The History of White People
by Nell Irvin Painter
W. W. Norton & Company
$27.95 List Price
During the 2009 holiday shopping rush, a popular computer maker encountered an embarrassing problem—its vaunted facial-recognition program failed to register black faces. Much of the ensuing media discussion noted that such software was still in its infancy. It makes sense that computers would be confused about race. After all, their creators are often equally clueless.
Much American racial ignorance probably stems from our stubborn insistence on “recognizing” race in the first place. “Race is an idea, not a fact,” Nell Irvin Painter reminds us in her impressive new book, The History of White People. “Each person shares 99.99 percent of the genetic material of every other human being. . . . [P]eople from the same race can be more different than people from different races.” Without any empirical basis to support their efforts, she observes, arbiters of alleged racial difference proceed via “individual taste and political need.” Painter diligently lays out the ways that such tastes and needs worked, over time, to create the classification “white.” She tackles a provocative subject with easeful authority, proceeding with admirable restraint and letting flawed scholarship and thinking speak for itself. She only occasionally resorts to such harsh but justifiable descriptions as “nutty,” “cockamamie,” and “flagrantly nonsensical.”
Painter argues that “a notion of freedom lies at the core of the American idea of whiteness.” She traces the origins of this pivotal association to Europe—where freedom and whiteness weren’t always so intimate: “Over more than a millennium, the vast