In this series, contributor Christine Reyes is reading books that reveal and recover aspects of (primarily) US history. This is the third entry. For a list of books covered, see our intro here.
If you happen to be the kind of person who doesn’t like to draw attention, I wouldn’t recommend walking around with a copy of The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter. A 400+ page hardback with an stark white cover, this book prompts all kinds of questions and reactions, many of which are immediately defensive. While I was reading this, I kept finding myself in debates about whether it’s right to have a book like this for white people, because after all, haven’t all people, all empires done horrible things to people throughout history? All this from people who hadn’t read the book — who hadn’t even heard of it before.
Few people asked me to tell them more with an open curiosity; they saw the book, and knew that it was a merciless accounting of every wrong thing a white person has done, ever.
What the book is actually about is how Western society came to use the term “white” to describe a specific group of light-skinned, European-descended people. The Catholic Irish in the US, for instance, were not originally considered white. This book traces the history of the term “white” and details who is and isn’t included in this category at different points in history, and pushes a few different theories about what events caused that to happen.
Again, it’s a huge book, too much to summarize in a simple book review. But one thing is important to note for anyone who would be interested in this research: This book was not written in anger. In fact, I would argue that this book is mostly about hope.
The book could probably be more accurately titled “The History of White Supremacy,” because that’s what Painter really focuses on — the forces in history that thought of “white” as superior and aimed to control who could be “white” and who couldn’t. And that’s an important history to know, because there’s a pervasive argument today that racism is due to generational ignorance. The argument goes like this: our ancestors didn’t know better when they kidnapped people from Africa and went to war against the indigenous people of the Americas. Today, we do know better, and we’re shocked that racist violence is still occurring.
The truth is both more beautiful and more devastating. At every single point in history that white supremacy had gained another foothold, there is at least one prominent voice calling bullshit. There is always a scholar or a critic (sometimes “white,” sometimes not) who takes a stand against the notion of “white” and uses both scientific and sociological evidence to prove that all people are equal, regardless of skin tone.
Devastating, because every generation should have known better, and most chose not to. But beautiful, because it means that our ignorance doesn’t rule us. We still have time to listen to those who are calling out our blind spots today, and hopefully have the wisdom to be a generation that does a little better.