In history lessons, whiteness is default. Don’t worry, they’ll tell you that George Washington Carver and Rosa Parks were black. Why? Because blackness is different, and whiteness is the norm. In The History of White People, author Nell Irvin Painter examines what it has meant to be a white person throughout history.
In antiquity, Painter points out, social delineations were tribal and geographical. They were not racial, because there was no such thing as race at the time. Yet this is where the idea of whiteness as the height of beauty – particularly for women – begins. Young girls from the Caucasus were routinely bought and sold as sex workers, and their looks became the highly-prized ideal. Although the pale skin of blue bloods indicated prosperity and desirability centuries later, light skin has always been linked to money and shameful power dynamics.
I would argue that Painter should have titled this book The History of Whiteness, since, as we know, all history is the history of white people. Since I am not as educated as Painter, I will assume she has a very good reason for using “White People.” However, the use of this phrase immediately – and unfortunately – primes the book for use as a weapon by white supremacists.
Why? Because it accurately paints the struggle of poor whites throughout history: from the Irish under Cromwell to immigrants and serfs in America who couldn’t vote without owning property. The Caucasian slave trade is a huge talking point for those who want to justify American slavery without understanding that the latter was more brutal, more widespread, and has continual impact. Though Painter constantly and consistently identifies race as a construct without meaning beyond maintaining the status quo, the ignorant will overlook the facts.
The History of White People is a chronicle of what whiteness has meant over the course of western history, from the ancient Greeks and Egyptians to the modern age. It’s a great microhistory, and one of the best books I’ve read this year.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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