Review: The History of White People

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter

As I’ve mentioned here before, I enjoy volunteering at my local library in my hometown. (Even if other volunteers keep scheduling themselves over my hours, exactly how our supervisor asked us not to. Ahem.) Over the summer, I came across The History of White People, which I was putting on hold for a patron. After encountering the antiquated concept of “white races” in Kathy Peiss’ Hope in a Jar, I was intrigued by the construction of race. On top of that, my school is offering a class on constructions of race in antiquity, which I cant’ take because it conflicts with another class. But it sounds so interesting! I’ve realized how important it is to see your own culture and experiences through someone else’s lens, and this seemed like a fantastic place to start.

In The History of White People, Nell Irvin Painter traces the concept of a superior white race—even among other white races—to its misconceived roots in antiquity, the convoluted race theories of Victorian England and America, and the various enlargements of the “white race” over the years to include groups who were not defined as white (and exclude groups who were).

I’ve been having trouble writing this review because The History of White People falls into perhaps the worst category of book for me—boring. I love to write about books I love; I love to write about books I hate. (Whenever I find myself with like-minded female peers, the conversation inevitably turns to Twilight and why it’s awful for teenagers to read.) But writing about a book that’s left me neutral is very difficult, because I feel it can be so subjective when it’s just eh. Obviously, any review is subjective to the views of the reviewer. But there’s a difference between telling someone that, say, The Paladin is bad and telling something that this wasn’t exactly my cuppa.

In my case, The History of White People simply wasn’t engaging. The first problem is the structure. Painter starts in ancient Greece and Rome, two civilizations that suffer from whitewashing (especially when theories of at least two white races abounded). She starts here to show how race can be alternately constructed through geography rather than skin color, the method that the ancient Greeks and Romans actually used. While it’s fantastic to have this background as we watch Victorian anthropologists argue that the Greeks (and, more alarmingly, Jesus Christ) were, in fact, Anglo-Saxon rather than Teutonic, it doesn’t quite mesh, and that’s a theme for the entire book. There’s plenty of interesting information about race theory and other scientific justifications for racism. For instance, the white race distinctions, however myriad, often boiled down to the strapping, virile Anglo-Saxon (blonde and blue-eyed, of course) and the Teutonic (dark and of a slender build), distinctions which actual scientific observation disproved and were, more or less, elastic. The Irish migrated from Teutonic to Anglo-Saxon over the years, as more racial variation “threatened” whiteness. And Latino-Americans were considered white until quite recently.

I could go on, but the effort required to get to this fascinating information was exhausting. Not because Painter’s prose is at all dense or hard to read, but because it’s so… bland. There’s a lack of critical analysis here. Not that a good piece of historical nonfiction needs critical analysis, but would have spiced things up here. It took me a week to polish this off, because I just couldn’t muster up the desire to continue reading. I’m writing this review pretty well after the fact, and all I can remember is a flat “eh”.

So… eh. It’s a wildly interesting topic and I learned quite a lot about the construction of white identity and how, like traditional masculinity, it is incredibly fragile and anxious. But this is not the book to do it with.

Bottom line: While the construction of race throughout history is a wildly interesting topic, Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People is poorly structured and, unfortunately, bland. Seek this topic elsewhere.

I rented this book from the public library.

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