August 2019
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"The History of White People": vastly informative, profoundly important, and beautifully constructed

icon: "bluestocking (photo of a book lying open on a table with a bright window in the background, overlaid with a yellow fractal that looks like the sun shining through dust motes)"

What is the origin of the beauty ideal of pale, slender, young women? How did Nazism start? How did men get so fixated on their 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 This book is dense because it is filled with meticulous historical references, but so worth the read.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 people enslaved each other: the Vikings enslaved northern Europeans and sold them in Bristol and Dublin, where they were re-sold in a system where slavery was inherited. This was so common that in the 11th century, one out of every 10 residents of Britian was a slave, and the Catholic church owned many white slaves. White male slaves were often castrated to be sold as eunuchs. The Virginia Company contracted with London to sell white street children as field labor (where they mostly died within a few years), and these were the first slaves in what would become the U.S. Poor white women were sold as 'wives.' White people enslaved each other including their own children, yet no one argues that white people brought it upon themselves and should have stuck together. White slavery is not mentioned because it proves that there is no single narrative of slavery, and it doesn't allow for the continued myth of white people as natural 'leaders.'

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.

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on communication, social justice, intimacy, consent, friendship & other relationships, spirituality, gender, queerness, & dreams. Expect to find curse words, nudity, (occasionally explicit) talk of sex, and angry ranting, but NEVER slurs or sexually violent language. I use TW when I am aware of the need and on request.
Expect to find curse words, nudity, (occasionally explicit) talk of sex, and angry ranting, but NEVER slurs or sexually violent language. I use TW when I am aware of the need and on request.