Book Review: The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter

A personal reflection on Whiteness disguised as a book review

A few months ago, I saw a TikTok video recommending a book to well-meaning White¹ people. As a well-meaning person who understood that I was perceived as White even if I did not want to identify this way, this was a natural recommendation for me.

The book was The History of White People by historian Nell Irvin Painter. I hadn’t heard of it in the recent rush of books highlighting Blackness and Whiteness in America, and that seeming obscurity appealed to me. Ever the lover of forbidden and forgotten knowledge, I am actively drawn to information that exists on the fringe of popular consciousness. Again, this book was perfect for me.

The History of White People tracks the development of Whiteness in ancient and modern history, and how Whiteness came to be an American category of thinking. Much of the book deals with the notion of European “races,” which grew under the guise of finding the “purest” Europeans and excluding others. Non-Europeans were of course excluded by proxy and as an afterthought. That being the case, this book is not an account of Whiteness contra Blackness (that said, spoiler alert: the topic arises). Rather, it is an account of the history of the idea of “race” and how it slowly built the idea of Whiteness.

Painter’s work begins early in history with an account of the ancient Greeks and Romans. She demonstrates how they viewed the Scythians, Celts, Gauls, and Germanic tribes as barbarians with fixed and immutable traits. From there, the vast majority of Painter’s work settles into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, focusing on notions of white beauty, the origins of the word “Caucasian,” the roots of modern anthropology, and the invention of European “races.” She goes on to explain how those ideas affected waves of immigrants to the United States. Painter eventually settles into the twentieth century to finish the story by demonstrating the lasting persistence of some of these old ideas and how they’ve played out in a multicultural America.

This is an excellent historical work. There are no quiet diatribes, no editorial claims made, no final sweeping conclusions to cheapen the hard work between the covers. While written and marketed for popular consumption, Painter’s deep scholarship is evident. Her dedicated historical approach, which is presented without a strong and concluding message, might be this book’s biggest strength hiding in the appearance of weakness.

Painter presents a jumpy narrative that begins in ancient history with the “otherness” of barbarians, moves forward suddenly and lingers on anthropology and European classification in early modern history, and then wraps up hastily in the later twentieth century featuring the reemergence of old ways of thinking thanks to DNA research. This narrative takes time to construct, and doesn’t always tie neatly into the central organization of the work, which, based on the names of several chapters, is presumably the “Enlargement of American Whiteness.” And while this central idea is served well in some parts, it takes time to land. And when it does land, it does so almost in passing.

But if the fabric is delicate and frayed at the edges, its center is compelling, erudite, and deeply informational. By not patronizing readers with forced cohesion, Painter allows them to settle themselves into uncomfortable truths by their own mental effort.

The reader, in this case, was myself: a White American descended on one side from Irish immigrants and on the other side from Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Painter gave me a personal history lesson that I was never given directly, even if the ideas have lurked in my periphery.

Whiteness is an exclusive club, and one that my ancestors were all too willing to conform to. My Irish ancestors, although retaining their hatred of the English (my wonderful grandmother, who had an absolute heart of gold, was always insistent that we ought to hate no one except the English), nevertheless happily joined hands after the Civil War with the Anglo-Saxonists who only a decade earlier described them as dogs and mongrels². This union took place largely as a result of the existence of other, newer immigrants (like those on the other side of my family) as well as the continuously disenfranchised Black and Asian communities, all of whom were used as stepping stones by many Irish families to distinguish themselves as “American” on the road to distinguishing themselves as White.

But what of my non-Irish heritage? American Eastern European Jewish immigrants are a newer population in the US, and one that continues to exist only just inside the sphere of acceptable White American-ness. Regardless of its place on the fringe, it is still acceptably White. Painter points out that after the second World War, Americans who were descended of more recent (European) immigrants were brought into the fold with the availability of the GI Bill and the FHA. These two pieces of legislation were still largely unavailable to Americans of non-European descent, but went far to jumpstarting the White middle class outside of urban centers that many of us now take for granted. These extensions of privilege were certainly not denied by many people to whom they were offered.

It was poetic that I finished this book during the week of Saint Patrick’s day, a day I’m expected to celebrate as a descendent of Irish immigrants. We’re all too happy to deck ourselves out in gaudy green and folksy Irish sayings, but rarely willing to scrutinize the darker problems with our uncontested American-ness in the modern day. I use the example of Saint Patrick’s day not only because I’m “half Irish” (whatever nonsense that means), but because it is an excellent example of celebrating myths at the expense of real historical lessons. The same could be said for a number of people descended from various nations in Europe. We have the idea that our descent makes us exclusive in some way, but that exclusivity is largely a fabrication and selective retelling of historical circumstance.

Or, put another more personal way, if I lean too heavily on my Irish American-ness I risk shirking my inherited responsibilities in the construction of modern Whiteness. But if I downplay it, I run the risk of existing solely as White, a construction that grew from the same eighteenth century roots that planted the Aryan tree in German soil in the early twentieth century³.

There is no neat conclusion here, no easy lesson to guide other Americans of European descent. The best thing on offer here is this book’s difference from other books that discuss Whiteness. While most contemporary reflections on Whiteness focus on the necessity of owning the parts of our history that were anti-Black⁴, this book goes a step further by giving us the understanding that the decision to participate in these acts was an act of inclusion into Whiteness as much as an exclusion of Blackness. As I said earlier, this knowledge has always existed in the periphery of my understanding, but was never so directly or eloquently expressed.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of race, and specifically to any White person who is willing to look candidly at their own history to see exactly how the White American myth was constructed, when their descendants bought into it, and at what expense they did so.

  1. I have chosen to use a capital W in White and Whiteness for a number of reasons. For more on the question, read this editorial by Painter herself, published in the Washington Post in 2020.
  2. Painter spends a whole chapter outing Ralph Waldo Emerson in his own journal entries, revealing him not only to be a European chauvinist broadly but a despiser of the Irish specifically. This has caused me some pain, as I have always enjoyed Emerson’s essays.
  3. One of Painter’s strongest historical demonstrations for me was the development of Teutonism, then Anglo-Saxonism, then Aryanism, and finally Whiteness as the predominant image of the proper American.
  4. Whiteness as a reaction to Blackness is another phenomenon touched on in Painter’s work.

Our day-to-day lives have become disenchanted. I want to help people recover the everyday wonder, awe, and enchantment they want and deserve.