It’s hard to ignore a book with the title The History Of White People, and so naturally, I picked it up. I didn’t know what it was about, but suspected it may not be as interesting as the title would suggest.
Now, after finishing all four hundred pages, I can say I am not too impressed or disappointed. It had quickly occurred to me it may be another history book about the founding of Europe . It was a little bit of this, but not all about this. It’s about racism and race theory, too.
In the book, author and Professor Nell Irvin Painter tracks the origins of race science from the founding of the Anglo-Saxon race in Europe to modern America. The book chronicles the lives and theories of such prominent white, and few non-white, thinkers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Jefferson and others who, of Anglo-Saxon ancestry, were heavily invested in proving and glorifying white Anglo-Saxons as the naturally dominant race, and rightful originators/keepers of civilization. This led to the birth of race theory.
Race theory is a theory or two about races or ethnic groups, their origins, abilities, beauty, social position and lives. Some of these theories are frivolous, others are dangerous and others are interesting. For example: did you know that prior to the 1950s, Europeans were divided into three distinct races–not ethnic groups, but races?
According to Irvin Painter, the three racial groups in Europe were Nordics–Alpine–Mediterraneans. Race theory later got preoccupied with the so-called three races of man (Caucasian, Mongoloid, Negroid), stemming from the obsession with skull shapes, and physical aesthetics; but, more mythically fascinating was the creation of the “Caucasian” label, a misnomer coming from the mythical powers associated with the Caucasus region (see excerpt below):
According to Greek mythology, Jason and his Argonauts sought the Golden Fleece in the (Caucasus) land of Colchis (near the present-day Georgian city of Poti) obtaining it from King Aeetes, thanks to the magical powers of the king’s daughter, the princess Medea. In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe, the sister of King Aeetes, transforms half of Odysseus’s men into animals and seduces Odysseus. Later on, Hesiod and Aeschylus take up the tale of Prometheus, son of a Titan, punished for having stolen the secret of fire from Zeus, who chains Prometheus to a mountain in the Caucasus and sends an eagle to peck at his liver every day for thirty thousand years.3 One can see that to the Greeks, almost anything goes on in the Caucasus. Furthermore, Greek mythology accords women of the Caucasus extraordinary powers, whether the magical of Medea and Circe, or the warlike of the Amazons, variously located in a number of places, including the Caucasus. Even today, these myths -reverberate.4
Underlying the idea that all people originated between the Black and the Caspian Seas is the text of Genesis 8:1, which has Noah’s ark coming to rest “on the mountains of Ararat” after the flood. In the thirteenth century Marco Polo located Mount Ararat in Armenia, just south of Georgia in eastern Turkey, at the juncture of Armenia, Iraq, and Iran in the country of the Kurds. At any rate, Mount Ararat, at 5,185 meters, or some 17,000 feet high, is Turkey’s highest mountain and is still believed by many to mark the site of postdiluvian human history in western Asia. Nor have recent events lessened its -importance.
The Irish in America features prominently into Irvin Painter’s book, as the Irish represented a sort of ‘taint’ on the white race, according to white Anglo-Saxon protestant thinkers who saw the illiteracy, Celtic blood, Catholicism, war-like attitude, and penury of the Irish as proof of their ‘racial’ inferiority. Like the Irish, other [ethnic] whites such as Italians, Jews and Eastern Europeans make cameos for the main reason the Irish did. They were deemed ‘unwanted’ immigrants, or lesser whites, and were used to juxtapose blacks in America.
Eventually, however, these ethnic whites were accepted by WASP mainstream society, as the ‘three races of Europe’ theory withered away during WWII with the rise of Nazi Germany, a product of racial superiority complex and race theory. Also, the death of ‘race theory’ eventual led to the reduced influence of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
Using French writer Gustave De Beaumont’s novel Marie, a commentary on the one drop rule, that tells the tale of a white man who falls in love with a white-looking partly black woman only to endure the wrath of his race-obsessed society, Irvin Painter shows the contradiction, frivolity and sometimes cruelty in race thinking and the mess it has gotten the world into.
This is an academic book, not an Afrocentric rant laced with anger and resentment toward whites, nor does it poke fun of whites. Irvin Painter keeps her personal opinions out of the book, and simply chooses to let the race theorists express their own beliefs in their own words. By chronicling the rise of race theory, and its generational and societal impact: racism, the book may have well been called, The History of Racism.