Subscribe to Newsletter
Monthly Newsletter: Join more than 5,000 African literature enthusiasts!
Subscribe for African literature news, and receive a free copy of our "Guide to African Novels."

Painting the White in White History

SHARE THIS

Get past the somewhat presumptuous and oddly ambitious airs of the title, The History of White People, and you will find a genuinely absorbing book. In the book, Neil Painter uproots whiteness from its default position as the colorless race, as the invisible pallet against which all other races are defined as colored and places it under the historian’s clinical stare. The immediate value of this move is that it enables Painter to take big and convincing swipes at notions of racial purity. Whiteness, like other forms of cultural identity—blackness, femininity, Americanness, etc.—is an invented and artificial category created and evoked as a mechanism for inclusion and exclusion. Painter’s book is most compelling in its invitation to the reader to re-examine the cultural blinkers that tend to impair visions of self, the world, and its teeming diversity of identities.

For nearly 400 pages, Painter pulls a historical thread that she hopes will unravel a certain mystery surrounding whiteness as history-less. She wants to tell the story of a race that has come to think of itself as not having a story. So beginning from classical antiquity, in a Grecian world where white people did not exist, where, in fact, no races existed, Painter ends up in the world of Obama where whiteness is so ubiquitous that it can be found in anyone from Jennifer Lopez to Beyonce. But what lies between a raceless Greece and a white Obama? According to Painter, a long and labored story about the rise and fall of white superiority. It is not an exaggeration to say that the book is largely an index of early 20th century Euro-American and unbelievably demented racial theories: drivel passed off as science. These theories form, according Painter, the “vast historical literature, much less known today [that] explains the meaning, importance, and honest-to-god reality of the existence of white races.”

While the importance of these “vast, historical literature” in any study of white history is indisputable, it’s difficult to figure out why Painter chooses to think of the construction of whiteness solely within the context of racism and racist ideologies. A history of whiteness, for Painter it seems, is one and the same thing with a history of white supremacist ideologies. This is, perhaps, the weakest point of Painter’s book. Conflating whiteness and racism to the point that both become indistinguishable smacks of intellectual laziness. Painter is a first rate intellectual and even though this book was meant for a broader, non-academic audience, Painter knows better than to take things like that for granted. Even taking the time to explore the difference between the construction of whiteness and the construction of whiteness as supremacist would have yielded far more insight than the historical drama she passes of as objective history.

It is also rather surprising that whiteness never truly changes in a book that claims to lay bare the truth of its evolution. From the moment it is born somewhere in Europe and shipped to America, whiteness remains constant as a sign of racism. Whiteness is often forced to redraw its boundaries to include Irish, Italian, and other European immigrants, but it remains essentially the same: a universal sign of superiority and an instrument of exclusion. It’s the same with blackness, which, in its role as the quintessential sign of all that is non-white, ends up being, in Painter’s book, as immutable as whiteness. The point is that just as blackness cannot be reduced to its function as mere prop for the construction of whiteness, whiteness cannot be reduced to its historical affinity with racism.

Nevertheless, Painter is an academician who has written a book that is refreshingly accessible to a popular audience. The slightly gossipy and conversational tone of her narration pulls the reader in and allows Painter to engage difficult questions about identity in a clear and engrossing manner. As a myth buster, The History of White People is at its strongest and as such should be read for its value in moving us to reflect on the wrongheadedness of any belief we might have in the purity of our respective social identities.

Preview History of White People at Google Books

Order History of White People at Amazon

Tags: , , , ,

I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

7 Responses to “Painting the White in White History” Subscribe

  1. Boye September 20, 2010 at 1:57 pm #

    You have a skill for book reviews. I have not read this book and doubt I will but appreciate the point that whiteness should not be conflated to mean racist supremacy.

  2. admin September 21, 2010 at 6:17 pm #

    thanks boye. One of those books from which you expect much more than was delivered.

  3. vende July 31, 2011 at 10:04 pm #

    I don’t know, you did a great job explaining this, it is me, I just finished a 14 hour flight, I will need to come back and read this when I am not a Zombie,… Lol

  4. hp mini 210 August 28, 2011 at 2:08 am #

    Hey, nice site. I came across this on Ask Jeeves, and I am extremely happy that I did. I will definately be revisiting here more regularly. Wish I could add to the post and bring a bit more to the table, but am just taking in as much info as I can at the moment.

  5. ultrasound technician schools in georgia September 15, 2011 at 6:50 am #

    You’re so great! I don’t think I’ve learn similar to this before. So great to find someone with several unique thoughts about this topic. really thank you for beginning this up. this website is certainly something that is required online, somebody with somewhat creativity. valuable task for bringing something new to the internet!

  6. Edythe July 6, 2015 at 4:04 am #

    It focuses on farming as well as agro-products, metals as well as strong minerals, oil as
    well as gas, construction and light production services, specifically the vehicle as well as fabric industries.

    In tandem with the National Automotive Sector Advancement
    Plan and also the Power Sector Master Strategy, the NIRP has had an effect on the investment inflows into the car market.
    Below are 7 industrial production blogs that every maker should continue reading a regular or day-to-day basis.

  7. Nâng cấp ssd June 4, 2016 at 11:25 pm #

    Wow, that’s what I was searching for, what a stuff!
    present here at this weblog, thanks admin of this web site.

Leave a Reply

Welcome to Brittle Paper, your go-to site for African writing and literary culture. We bring you all the latest news and juicy updates on publications, authors, events, prizes, and lifestyle. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram (@brittlepaper) and sign up for our "I love African Literature" newsletter.

Monthly Newsletter!

Subscribe for African literature news, and receive a free copy of our
"Guide to African Novels."

Archives

The Heart of It: Working Through Xenophobia in South Africa | Ruksana Elk

XENOPHOBIA - South African civil society and private citizens march in protest against xenophobic violence in Johannesburg. EPA-EFE and Yeshiel Panchia

READ: 15 Pieces to Guide Your Understanding of Xenophobia in (South) Africa Talking xenophobia with South Africans of all classes […]

The Brittle Paper Interview with the Caine Prize 2019 Winner: Lesley Nneka Arimah

Lesley Nneka Arimah with bust of Sir Michael Caine - credit to John Cobb slash Caine Prize

In July, Lesley Nneka Arimah received the 2019 Caine Prize, the award’s twentieth edition, for her short story “Skinned,” published […]

Hollywood or Nollywood? As Americanah TV Series Goes to HBO, Actress Stella Damasus Suggests Industry Slight & Chika Unigwe Responds

danai gurira, lupita nyong'o, chimamanda adichie, stella damasus, chika unigwe

The Americanah TV series adaptation, starring Lupita Nyong’o and written by Danai Gurira, has been ordered by HBO Max. The […]

15 Pieces to Guide Your Understanding of Xenophobia in (South) Africa

xenophobia in south africa - photo by guillerme sartori for agence france press and getty images

Once again, this September, xenophobic violence was unleashed on other Africans, mostly Nigerians, in South Africa: businesses were closed, shops […]

Johary Ravaloson’s Return to the Enchanted Island Is the Second Novel from Madagascar to Be Translated into English

johary ravaloson - winds from elsewhere - graph (1)

In May 2018, we brought news of the first novel by a writer from Madagascar to be translated into English: […]

Sundays at Saint Steven’s | Davina Philomena Kawuma | Poetry

unsplash3

when god runs out of money (how, no one says) once a week, these days, we come to where the […]

Thanks for signing up!

Never miss out on new posts. Subscribe to a digest, too:

No thanks, I only want the monthly newsletter.