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On the History of White People

On the History of White People

June 14, 2012 11:19 am1 comment

Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People is wide ranging in scope and historical depth, covering the history of those people we deem “white.”  In short, it is a remarkable work, taking a historical long view of the perception of the white race and its race discourse throughout history, starting with the ancient Greek perception of the light-skinned Scythians and Celts, through the Roman period, skipping over a thousand years of medieval race-mixing and slave trading, and then focusing her historiographical lens on America, where her work delves deeply into race theories, racial sciences, anthroposociology, eugenics, anti-immigrant nativism and black civil rights.

In the nascent field of whiteness studies, this book is critical to understanding the delicate interplay of race and class that is at the core of how “white” evolved as a social concept in the United States.  The story begins with the ancients, as the civilized Greeks looked at the barbarian Scythians and Celts with their lighter skin and brutal lifestyles.  (Of course, no sources survive from said barbarians, and Painter is fair to moderate her reading of the sources she does have with humor and skepticism throughout the book.)  The Scythians and Celts quickly expanded into many varieties in the eyes of the Greeks and later the Romans:  Colchians, Celts, Gauls, Germani, and in turn these peoples had their own subdivisions.  Painter is quick to establish that “race” as it is perceived today (i.e., of the pigmentation of one’s skin) mattered little to naught to the ancients, who saw peoples primarily in terms of their sexuality:  the virility of the men, the beauty of the women, various mating rituals real and imagined.  Bloodlines throughout Europe undoubtedly mixed a great deal throughout the Roman period and beyond, culminating in an extended period of slave trading throughout Europe that saw as many as a third of Europeans in captivity in the middle ages.  The tradition of slavery as it relates to sex and beauty is carefully examined, and the particular appeal of the light-skinned girls from the Caucasus region plays a significant role in the shaping of white perception of beauty later on.

It is here that Painter turns to the history of racialism in the figure of J. F. Blumenbach, the pioneering German scientist who made a thorough investigation of over 200 skulls from around Europe, Asia and Africa to determine the measurable structural characteristics inherent in his races.  Classification and taxonomy were all the rage for natural scientists in the 18th century, so it is no surprise that a compelling narrative of humanity developed that could explain the races scientifically, culminating as Blumenbach’s study did in the “Caucasian” race, which curiously enough did not include many light-skinned people in Europe including the “Slavics” and “Laplanders.”  It is a theme throughout history that racial differences were not only presumed predetermined, but they were required by the rigid rules of scientific taxonomy to be free from intermixing or impurity, and of course always prone to inherent prejudice.  It is not surprising that certain light-skinned people were not classified as “Caucasian” until well into the 20th century.

From Blumenbach, Painter takes us to the bulk of her scholarship, and a third of the book, which traces the white racial theories and Anglo-Saxon ethnocentrism of countless scientists and anthropologists of the 18th and 19th centuries such as Germaine de Staël, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William Z. Ripley.  As the scholarship begins in the intellectual center of Europe, Germany, in the 18th century, it is not surprising that the most preeminent racial theorists were also Teutonists who traced the superiority of German stock from Roman times.  Germaine de Staël, a woman before her time who excelled intellectually and politically in high academic circles, took the Germanic history and expounded about German superiority and greatness, connecting the success of German, or Saxon, breeding, with the success of the industrializing English-speaking world.  The “Anglo-Saxon” link was a particular favorite of future American race theorists as it made complete the path of superiority in the white race throughout history.  The Anglo-Saxon superiority was trumpeted by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who looks at the English history as a story of a superior German stock supplanting the inferior Celts, who were less civilized, poorer, and, incidentally, Catholic (not surprisingly the political environment in Emerson’s time was highly anti-immigrant and virulently anti-Catholic).

We see several explosive political cartoons from Thomas Nast, the famed cartoonist (and inventor of the modern Santa Claus) who apparently harbored some violently anti-Irish views.  The preeminent racial reading of the tail end of this age was the 1899 book Races of Europe by William Z. Ripley, which expounded on the taxonomy of the white race to minute levels of detail including eye color, hair color, head shape and face length.  Ripley’s work gave even more scientific validity to the racial hygienists of the 20th century who sought to put racial theory into practice, advocating eugenics as a means to population control.  (The focus of white racism on other white people occupies a substantial portion of this book, which is what might distinguish it from other histories of racialism.)

At the core of Painter’s thesis is the evolution of “white” from a very narrow definition covering the so-called direct blood descendants of Saxons and excluding pretty much everyone else–including Irish, southern Europeans, Jews, and of course Africans–to an increasingly widening definition as the political and social needs of whiteness grew.  With waves of American immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, whiteness encountered several enlargements that not only affected how those within the Anglo-Saxon “pure” whites saw themselves, but created an easier social and economic opposition to blacks.  Of course, she does not ignore the Civil Rights movement which played a crucial role in altering the political consciousness to see “black” and in doing so, see “white” as a much more expansive category opposite to “black.”  But she does not drive this point home as well as she could, that whiteness until very recently had very little to do with blackness as a social construct.  Whereas today, we view “white” as being in many ways the antithesis of “black,” the race theorists of the 19th century were not preoccupied with blacks at all.  In fact, Emerson himself was a well known abolitionist.  The intellectuals in the 18th and 19th centuries who sought to create and define races were more concerned with the races among white people than the races aside from white people.  To be white was not to be non-black, insofar as an Irish immigrant in New York was often seen as being as little deserving of inclusion in the white race as a black man from South Carolina.

Painter cuts a sizable swath out of white history, but by the author’s own admission, the book is mistitled.  Past the colonial era, it addresses exclusively the history of white people in America, and more importantly focuses on the successive enlargements of American whiteness as it relates to class, economics and sociology.  The book does not, sadly, focus on the peculiar postcolonial state of whites in the non-Western world, including the unique case of the Afrikaners in South Africa I have researched in the past.  The book also does not delve deeply into perceptions of whiteness or anti-white discourse past the 19th century, preferring instead to focus on the white perception of white identity, making the book, ironically enough, too white-centric.  In most histories of a race, the focus is on that peoples’ placement in society as an agent and erstwhile victim of change (or focus on the discourse or influence of that group on society at large).  In The History of White People, we are more interested in the development of American nativism, the modern perception of whiteness as it differs from earlier perceptions of whiteness, and of course the retelling of a very old story indeed:  a story of how people love to compartmentalize and control their own identities through artificial definitions with dubious historical consistency.

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