The History of White People: A Book Review (Part One)
Today we are reviewing a non-fiction book of what you might call cultural history. It is "The History of White People" by historian, Dr. Nell Irvin Painter. The edition I'm holding in my hands is soft cover. It is about 396 pages, not including the introduction, acknowledgments, notes, and index.
It was published by W.W. Norton & Company, in New York and London, in the Year of Our Lord, 2010.
For those of you who have never read a book review by me, let me just let you know how I go about. You may find that I do this a bit differently than what you may be used to, especially online.
You see, I don't get into the whole "good points/bad points" thing; I do not make such aesthetic judgments. I do not even, necessarily, recommend or not recommend a book; though if I am writing about it, here on Hub Pages, chances are that I personally like the book and/or find some merit in it.
Here's what I mean by the "good points/bad points" thing: I do not presume to "critique" the book's organization or methodology, what the book has or lacks, or how well the book does whatever it is trying to do. That is for nonfiction; for fiction there are a different set of characteristics that I never presume to critique.
The reason for this is due deference. These are professional authors, published by professional, real publishing organizations. I am merely an amateur Internet writer; therefore, I pay the former the respect they deserve, particularly from the likes of someone like myself: an amateur Internet writer.
After all, there are several things about a book that are simply subjective. A, B, C may be to my taste but not yours; X, Y, Z may be to your taste but not mine.
Because of the reality of feature subjectivity, what I try to do is be objective as I can be. I, essentially, try to show how the book seems to work and what it seems to be trying to do. I do not, as a rule, provide plot or book report-like summaries; that is not what I mean. You can get summaries from anywhere. If that is what I did, you would have no reason to read me.
I'm not sure I know, exactly, how to describe my approach because it is something different every time, or almost every time, or at least frequently. I can say that my goal is to give you enough information and perspective so that you can make up your own mind as to whether this is a book you would like to read. Other than that, I think we should get under way.
What is this book about?
I will start by letting the author, Dr. Painter speak for herself. From the introduction we read:
"I might have entitled this book Constructions of White Americans from Antiquity to the Present, because it explores a concept that lies within a history of events. I have chosen this strategy because race is an idea, not a fact, and its questions demand answers from the conceptual rather than the factual realm. American history offers up a large bounty of commentary on what it means to be nonwhite, moving easily between alternations in the meaning of race as color, from 'colored' to 'Negro' to 'Afro-American' to 'black' to 'African America,' always associating the idea of blackness with slavery. But little attention has been paid to history's equally confused and flexible discourse on the white races and the old, old slave trade from eastern Europe" (1).
Before we go any further, let me pause to say this. Dr. Painter is telling us that "race is an idea,.. that demands answers from the conceptual rather than the factual realm." I really like that.
The reason why I like that is because touches upon area that is, for me, of profound interest. I am not so much a history "buff" as I am an enthusiast for the philosophy of history. For me the dominant question is always: Why are we here? By "here" I mean in the universe. That is, why do we exist.
When we ask any why question, this presupposes that someone can answer it starting with a because. But of course, it doesn't look like anybody's going to be able to answer that question for us, any time soon. So our investigation must take other tracts. We try to find "clues." We try to get hints based on an examination of the organism.
You see, I regard this question like as a kind of reverse-homicide investigation. Do what homicide investigators do in reverse. You look for so-called "motive, means, and opportunity." But before doing that you must know something about the "victim."
In the case of we the living, you might replace the word victim with subject. The thing to do, then, is learn all we can about the subject, what we are and how the human organism functions.
Having said all of that, know that I, personally, am drawn to any book in which the author---either intentionally or unintentionally on her part---provides the reader with any insight into how the human organism functions. One of the things I like about the book, The History of White People, then, is that it provides insight into how the human organism functions.
I'm talking about what we might call the notion-making factory of the human organism. As Dr. Painter would have it, we are dealing with the "conceptual" rather than the "factual" realm.
Let's read further.
Still quoting from the introduction:
"I use 'white races' in the plural, because for most of the past centuries---when race really came down to matters of law---educated Americans firmly believed in the existence of more than one European race. It is possible, and important, to investigate that other side of history without trivializing the history we already know so well" (2).
"Let me state categorically that while this is not history in white versus black, I do not by any means underestimate or ignore the overwhelming importance of black race in America. I am familiar with the truly gigantic literature that explains the meaning, importance, and honest-to-god reality of the existence of race when it means black. In comparison with this preoccupation, statutory and biological definitions of white race remain notoriously vague---the leavings of what is not black. But this vagueness does not indicate lack of interest---quite to the contrary, for another vast historical literature, much less known today, explains the meaning, importance, and honest-to-god reality of the existence of white races" (3).
Let's try to unpack some of that. What does Dr. Painter mean by white "races" plural?
First of all, we're speaking from the American context. We're speaking from the so-called WASP, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant context. As you know, the dominant strain of the dominating white-based wealth and authority power structure, in the United States, sees itself as being of northern and western European descent, sees itself as "Anglo-Saxon."
Let us call this self-perception, something like, "American Anglo-Saxon chauvinism." Well, Anglo-Saxon chauvinism, which sees itself as being of superior northern and western European extraction, has always looked down---way down---on people of southern and eastern European descent.
Please hear me very carefully on this. It is because the mindset of American Anglo-Saxon chauvinism (mind you, not all American whites necessarily share this chauvinism) believes that southern and eastern Europeans have been too mongrelized with Africans and Turks---mixture with non-European peoples.
At any rate, this is what Dr. Painter means by white "races" plural. This is what she means when she states that "for most of the past centuries---when race really came down to matters of law---educated Americans firmly believed in the existence of more than one European race."
The question for us to examine is this: What is Anglo-Saxon chauvinism, such that its mindset believes its "people" need to remain "pure," even from association with other "white" people of southern and eastern European descent?
We'll get into that in part two of the review of The History of White People.
Thank you for reading. See you in part two.
1. Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. ix
3. ibid, ix-x
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