A provocative look at the white race—or, more accurately, the white races—by noted African-American scholar Painter (Creating Black Americans: African-American History and its Meanings, 1619 to the Present, 2005, etc.).
The notion of race is illusory and elusive, yet it has been a topic on the minds of many people since…well, mostly not that long ago, though the author traces the encounters of African, Greek, Scythian and Celt far into the past, sometimes getting a little out of her element. It is not quite accurate, for instance, to say of the Celtic tribes that we “cannot know what those people called themselves,” for their names are plentiful, and words such as xanthos suggest that the Greeks were well aware of “color” differences among people. Still, Painter makes the useful point that constructions of race and whiteness, though drawing on distant roots and ancient tropes of enslaver and enslaved, are relatively recent developments. Also, she notes that, during the last few centuries, there have been visible notions of degrees of whiteness—with Irish immigrants, for example, excluded from membership in white America—as well as a concept of expanding whiteness—those Irish were eventually admitted to the ranks once the Eastern Europeans came along. There are even different types of whiteness. Ralph Waldo Emerson, writes the author, pondered regional differences with respect to his fellow Northerners, “a smarter but weaker ‘race’ than southerners.” Occasionally Painter’s argument relies on mere assertion: “White race chauvinists are loath to admit that brown-skinned people speak the English language fluently.” At such turns, an example or two would help. Nonetheless, the author, who has devoured shelves of books in the American history stacks, makes a significant point. Though we have mapped the human genome and discovered how closely related all the peoples of Earth are, “the fundamental black white binary endures, even though the category of whiteness—or might we say more precisely, a category of nonblackness—effectively expands.”
Sure to interest students of ethnic relations, history and anthropology, with pointed examples for daily living in this multicultural, multiethnic land.