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The History of White PeopleReview - The History of White People
by Nell Irvin Painter
W. W. Norton, 2010
Review by Cecile A. Lawrence, Ph.D.
Apr 19th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 16)

Is race over in the USA? The closing pages at the end of Nell Irvin Painter's very readable The History of White People appropriately do not give us a definitive answer. Partly to blame may be the fact that the definition of the word "race" has changed and changed again over time. In addition, acts of racism have had a tortured and complex history, taking unique forms in the context of that particular country. 

Filled with documentation from original sources, while at times necessarily repeating what others have written on the topic of the history of racism in the US, Painter's engaging conversational style draws in the reader to keep asking, right up to the very end of the book's 369 pages, the question as to what could be the source that drives this obsession with a myth, an obsession that Painter is at ease with relating to emotionally. She demonstrates how at times her profession as a historian overlaps the profession of anthropologist.  She digs into and shakes off the accumulated dust and debris of what she has no hesitation in describing as the illogical and astoundingly weird thinking in which people at the highest levels of society from era to era have embraced in order to keep feeding their fixation.  This fixation is rooted in the notion of the supremacy of one particular group of people loosely categorized as identical to each other over another group of people also loosely thus categorized. Therefore, is this really just about power? Painter does not make that clear and she does not need to, as that probably would be too simple an answer.

The belief system that perpetuates the continuation of the notion of race seems akin to a religion. Painter comments that "Americans cling to race as the unschooled cling to superstition."  Should one conclude, therefore, that Americans in general act like an unschooled population or that Americans in general are unschooled?  Painter does not go that far.  She is less interested in analysis than she is in describing. Is the root cause a deep insecurity on the part of those who invaded and came to dominate this vast new land, already occupied by people whom the religion the invaders brought with them did not give them reason to respect.

Familiar tropes in the field of race studies are raised again for scrutiny as Painter goes back to ancient Greece to in the search to find the origin of the myth of race.  That geography defines temperament, in ways that might surprise the reader not familiar with the twists and turns of the felt need to externalize and categorize the "other" no matter where one lands.  Clearly, the decades of wanderlust of various tribes over what is now Europe and Asia, played a crucial role in the early manifestations of what later transmuted into present day ideas about race. 

Painter's descriptions about the variations in the notions about difference in skin color, personalities, worth as human beings, between Greeks and Romans will probably shock many who have not spent much time wondering about the early history of what today enough people still appear to consider as embedded in the nature of things, especially in the U.S.  For Romans, warfare defined identities.  Constant warring and expansionism of the Roman Empire took place alongside judgments about the targets of those occupying desired regions. The monstering of the captured simultaneously with the enslaving of such captured peoples, including vast numbers of women from a wide variety of regions in the Euro-Asian continent, seems not to have created any internal cognitive or emotional conflict in the invading cultures. Why would one have in the household beings held as slaves, and thus in close contact, often having sex with such slaves, if they were also othered as monsters? The drawings of how people in power then saw the "other" should leave a reader new to this topic wondering at the sanity of one's ancestors. People saw not the reality right in front of them but an imagined reality, a practice true to this day. With such a dense thicket of conflicted and conflicting notions in the populations Painter describes, it's helpful that at times she makes a declarative statement summing up what her research proves without a doubt such as, for example, the fact that up until the 15th century in Europe most slaves where what is now called "white."   

An important aspect of this book is Painter's review of the wealth of published writers over the decades who struggled with or gave up on essentializing the notion of "race" or racial identity or traits (itself another highly charged word emotionally and culturally).  It's tempting to engage in deep psychological analysis of this topic and Painter does at times seem to come near such an approach such as her conclusion, admittedly one that others have reached, that the despised being, the other, is blamed for the supposed behavior of the dominant group as a result of contact between the dominant group and the despised.  As Painter makes clear, those who fixate on an idea of purity of race and the threat of "mongrelization" seem blind to the reality of everyday natural diversity in the teeming life forms around them, perhaps even blindness to the basic tenets of science.

 

© 2011 Cecile Lawrence

 

Cecile Lawrence, NY


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