Quick review: The History of White People

Just finished reading The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter and released in March 2010. Some quick thoughts and pieces I took from the book:

1. The book is an overview of defining “white” from the 1700s to the 1960s in the United States. This requires tracking back to a number of European thinkers. The book provides historical background to “whiteness studies.”

2. There is a long-running link between being “Anglo-Saxon” and “white” in the US. Defining who exactly is Anglo-Saxon has been problematic; groups like the Irish and Scots were originally excluded (1700s-1800s) but came to be a part of the group when America experienced more immigration from Southern Europe/Eastern Europe. The Irish and Italians had to fight for decades to eventually be included in the white group.

3. There were a number of thinkers who tried to classify all humans into a small number of races. The most commonly known categories: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid. But others developed more and different categories. Another common set of categories had “Nordic” people (Germans, others) as superior. These differences between categories, often based on geography but also based on the “scientific” study of head shape, were said to result in hereditary differences in intelligence and temperament, among other traits. Of course, these immutable categories could change based on circumstances. Once World War I started, the “Nordic” category lost much of its standing.

4.  Some “great Americans,” such as Henry David Thoreau and Teddy Roosevelt, were quite steeped in white superiority ideology. Both Thoreau and Roosevelt were quite explicit about this in their writings though this is not widely known today.

5. There is a long history of American residents of the Northeast seeing Southern whites as inferior. In the 1800s, Southern whites and the Irish were seen as sitting at the bottom of the racial heap.

6. Intelligence tests, developed by scholars in the early 1900s, were used to “prove” the superiority or inferiority of certain races.

7. As a general background to the ideology of whiteness, this is a decent book. As for explaining how this ideology, particularly among great thinkers or politicians, translated into public policy and general sentiment among the American population, the book is lacking. What is clear is that defining who was white and establishing whites’ superiority over other races was an important area of thought.

0 thoughts on “Quick review: The History of White People

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