The History of White People

The History of White People

Book - 2010
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Baker & Taylor
Traces the invention of the idea of a white race, showing how the origins of the American identity were tied to the elevation of white skin as the embodiment of beauty, power, and intelligence.

Norton Pub
A mind-expanding and myth-destroying exploration of notions of white race—not merely a skin color but also a signal of power, prestige, and beauty to be withheld and granted selectively
Ever since the Enlightenment, race theory and its inevitable partner, racism, have followed a crooked road, constructed by dominant peoples to justify their domination of others. Filling a huge gap in historical literature that long focused on the non-white, eminent historian Nell Irvin Painter guides us through more than two thousand years of Western civilization, tracing not only the invention of the idea of race but also the frequent worship of “whiteness” for economic, social, scientific, and political ends.Our story begins in Greek and Roman antiquity, where the concept of race did not exist, only geography and the opportunity to conquer and enslave others. Not until the eighteenth century did an obsession with whiteness flourish, with the German invention of the notion of Caucasian beauty. This theory made northern Europeans into “Saxons,” “Anglo-Saxons,” and “Teutons,” envisioned as uniquely handsome natural rulers.Here was a worldview congenial to northern Europeans bent on empire. There followed an explosion of theories of race, now focusing on racial temperament as well as skin color. Spread by such intellectuals as Madame de Stael and Thomas Carlyle, white race theory soon reached North America with a vengeance. Its chief spokesman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, did the most to label Anglo-Saxons—icons of beauty and virtue—as the only true Americans. It was an ideal that excluded not only blacks but also all ethnic groups not of Protestant, northern European background. The Irish and Native Americans were out and, later, so were the Chinese, Jews, Italians, Slavs, and Greeks—all deemed racially alien. Did immigrations threaten the very existence of America? Americans were assumed to be white, but who among poor immigrants could become truly American? A tortured and convoluted series of scientific explorations developed—theories intended to keep Anglo-Saxons at the top: the ever-popular measurement of skulls, the powerful eugenics movement, and highly biased intelligence tests—all designed to keep working people out and down.As Painter reveals, power—supported by economics, science, and politics—continued to drive exclusionary notions of whiteness until, deep into the twentieth century, political realities enlarged the category of truly American.A story filled with towering historical figures, The History of White People forcefully reminds us that the concept of one white race is a recent invention. The meaning, importance, and realty of this all-too-human thesis of race have buckled under the weight of a long and rich unfolding of events.

Book News
The long and tangled thread of false reasoning on which the twin notions of race and white superiority have been connected are ably traced in this work, which guides the reader on a tour of the concepts from ancient Greece to the early 21st century. Painter (emerita, American history, Princeton U.) describes the creation and propagation of the concepts, most importantly that of race itself, giving the histories of those who created the terms and the scientific notions they concocted as support. Separate chapters discuss topics that include the invention of the term 'Caucasian' as equivalent to white-skinned, the rise of the concept that slaves are always only black, the supposed basis of race in classical thought, the actual attitudes towards non-Greeks of the ancient Greeks, and the combination of these separate false histories to support the American belief in race and white superiority. Annotation ©2010 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

& Taylor

Traces the invention of the idea of a white race--often for economic, scientific and political ends--showing how the origins of the American identity in the 18th century were tied to the elevation of white skin as the embodiment of beauty, power and intelligence and how even intellectuals insisted that only Anglo Saxons were truly American.

Publisher: New York : W.W. Norton, c2010
Edition: 1st ed
ISBN: 9780393049343
Characteristics: xii, 496 p. : ill., maps ; 24 cm


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Jun 02, 2016

It will shock some well-educated people how racial prejudices motivated "white people" (the definition constantly changing) to place themselves above the "huddled masses" and define race on a "Christian" scale. But the concept of race is relatively modern but forefathers such Emerson and Teddy Roosevelt were true believers in their own words. A detailed and unwavering history of the concept of race, all the head measuring and the so-called science of beauty. The author has done solid work and has an easy style to follow. Bravo!

Apr 25, 2011

Great overview of the concept of whiteness, especially pertaining to the USA. Chapters tend to be brief and the author covers a nice breadth topics, so the book rarely drags.



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