The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter - review by Daniel Matlin

Daniel Matlin


The History of White People


W W Norton & Co 496pp £19.99

If the title of this book suggests the sort of screed that might be advertised on the BNP’s website, rest assured that it is no such thing. Indeed, The History of White People is something of a misnomer, since the story Nell Irvin Painter tells is that of the idea of white people. Unfortunately, the book’s opening words – ‘I might have entitled this book Constructions of White Americans from Antiquity to the Present’ – only add to the confusion. What, if anything, would it mean to claim that white Americans were being constructed in antiquity? Always an unstable notion, race frequently lends itself to opaque or ambiguous discussion.

Since the 1960s, when historians inspired by decolonisation and civil rights protest set out to expose the oppressive dynamics of empire, slavery and segregation, ‘race’ has primarily been a euphemism for blacks and other ‘people of colour’, just as ‘gender’ has been used as a synonym for ‘women’.

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