NELL IRVIN PAINTER
(Photo by Robin Holland)
I just bought Dr. Painter's new book this past thursday and I CAN'T WAIT TO READ IT. I've been a longtime fan of all of Painter's exemplary work as a historian over the past three decades so it was with great pleasure and equally great anticipation that I eagerly plunked down the necessary coins to purchase this text. I think that a serious, nuanced, rigorous and fastidious scholarly investigation and excavation of the myriad intellectual, mythological, and delusional sources of the historically sinister and ultimately tragic notion of "whiteness"-- especially over the past 500 years-- is one of the most important, crucial, and vitally necessary projects that any major historian, sociologist, natural scientist, literary artist, philosopher, social activist, political theorist, cultural critic, linguist, anthropologist, or economist could possibly involve themselves with or undertake in all of world scholarship today. So I am thrilled by the fact that Painter continues in the hallowed intellectual and social traditions of such major and profound African American thinkers, activists, and scholars as W.E.B. DuBois, C.L.R. James, Carter G. Woodson, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Harold Cruse, Ishmael Reed, Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, David Walker, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Aime Cesaire, Chester Himes, Walter Rodney, Henry Dumas, Toni Morrison, Angela Davis, Robin Kelley, Rayford Logan, Toni Cade Bambara, Frantz Fanon, Paul Robeson, E. Franklin Frazier, John A. Williams, and Ella Baker among many, many others who have always investigated precisely in their scholarship, art, criticism, activism, and life what the nefarious doctrine, identity, and philosophy of "whiteness" actually meant and means in the world as we presently "know and understand" it.
By LINDA GORDON
March 25, 2010
New York Times Book Review
Nell Irvin Painter’s title, “The History of White People,” is a provocation in several ways: it’s monumental in sweep, and its absurd grandiosity should call to mind the fact that writing a “History of Black People” might seem perfectly reasonable to white people. But the title is literally accurate, because the book traces characterizations of the lighter-skinned people we call white today, starting with the ancient Scythians. For those who have not yet registered how much these characterizations have changed, let me assure you that sensory observation was not the basis of racial nomenclature.
THE HISTORY OF WHITE PEOPLE By Nell Irvin Painter Illustrated. 496 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $27.95
Nell Irvin Painter’s Web Site: http://www.nellpainter.com/
Some ancient descriptions did note color, as when the ancient Greeks recognized that their “barbaric” northern neighbors, Scythians and Celts, had lighter skin than Greeks considered normal. Most ancient peoples defined population differences culturally, not physically, and often regarded lighter people as less civilized. Centuries later, European travel writers regarded the light-skinned Circassians, a k a Caucasians, as people best fit only for slavery, yet at the same time labeled Circassian slave women the epitome of beauty. Exoticizing and sexualizing women of allegedly inferior “races” has a long and continuous history in racial thought; it’s just that today they are usually darker-skinned women.
“Whiteness studies” have so proliferated in the last two decades that historians might be forgiven a yawn in response to being told that racial divisions are fundamentally arbitrary, and that deciding who is white has been not only fluid but also heavily influenced by class and culture. In some Latin American countries, for example, the term blanquearse, to bleach oneself, is used to mean moving upward in class status. But this concept — the social and cultural construction of race over time — remains harder for many people to understand than, say, the notion that gender is a social and cultural construction, unlike sex. As recently as 10 years ago, some of my undergraduate students at the University of Wisconsin heard my explanations of critical race theory as a denial of observable physical differences.
I wish I had had this book to offer them. Painter, a renowned historian recently retired from Princeton, has written 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.
The modern intellectual history of whiteness began among the 18th-century German scholars who invented racial “science.” Johann Joachim Winckelmann made the ancient Greeks his models of beauty by imagining them white-skinned; he may even have suppressed his own (correct) suspicion that their statues, though copied by the Romans in white marble, had originally been painted. The Dutchman Petrus Camper calculated the proportions and angles of the ideal face and skull, and produced a scale that awarded a perfect rating to the head of a Greek god and ranked Europeans as the runners-up, earning 80 out of 100. The Englishman Charles White collected skulls that he arranged from lowest to highest degree of perfection. He did not think he was seeing the gradual improvement of the human species, but assumed rather the polygenesis theory: the different races arose from separate divine creations and were designed with a range of quality.
The modern concept of a Caucasian race, which students my age were taught in school, came from Johann Friedrich Blumenbach of Göttingen, the most influential of this generation of race scholars. Switching from skulls to skin, he divided humans into five races by color — white, yellow, copper, tawny, and tawny-black to jet-black — but he ascribed these differences to climate. Still convinced that people of the Caucasus were the paragons of beauty, he placed residents of North Africa and India in the Caucasian category, sliding into a linguistic analysis based on the common derivation of Indo-European languages. That category, Painter notes, soon slipped free of any geographic or linguistic moorings and became a quasi- scientific term for a race known as “white.”
