The History of White People

Written by Nell Irvin Painter
Review by Cecelia Holland

This ambitious non-fiction book could have been called “A History of the Idea of White People,” since that’s what it’s about. The interesting thesis is that the idea of whiteness has evolved steadily over the ages to justify the dominance of one class over others. It starts with a rocky overview of pre-modern history that is often too generalized to mean anything, and sometimes too breezy for accuracy (King John “an avid international adventurer”? What?). Sometimes it seems dangerously like a send-up of the “studies” school of historiography in which every detail is reduced to a narrow identity issue.

When Painter arrives in the 20th century the book becomes more coherent and the writing more pungent. The last four chapters, on race politics in our own time, are dense and rigorous, yielding interesting insights and even a hopeful sense that race prejudices can be overcome. These chapters, developed in more detail, would be a fascinating book on its own. The illustrations, fittingly, are black and white, plentiful, set close to the related text.