By Tony Lindsay
The History of White People
By Nell Irvin Painter
W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010, $17.95 (Cloth).
Painter identifies race theorists dating back to antiquity and up to 20th century America. She doesn’t shy away from the homoerotic influences in the theory, nor does she hide the theorist’s admiration for brutality.
This work allows the reader a look into the thought processes of those who constructed the idea of race. Painter answers the questions of “why.”
Why separate humanity based on race? Why claim one race is superior to all others? She places White supremacist thought under a historical microscope and reveals its fundamental errors.
She starts with the mind of the father of art history, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, and his culturally contagious love of Whiteness. He was so enthralled with Whiteness that he refused to believe that the Greeks purposely colored their statues to reflect models of color.
In Winckelmann’s opinion, “The Greek profile is the first character of great beauty in the formation of the visage.” He believed white skin makes bodily appearance more beautiful and Painter notes, “Throughout the Western world, these rules soon became as carved in stone as the statues that inspired them.”
This “appreciation” for Whiteness laid the groundwork for what was considered beautiful in European art and life.
America wasted no time in adopting Europe’s standards of beauty, with a political twist. European standards were used to decide who was a true American.
With the American population consisting of indentured servants, indigenous peoples, African slaves, immigrants from all over Europe, Asians, and free Africans, some guidelines had to be established as to who was really an American.
Ralph Waldo Emerson came to the country’s aide with his altered Saxon history. This “history” fit the needs of the country’s White supremacist argument for hundreds of years. It is this established argument that Painter’s work surgically removes from contemporary consciousness.
The first portion of the White supremacist argument she destroys is the equating of Blackness with slavery. To justify the North Atlantic slave trade, race theorists argued that Africans were inferior humans and thereby fit for slavery.
They argued that White Europeans, being superior humans, were never enslaved or denied freedom, and being White ensured one’s freedom throughout history. The inferiority of dark skin was the major factor in enslavement. Africans deserved to be slaves.
Painter writes, “The race narrative ignores early European slavery and the mixing it entailed, leading today’s readers to find the idea of White slavery far-fetched. But in the land we now call Europe, most slaves were white, and that was unremarkable.”
In chapter two of The History of White People (“Roman, Celts, Gauls, and Germani”), the early history of Europe is presented with its culture – a culture that was supported by war and slavery.
The facts of Painter’s work are contrary to the ideas of White supremacy; she writes, “Vikings raided northern Europe and Russia hundreds of times from the fifth to 11th century, plundering as they went and scooping up human chattel by the thousands.”
White Europeans were slaves. Their White skin did not give them immunity to the peculiar institution of slavery.
In this history, Painter spans beyond the effects of race theory between Blacks and Whites. The effects are multicultural and based on socio-economics, and they are not always to the benefit of White American culture, as White Americans have used the tenets of race theory to stop other White Americans from advancing during tough economic times.
The author argues that even though race is used, the cause of the division among people is class and one group’s desire to be superior to another.
She argues that this may continue even in the face of current genetic research that proves there are no races; humans are 99.9 percent connected.
Through the entire skull measuring, the intelligence testing, and genetic coding, the fact remains that all human origins sprout from Africa. Humans are all Africans.
The History of White People is too simplistic a title for the work because, upon close review, the reader will find a history of America.