The History of White People

Hardcover (Print)
Used and New from Other Sellers
Used and New from Other Sellers
from $8.50
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
(Save 69%)
Other sellers (Hardcover)
  • All (23) from $8.50   
  • New (11) from $16.62   
  • Used (12) from $8.50   


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.

Read More Show Less

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
“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.”
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393049343
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 3/15/2010
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 387,135
  • 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.

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 9 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • 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.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 14, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 29, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 3, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)