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The History of White People

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Overview

A New York Times bestseller: “This terrific new book . . . [explores] the ‘notion of whiteness,’ an idea as dangerous as it is seductive.”—Boston Globe
Telling perhaps the most important forgotten story in American history, eminent historian Nell Irvin Painter guides us through more than two thousand years of Western civilization, illuminating not only the invention of race but also the frequent praise of “whiteness” for economic, scientific, and political ends. A story filled with towering historical figures, The History of White People closes a huge gap in literature that has long focused on the non-white and forcefully reminds us that the concept of “race” is an all-too-human invention whose meaning, importance, and reality have changed as it has been driven by a long and rich history of events.

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Editorial Reviews

Linda Gordon
…an unusual study: an intellectual history, with occasional excursions to examine vernacular usage, for popular audiences. It has much to teach everyone, including whiteness experts, but it is accessible and breezy, its coverage broad and therefore necessarily superficial…I cannot fault Nell Painter's choices—omissions to keep a book widely readable. Often, scholarly interpretation is transmitted through textbooks that oversimplify and even bore their readers with vague generalities. Far better for a large audience to learn about whiteness from a distinguished scholar in an insightful and lively exposition.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
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.)
Library Journal
Turning the question, "What does it mean to be black?" on its head, historian Painter (American history, emerita, Princeton Univ.; Creating Black Americans) asks, "What does it mean to be white?" and, "Where did the idea of whiteness come from?" Digging down deep into source material dating from 400 B.C.E. to the present, Painter locates the etymology of terms like Caucasian and Anglo-Saxon and reveals surprising facts—for instance, that ancient literature does not classify peoples based on skin color, that living in slavery is not a unique experience to those of African descent, and that early Irish American immigrants were not automatically considered white. Although Painter's comprehensive style makes this a hefty tome that can, at times, read like an attempt to out racist thinkers from history, the narrative is ultimately intriguing and well researched. VERDICT This is an important addition to the nascent academic field of whiteness studies, which examines the social construction of whiteness with particular attention to the American experience. It should be read by all historians and anyone with an interest in cultural studies. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/09.]—April Younglove, Rochester Regional Lib. Council, NY
Kirkus Reviews
A provocative look at the white race-or, more accurately, the white races-by noted African-American scholar Painter (Creating Black Americans: African-American History and its Meanings, 1619 to the Present, 2005, etc.). The notion of race is illusory and elusive, yet it has been a topic on the minds of many people since . . . well, mostly not that long ago, though the author traces the encounters of African, Greek, Scythian and Celt far into the past, sometimes getting a little out of her element. It is not quite accurate, for instance, to say of the Celtic tribes that we "cannot know what those people called themselves," for their names are plentiful, and words such as xanthos suggest that the Greeks were well aware of "color" differences among people. Still, Painter makes the useful point that constructions of race and whiteness, though drawing on distant roots and ancient tropes of enslaver and enslaved, are relatively recent developments. Also, she notes that, during the last few centuries, there have been visible notions of degrees of whiteness-with Irish immigrants, for example, excluded from membership in white America-as well as a concept of expanding whiteness-those Irish were eventually admitted to the ranks once the Eastern Europeans came along. There are even different types of whiteness. Ralph Waldo Emerson, writes the author, pondered regional differences with respect to his fellow Northerners, "a smarter but weaker ‘race' than southerners." Occasionally Painter's argument relies on mere assertion: "White race chauvinists are loath to admit that brown-skinned people speak the English language fluently." At such turns, an example or two would help. Nonetheless, the author,who has devoured shelves of books in the American history stacks, makes a significant point. Though we have mapped the human genome and discovered how closely related all the peoples of Earth are, "the fundamental black white binary endures, even though the category of whiteness-or might we say more precisely, a category of nonblackness-effectively expands."Sure to interest students of ethnic relations, history and anthropology, with pointed examples for daily living in this multicultural, multiethnic land. Author tour to Boston, New York, Princeton, N.J., Washington, D.C., Chicago
Philadelphia Inquirer
Compelling, energetic, [and] highly readable.— Alan Nadel
The New York Times Book Review
An insightful and lively exposition from a distinguished scholar.— Linda Gordon
Tikkun
“One of the most important books ever on the social construction of the notion that there is a ‘white’ race.”
Alan Nadel - Philadelphia Inquirer
“Compelling, energetic, [and] highly readable.”
Linda Gordon - The New York Times Book Review
“An insightful and lively exposition from a distinguished scholar.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393049343
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 3/15/2010
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 337,117
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Nell Irvin Painter is the award-winning author of many books, including Sojourner Truth, Southern History Across the Color Line, Creating Black Americans, The History of White People, and Standing at Armageddon. She is currently the Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, at Princeton University and lives in Newark, New Jersey, and the Adirondacks.

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 17, 2010

    Amazing read....

    Provocative and Original Concept piece. A must read for everyone.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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