The History of White People
Overview - Our story begins in Greek and Roman antiquity, where the concept of race did not exist, only geography and the opportunity to conquer and enslave others. Not until the eighteenth century did an obsession with whiteness flourish, with the German invention of the notion of Caucasian beauty. Read more...
More About The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter
Our story begins in Greek and Roman antiquity, where the concept of race did not exist, only geography and the opportunity to conquer and enslave others. Not until the eighteenth century did an obsession with whiteness flourish, with the German invention of the notion of Caucasian beauty. This theory made northern Europeans into "Saxons," "Anglo-Saxons," and "Teutons," envisioned as uniquely handsome natural rulers Here was a worldview congenial to northern Europeans bent on empire. There followed an explosion of theories of race, now focusing on racial temperament as well as skin color. Spread by such intellectuals as Madame de Stael and Thomas Carlyle, white race theory soon reached North America with a vengeance. Its chief spokesman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, did the most to label Anglo-Saxons--icons of beauty and virtue--as the only true Americans. It was an ideal that excluded not only blacks but also all ethnic groups not of Protestant, northern European background. The Irish and Native Americans were out and, later, so were the Chinese, Jews, Italians, Slavs, and Greeks--all deemed racially alien. Did immigrations threaten the very existence of America? Americans were assumed to be white, but who among poor immigrants could become truly American? A tortured and convoluted series of scientific explorations developed--theories intended to keep Anglo-Saxons at the top: the ever-popular measurement of skulls, the powerful eugenics movement, and highly biased intelligence tests--all designed to keep working people out and down As Painter reveals, power--supported by economics, science, and politics--continued to drive exclusionary notions of whiteness until, deep into the twentieth century, political realities enlarged the category of truly American A story filled with towering historical figures, The History of White People
forcefully reminds us that the concept of one white race is a recent invention. The meaning, importance, and realty of this all-too-human thesis of race have buckled under the weight of a long and rich unfolding of events.
Publishers Weekly Reviews
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
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Who are white people and where did they come from? Elementary questions with elusive, contradictory, and complicated answers set historian Painter’s inquiry into motion. From notions of whiteness in Greek literature to the changing nature of “white” identity ”in direct response to Malcolm X and his black power successors,” Painter’s wide-ranging response is a who’s who of racial thinkers and a synoptic guide to their work. Her commodious history of an idea accommodates Caesar; Saint Patrick, “history’s most famous British slave of the early medieval period”; Madame de Staël; and Emerson, “the philosopher king of American white race theory.” Painter (Sojourner Truth) reviews the diverse cast in their intellectual milieus, linking them to one another across time and language barriers. Conceptions of beauty (“ideals of white beauty [became] firmly embedded in the science of race”), social science research, and persistent North/South stereotypes prove relevant to defining whiteness. “What we can see,” the author observes, “depends heavily on what our culture has trained us to look for.” For the variable, changing, and often capricious definition of whiteness, Painter offers a kaleidoscopic lens. (Mar.)