White is a construct of language and culture, just like you would expect. We all contain roughly the same DNA, no matter our “race”.
In 2000, the Human Genome Project finally answered one of the most fundamental questions about race: What, if anything, is the genetic difference between people of different skin colors — black, white, Hispanic, Asian? The answer: nearly nothing. As it turns out, we all share 99.99 percent of the same genetic code — no matter our race — a fact that, geneticist J. Craig Venter claimed, proves that race is a “social concept, not a scientific one.”
But as Nell Irvin Painter explains in “The History of White People,” her exhaustive and fascinating new look at the history of the idea of the white race, it’s a social construct that goes back much further and is much more complicated than many people think. In the book, Painter, a professor of American history at Princeton, chronicles the evolution of the concept of whiteness from ancient Rome — where, she points out, the slaves were largely white — to the 21st century America and explains how, in the era of Obama, our once-narrow concept of whiteness has become at once far broader and less important than ever before.
The elevation of some ethnic groups — Germans and Scandinavians — as “whiter” than others can largely be tied to a small number of scientists who shared an obsession with both measuring people’s skulls and pinpointing the world’s “most beautiful” people. As Painter writes, a number of social and demographic upheavals (which she dubs “enlargements of whiteness”) over the last two centuries have gradually thrown many of those assumptions into question.
[Click to continue reading “The History of White People”: What it means to be white – Nonfiction – Salon.com]
Nell Irvin Painter made an appearance on Stephen Colbert’s show recently, but it was one of those interviews where Colbert didn’t let Ms. Painter talk much. The book looks interesting, I’ll let you know if it is worth picking up after I finish reading it. Bonus: more Saint Patrick history apparently included.
Who are white people and where did they come from? Elementary questions with elusive, contradictory, and complicated answers set historian Painter’s inquiry into motion. From notions of whiteness in Greek literature to the changing nature of white identity in direct response to Malcolm X and his black power successors, Painter’s wide-ranging response is a who’s who of racial thinkers and a synoptic guide to their work. Her commodious history of an idea accommodates Caesar; Saint Patrick, history’s most famous British slave of the early medieval period; Madame de Staël; and Emerson, the philosopher king of American white race theory. Painter (Sojourner Truth) reviews the diverse cast in their intellectual milieus, linking them to one another across time and language barriers. Conceptions of beauty (ideals of white beauty [became] firmly embedded in the science of race), social science research, and persistent North/South stereotypes prove relevant to defining whiteness. What we can see, the author observes, depends heavily on what our culture has trained us to look for. For the variable, changing, and often capricious definition of whiteness, Painter offers a kaleidoscopic lens.
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