Nell Irvin Painter’s title, “The History of White People,” is a provocation in several ways: it’s monumental in sweep, and its absurd grandiosity should call to mind the fact that writing a “History of Black People” might seem perfectly reasonable to white people. But the title is literally accurate, because the book traces characterizations of the lighter-skinned people we call white today, starting with the ancient Scythians. For those who have not yet registered how much these characterizations have changed, let me assure you that sensory observation was not the basis of racial nomenclature.
Some ancient descriptions did note color, as when the ancient Greeks recognized that their “barbaric” northern neighbors, Scythians and Celts, had lighter skin than Greeks considered normal. Most ancient peoples defined population differences culturally, not physically, and often regarded lighter people as less civilized. Centuries later, European travel writers regarded the light-skinned Circassians, aka Caucasians, as people best fit only for slavery, yet at the same time labeled Circassian slave women the epitome of beauty. Exoticizing and sexualizing women of allegedly inferior “races” has a long and continuous history in racial thought; it’s just that today they are usually darker-skinned women.
“Whiteness studies” have so proliferated in the last two decades that historians might be forgiven a yawn in response to being told that racial divisions are fundamentally arbitrary, and that deciding who is white has been not only fluid but also heavily influenced by class and culture. In some Latin American countries, for example, the term blanquearse, to bleach oneself, is used to mean moving upward in class status. But this concept – the social and cultural construction of race over time – remains harder for many people to understand than, say, the notion that gender is a social and cultural construction, unlike sex. As recently as 10 years ago, some of my undergraduate students at the University of Wisconsin heard my explanations of critical race theory as a denial of observable physical differences.
I wish I had had this book to offer them. Painter, a renowned historian recently retired from Princeton, has written an unusual study: an intellectual history, with occasional excursions to examine vernacular usage, for popular audiences. It has much to teach everyone, including whiteness experts, but it is accessible and breezy, its coverage broad and therefore necessarily superficial.
The modern intellectual history of whiteness began among the 18th-century German scholars who invented racial “science.” Johann Joachim Winckelmann made the ancient Greeks his models of beauty by imagining them white-skinned; he may even have suppressed his own (correct) suspicion that their statues, though copied by the Romans in white marble, had originally been painted. The Dutchman Petrus Camper calculated the proportions and angles of the ideal face and skull, and produced a scale that awarded a perfect rating to the head of a Greek god and ranked Europeans as the runners-up, earning 80 out of 100. The Englishman Charles White collected skulls that he arranged from lowest to highest degree of perfection. He did not think he was seeing the gradual improvement of the human species, but assumed rather the polygenesis theory: the different races arose from separate divine creations and were designed with a range of quality.
The modern concept of a Caucasian race, which students my age were taught in school, came from Johann Friedrich Blumenbach of Göttingen, the most influential of this generation of race scholars. Switching from skulls to skin, he divided humans into five races by color — white, yellow, copper, tawny, and tawny-black to jet-black — but he ascribed these differences to climate. Still convinced that people of the Caucasus were the paragons of beauty, he placed residents of North Africa and India in the Caucasian category, sliding into a linguistic analysis based on the common derivation of Indo-European languages. That category, Painter notes, soon slipped free of any geographic or linguistic moorings and became a quasi- scientific term for a race known as “white.”
Some great American heroes, notably Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson, absorbed Blumenbach’s influence but relabeled the categories of white superiority. They adopted the Saxons as their ideal, imagining Americans as direct and unalloyed descendants of the English, later including the Germans. In general, Western labels for racial superiority moved thus: Caucasian – Saxon – Teutonic – Nordic – Aryan – white/Anglo.
The spread of evolutionary theory required a series of theoretical shifts, to cope with changing understandings of what is heritable. When hereditary thought produced eugenics, the effort to breed superior human beings, it relied mostly on inaccurate genetics. Nevertheless, eugenic “science” became authoritative from the late 19th century through the 1930s. Eugenics gave rise to laws in at least 30 states authorizing forced sterilization of the ostensibly feeble-minded and the hereditarily criminal. Painter cites an estimate of 65,000 sterilized against their will by 1968, after which a combined feminist and civil rights campaign succeeded in radically restricting forced sterilization. While blacks and American Indians were disproportionately victimized, intelligence testing added many immigrants and others of “inferior stock,” predominantly Appalachian whites, to the rolls of the surgically sterilized.
In the long run, the project of measuring “intelligence” probably did more than eugenics to stigmatize and hold back the nonwhite. Researchers gave I.Q. tests to 1,750,000 recruits in World War I and found that the average mental age, for those 18 and over, was 13.08 years. That experiment in mass testing failed owing to the Army’s insistence that even the lowest ranked usually became model soldiers. But I.Q. testing achieved success in driving the anti-immigration movement. The tests allowed calibrated rankings of Americans of different ancestries — the English at the top, Poles on the bottom. Returning to head measurements, other researchers computed with new categories the proportion of different “blood” in people of different races: Belgians were 60 percent Nordic (the superior European race) and 40 percent Alpine, while the Irish were 30 percent Nordic and 70 percent Mediterranean (the inferior European race). Sometimes politics produced immediate changes in these supposedly objective findings: World War I caused the downgrading of Germans from heavily Nordic to heavily Alpine.
Painter points out, but without adequate discussion, that the adoration of whiteness became particularly problematic for women, as pale blue-eyed blondes became, like so many unattainable desires, a reminder of what was second-class about the rest of us. Among the painfully comic absurdities that racial science produced was the “beauty map” constructed by Francis Galton around the turn of the 20th century: he classified people as good, medium or bad; he categorized those he saw by using pushpins and thus demonstrated that London ranked highest and Aberdeen lowest in average beauty.
Rankings of intelligence and beauty supported escalating anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism in early-20th-century America. Both prejudices racialized non-Protestant groups. But Painter misses some crucial regional differences. While Jews and Italians were nonwhite in the East, they had long been white in San Francisco, where the racial “inferiors” were the Chinese. Although the United States census categorized Mexican-Americans as white through 1930, census enumerators in the Southwest, working from a different racial under standing, ignored those instructions and marked them “M” for Mexican.
In the same period, anarchist or socialist beliefs became a sign of racial inferiority, a premise strengthened by the presence of many immigrants and Jews among early-20th-century radicals. Whiteness thus became a method of stigmatizing dissenting ideas, a marker of ideological respectability; Painter should have investigated this phenomenon further. Also missing from the book is an analysis of the all-important question: Who benefits and how from the imprimatur of whiteness? Political elites and employers of low-wage labor, to choose just two groups, actively policed the boundaries of whiteness.
But I cannot fault Nell Painter’s choices — omissions to keep a book widely readable. Often, scholarly interpretation is transmitted through textbooks that oversimplify and even bore their readers with vague generalities. Far better for a large audience to learn about whiteness from a distinguished scholar in an insightful and lively exposition.
Linda Gordon is a professor of history at New York University and the author, most recently, of “Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits.”