Posted on March 24, 2010

“The History of White People”: What It Means to Be White

Thomas Rogers,, March 22, 2010


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, [race is] 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. {snip}

Salon spoke to Painter over the phone, about the meaning of “Caucasian,” America’s obsession with racial difference, and the real meaning of Stuff White People Like.

Why write a history of whiteness?

We’ve spent so much time in this country on various racial issues. It’s our national sport, in a way, and it’s always as if there is only one side: nonwhite. But this is one of those binaries where you need both sides to make sense of it.

I want to point out that this book is not about white nationalism. It’s not about how bad white people are. It’s about how we have thought about people now considered white. I used to encounter reservations about the project, and people would ask, “Why are you doing this as a black person?” People hear it’s a book called “The History of White People” and that it’s by a black author, and make assumptions.


The Human Genome Project found that there’s no genetic basis for racial difference. Is this the end of race?

This is nothing new. {snip}

But just as there’s been the discovery that race is a concept with no scientific meaning, there’s also been a cultural movement to rerace knowledge. When the genome was completed in 2000, the headlines were, “Race is meaningless,” “We’re all the same,” and then three to four years later there came, “I am a race-profiling doctor.” There was heart medicine marketed to black people. What’s really interesting about finding race in the genome in terms of diseases is that diseases that have been discovered so far with a strong genomic cause are among white people, not black people.


As you write in the book, there were four great expansions of what America considers whiteness. What were they?

The first three are expansions of whiteness, because the assumption was that to be American you first had to be white. The first occurred in the Jacksonian era, in the first half of the 19th century, when citizenship criteria were changed from wealth to race. That’s when adult males of any income were allowed to vote, as long as they were considered white. Things changed in the 20th century, when different groups came in as immigrants and people of Irish background were incorporated into the notion of American whiteness. The third great enlargement took place in the mid-20th century, starting with the New Deal in the 1930s and WWII. Politics and the mobilization of Americans to fight the Great Depression and to fight the Second World War opened up American-ness to people who had been considered alien races and their children and grandchildren.

We’re currently in the midst of the fourth great expansion, which is an expansion of the idea of the American–that an American doesn’t necessarily need to be white to be considered American. “American” now includes Hispanics, for example, and people who identify themselves as multiracial. Because of this sort of great enlargement, we can no longer sum up the American as one person or the white man as one person.


It’s conspicuous that many of the scientists who were trying to determine the “most superior” white race were obsessed with figuring out which race was best-looking.

Physical beauty and race were thought to be something physical and permanent that can be passed down generation to generation, but if you look at magazines from the 1960s or the 1920s, you see that ideas of beauty change. What I find so fascinating is that if you look carefully at the faces of many models today, they would not have passed as beautiful in the middle of the 20th century. Now we look more at bodies. We like bodies to be very thin–like thinness is beauty.

Every few years there also seems to be a new fashionable ethnicity for runway models–one year it’ll be Russians, the next it’s Brazilians.