Some great American heroes, notably Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson, absorbed Blumenbach’s influence but relabeled the categories of white superiority. They adopted the Saxons as their ideal, imagining Americans as direct and unalloyed descendants of the English, later including the Germans. In general, Western labels for racial superiority moved thus: Caucasian → Saxon → Teutonic → Nordic → Aryan → white/Anglo.
The spread of evolutionary theory required a series of theoretical shifts, to cope with changing understandings of what is heritable. When hereditary thought produced eugenics, the effort to breed superior human beings, it relied mostly on inaccurate genetics. Nevertheless, eugenic “science” became authoritative from the late 19th century through the 1930s. Eugenics gave rise to laws in at least 30 states authorizing forced sterilization of the ostensibly feeble-minded and the hereditarily criminal. Painter cites an estimate of 65,000 sterilized against their will by 1968, after which a combined feminist and civil rights campaign succeeded in radically restricting forced sterilization. While blacks and American Indians were disproportionately victimized, intelligence testing added many immigrants and others of “inferior stock,” predominantly Appalachian whites, to the rolls of the surgically sterilized.
In the long run, the project of measuring “intelligence” probably did more than eugenics to stigmatize and hold back the nonwhite. Researchers gave I.Q. tests to 1,750,000 recruits in World War I and found that the average mental age, for those 18 and over, was 13.08 years. That experiment in mass testing failed owing to the Army’s insistence that even the lowest ranked usually became model soldiers. But I.Q. testing achieved success in driving the anti-immigration movement. The tests allowed calibrated rankings of Americans of different ancestries — the English at the top, Poles on the bottom. Returning to head measurements, other researchers computed with new categories the proportion of different “blood” in people of different races: Belgians were 60 percent Nordic (the superior European race) and 40 percent Alpine, while the Irish were 30 percent Nordic and 70 percent Mediterranean (the inferior European race). Sometimes politics produced immediate changes in these supposedly objective findings: World War I caused the downgrading of Germans from heavily Nordic to heavily Alpine.
Painter points out, but without adequate discussion, that the adoration of whiteness became particularly problematic for women, as pale blue-eyed blondes became, like so many unattainable desires, a reminder of what was second-class about the rest of us. Among the painfully comic absurdities that racial science produced was the “beauty map” constructed by Francis Galton around the turn of the 20th century: he classified people as good, medium or bad; he categorized those he saw by using pushpins and thus demonstrated that London ranked highest and Aberdeen lowest in average beauty.
Rankings of intelligence and beauty supported escalating anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism in early-20th-century America. Both prejudices racialized non-Protestant groups. But Painter misses some crucial regional differences. While Jews and Italians were nonwhite in the East, they had long been white in San Francisco, where the racial “inferiors” were the Chinese. Although the United States census categorized Mexican-Americans as white through 1930, census enumerators in the Southwest, working from a different racial under standing, ignored those instructions and marked them “M” for Mexican.
In the same period, anarchist or socialist beliefs became a sign of racial inferiority, a premise strengthened by the presence of many immigrants and Jews among early-20th-century radicals. Whiteness thus became a method of stigmatizing dissenting ideas, a marker of ideological respectability; Painter should have investigated this phenomenon further. Also missing from the book is an analysis of the all-important question: Who benefits and how from the imprimatur of whiteness? Political elites and employers of low-wage labor, to choose just two groups, actively policed the boundaries of whiteness.
But 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.
Linda Gordon is a professor of history at New York University and the author, most recently, of “Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits.”
A Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Nell Painter has also held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the American Antiquarian Society. She has served as president of the Organization of American Historians and the Southern Historical Association. Those presidential addresses have been published in the Journal of American History (“Ralph Waldo Emerson's Saxons” in March 2009) and the Journal of Southern History (“Was Marie White?” February 2008). The City of Boston declared Thursday, 4 October 2007 Nell Irvin Painter Day in honor of her Outstanding Book Award from the Gustavus Myers Center in 2006.
A prolific and award-winning scholar, her most recent books are Creating Black Americans. (Oxford University Press, 2006) and Southern History Across the Color Line (University of North Carolina Press, 2002). A second edition of Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919 and a Korean translation of Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol appeared in 2008. Her four other books are also still in print. The History of White People (W. W. Norton) will be published in March 2010. For a complete list of her book and article publications and other honors and activities, please consult the CV on this website.
As a public intellectual, Professor Painter is frequently called upon for lectures and interviews on television and film. In January 2008 she appeared live for a three-hour “In Depth” program on C-SPAN Book TV. To see the program on the internet, go to the web page for “In Depth.” She has also appeared on Bill Moyers’s “Progressive America.” New Jersey Network’s “State of the Arts” documented her work as both a scholar and an art student.
Her agent at Greater Talent Network is Edna Schenkel: