Book Review: The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter

6919721Title: THE HISTORY OF WHITE PEOPLE
Author: Nell Irvin Painter
Release Date: 2010
Pages: 396
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(3/5)
Review on Goodreads

This is a difficult book for me to accurately assess, since I am trying to be objective regarding the book’s content while also expressing my disappointed expectations.

Objectively speaking, this book is a powerful scholarly work, a history of whiteness as determined by White Europeans. Painter delves into obscure European anthropological and sociological tomes on racial classification. This is part of why my interest started to wander; Painter spends way too much time on these European scholars and their works. In excruciating detail, she chronicles the lives of these European racists (I use this term more as a shorthand than anything), their relationships with each other, the circles they ran in, and the impact of their work. It results in a very rich historical tome, but not exactly what I was looking for.

To give you an example of what I mean by this laborious detail, Painter spends three chapters on Ralph Waldo Emerson. These chapters certainly touch on the development of racial theory at this time, but the bulk of them is devoted to Emerson’s life, his impact, and the memory of him in American society. To me it read like a rather lengthy tangent that could have been adequately summed up in a single chapter.

One of the major strengths of this book is how well it elucidates just how much of racial “science” was actually pseudoscience – complete bullshit, in other words. Painter pulls direct quotes from these racial “scientists” that indicate that they had no understanding whatsoever of the scientific method, and their science was utterly flawed and nonsensical. Essentially, Painter is building up to an important face: race is not biological, and it never was. Race is, and always has been, a social construct. That is the crux of this book, the point it is trying to make by painstakingly detailing the work of European racial thinkers.

I was disappointed that European racial thinkers take up the majority of this book. I had been hoping to see, as a contrast, scholars from outside of Europe and how they thought of race and “whiteness.” And yet, this is hardly touched upon. There were other significant issues I thought should have been discussed in greater detail. For example, there is no mention at all of the pivotal trial of Bhagat Singh Thind, where an Indian man was declared racially ineligible for US citizenship. There is no mention at all of similar trials that followed, of Syrians and other Middle Easterners, whose classification at the time depended sometimes on their skin color, sometimes on their religion, and sometimes on the political classification of their origins. In other words, it was a complete mess that illustrates the fallacy of racial classification quite well.

Middle Easterners and North Africans are hardly mentioned, which I think is a serious detriment to the argument of the book. As a group, MENA are legally classified as Caucasians, but there is so much confusion regarding this classification that it is essentially worthless. MENA folks occupy a vague racial category that can sparks fierce conversations on the meaning of race and ethnicity, and yet that is never mentioned in this book. Painter spends more time talking about racial divisions among white people (or those that are today considered white, such as Slavs, Irish, Italians) than the racial categories we know today.

Again, I want to say that I am trying to balance what this book actually is versus my personal expectations. Objectively, it is an excellent, impressive work of scholarship that details centuries of European racial thinking. I just found it disappointing in its hyper focus on European thinkers and the details of their lives. I ended up skimming many of these parts, as I had no interest whatsoever where this particular European racist went to school or what he accomplished in his life.

In sum, this is an important, significant work of scholarship that needs to exist, certainly, but I probably should have adjusted my expectations of it sooner.

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