What is the origin of the beauty ideal of pale, slender, young women? How did Nazism start? How did men get so fixated on penises as symbols of their worth? How did the first world war contribute to the rise of the kkk? What were IQ tests invented for? Where did the dehumanization of disabled people and mentally ill people come from?
Answers to these and many other questions you probably never thought to ask are found in "The History of White People" by Nell Irvin Painter, Edwards Professor of American History. It is the most densely informational book on modern society that I've ever come across. The jacket refers to it as 'mind-expanding and myth destroying' and that is an understatement. After reading this, I felt more understanding of the world around me than I had ever gained from all of my history, anthropology, and sociology classes combined (I have a degree in sociology). This book is dense because it is filled with meticulous historical references, but so worth the read. If you want to understand the forces and context of modern war, slavery, beauty, and gender, this book will outline all of these things for you.
Even though it is dense with information, "The History of White People" is written in an almost conversational tone, with no jargon or flowery phrasing to get in the way of understanding. Quotes are given with context and explanation if the quote is written in an obscure or academic way. And even though it handles the topic of racial hatred and racial claims to superiority, the author keeps a compassionate tone and reminds the reader to consider the context of the time.
Honestly I would not be nearly so empathetic to racists of the past, even though I am white. However I think it is a wise choice, because many white readers would feel attacked simply by someone mentioning that a white person was racist and harmed people. The reminders would help white readers to feel like their humanity is being recognized. And it is white people who so desperately need to read this book.
Illustrations are included throughout the book to amazing effect. Photos, charts, paintings, drawings, political cartoons: visible evidence of many of the claims within the book. It's one thing to read that black and irish people were considered equally unfit for citizenship: it's another to see a cartoon from 1876 of caricatured black and irish people sitting on either side of a set of scales, in balance.
I wish there was a way to sum up what I learned reading this book. I was constantly shocked at what I hadn't known before. I'll just share a bit.
White U.S. scholars invented a heirarchy of people based on race, seeking a way to justify their privilege. That creation of theirs was what lead to the holocaust. All it takes for genocide is an idea of superiority plus someone with the power to take action on it.
The author also explains the path to whiteness for the initially-considered-nonwhite Irish and Jewish peoples, and discusses others who have been moved in and out of whiteness based on the current political climate, such as Latin@ and South Asian people.
There is so much more in this book. The thing that hit me the hardest was the realization of the huge impact of a few self-important white men making up shit to justify why they got to laze around in wealth while other people literally had to slave away. And then other guilty selfish people agreeing because it made them feel better, leading to a pervasive and persistent ideology of 'natural order' that outlived slavery.
The fact that this ideology is less than 500 years old and was created so simply means that it can be dismantled. It is not part of human life. It is not inevitable. It was created with a handful of ideas and can be destroyed with better ideas. The history of white people is still being created, and every white person is responsible for unlearning racial ideology and cleaning it out of all of the places it has infected society.
If you care about the truth and understanding humanity, you need to read this book.