan when delivering such quotes. Read the rest of this entry »


Posted by on March 21, 2010 in Black History, The Post-Racial Life


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