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Book Review ofThe History of White People by Nell Irvine Painter

A few years ago, someone recommended The History of White People by Nell Irvine Painter to me. As a historian, sometimes books come across my desk that haven’t yet made it to a popular audience and this was one of them. In this critical work, Painter provides the history of “whiteness” as both label and enforced idea helping readers to understand the social construction of racial hierarchies.

TitleThe History of White People (W.W. Norton, 2011)

Author: Nell Irvine Painter, PhD

Reviewer: Lisa Clark Diller, PhD, Professor & Chair of History and Political Science at Southern Adventist University

Why do you assign this book to your students year after year?

We have assigned it to our incoming freshmen in most of our Fall semesters since 2012. The book sets the tone for the impact of history on justice in our society. The history of how racial power hierarchies were built in our country allows us to have further difficult conversations throughout their four years at Southern. At first the title puts them off—many of them admit they were worried they were being assigned something racist. Looking at the photo of the author (who is an African-American woman) reassures them that it’s not likely to be as racist as they had assumed. There are many books about race, but Painter’s is readable enough for our History and Political Studies department.

What kinds of conversations occur because of this book and what has its impact been?

Our students come from diverse backgrounds and there are sometimes awkward conversations about identity. Each year is different based on the personalities of the students and how willing they are to be honest about how their identities are formed partially through the ways others view their bodies and the way they look. Students are fascinated and depressed by the way science was used to try to define and rank “race.” The eugenic policies of the 1920s and 1930s which connected race and power are often a surprise to them and are particularly depressing. Students almost always affirm the choice of the book and they refer to its ideas throughout their years at Southern.

What’s so liberating about it?

Painter’s scholarship and wit reframed my understanding of the history of race in our country. It is freeing to learn about the thinkers, philosophers and politicians who developed racial rankings. The history of the idea and enforcement of whiteness helps our students see identity as more than just “minorities” versus the majority. Talking out loud and developing racial consciousness is in fact liberating for those who have been identified as “white” and who have been embarrassed to talk about identity. It is hopefully also freeing to students who do not identify as “white” to have some of the unspoken hierarchies of our society put into words. I really appreciated Painter’s narration of how “whiteness” has evolved to include more people. That’s both a good thing and, of course, problematic.

What quotes stick with you?

“Although science today denies race any standing as objective truth, and the U.S. census faces taxonomic meltdown, many Americans cling to race as the unschooled cling to superstition. So long as racial discrimination remains a fact of life and statistics can be arranged to support racial difference, the American belief in races will endure. But confronted with the actually existing American population—its distribution of wealth, power, and beauty—the notion of American whiteness will continue to evolve, as it has since the creation of the American Republic.”

“What we can see depends heavily on what our culture has trained us to look for.”

More from Dr. Lisa Clark Diller, PhD

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