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The History of White People

Narrated by: Allyson Johnson
Length: 14 hrs and 9 mins
Categories: History, 20th Century
4.5 out of 5 stars (18 ratings)

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Summary

A mind-expanding and myth-destroying exploration of notions of white race—not merely a skin color but also a signal of power, prestige, and beauty to be withheld and granted selectively. Ever since the Enlightenment, race theory and its inevitable partner, racism, have followed a crooked road, constructed by dominant peoples to justify their domination of others. Filling a huge gap in historical literature that long focused on the non-white, eminent historian Nell Irvin Painter guides us through more than two thousand years of Western civilization, tracing not only the invention of the idea of race but also the frequent worship of “whiteness” for economic, social, scientific, and political ends.

Our story begins in Greek and Roman antiquity, where the concept of race did not exist, only geography and the opportunity to conquer and enslave others. Not until the eighteenth century did an obsession with whiteness flourish, with the German invention of the notion of Caucasian beauty. This theory made northern Europeans into “Saxons,” “Anglo-Saxons,” and “Teutons,” envisioned as uniquely handsome natural rulers. Here was a worldview congenial to northern Europeans bent on empire. There followed an explosion of theories of race, now focusing on racial temperament as well as skin color. Spread by such intellectuals as Madame de Stael and Thomas Carlyle, white race theory soon reached North America with a vengeance.

Its chief spokesman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, did the most to label Anglo-Saxons—icons of beauty and virtue—as the only true Americans. It was an ideal that excluded not only blacks but also all ethnic groups not of Protestant, northern European background. The Irish and Native Americans were out and, later, so were the Chinese, Jews, Italians, Slavs, and Greeks—all deemed racially alien. Did immigrations threaten the very existence of America? Americans were assumed to be white, but who among poor immigrants could become truly American?

A tortured and convoluted series of scientific explorations developed—theories intended to keep Anglo-Saxons at the top: the ever-popular measurement of skulls, the powerful eugenics movement, and highly biased intelligence tests—all designed to keep working people out and down. As Painter reveals, power—supported by economics, science, and politics—continued to drive exclusionary notions of whiteness until, deep into the twentieth century, political realities enlarged the category of truly American.

A story filled with towering historical figures, The History of White People forcefully reminds us that the concept of one white race is a recent invention. The meaning, importance, and realty of this all-too-human thesis of race have buckled under the weight of a long and rich unfolding of events.

©2010 Nell Irvin Painter (P)2013 Audible, Inc.

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Meh

This could have been a lot more interesting but Allyson Johnson has a voice that will put you to sleep!

3 of 7 people found this review helpful

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Profile Image for Emily L.
  • Emily L.
  • 25-08-14

Destroys the myth that race is about skin color

What made the experience of listening to The History of White People the most enjoyable?

I found this book to be enlightening and even though it contains a huge amount of information it is still bearable. The presentation of illogical, contradictory race theory about different European races really revealed how the concept of race in general is a social construct.

Which scene was your favorite?

I was surprised to learn about 1920's eugenics and the campaign against "degenerate" families...meaning poor whites... who contradicted the theory that Anglo Saxons where a superior race..

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

This book covers a great deal of time and contains many names and dates while addressing a very complex topic. It would have been impossible for me to listen to it all in one sitting. Still I found it very engaging, and I just accepted that I would never be able to retain all the details in my memory.

Any additional comments?

Economics, religion, science, literature and politics have all played their part in the invention and maintenance of race theories that have been used to justify inequality and the status quo of keeping power from those deemed as "other."

50 of 53 people found this review helpful

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  • ayodele higgs
  • 31-07-15

A Great Listen

This book gave me a new look at the concept of race. The author did excellent research and introduced me to thoughts I never knew existed. I loved this book.

18 of 19 people found this review helpful

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  • Rrrapture G
  • 03-01-18

Exacting, thorough, interesting

It took me a while to get into it because of the dates and names, but then I realized how well researched and blissfully thorough the book is. Which is what the best of science is to me. As a white woman in the US, I appreciate this book because I have rarely gotten a real solid answer on whiteness in the US, and IMO we all need to know where we come from--conceptually and spiritually if not literally. Nell Irvin Painter sheds light on this.

As a middle class/working class disabled white woman from a working class family, I value Painter's insight on class and the construction of racial whiteness and how that leads to pressure on each of us to live a certain role. The details and history are jaw dropping. The current day play of this legacy is *facepalm* really obvious after listening and inexcusable.

I have to honor the horrors that have been and are still done by your everyday, pleasant seeming white person to people of color and even poor (for example, homeless) white people in the interest of maintaining a certain standard of middle class whiteness. It's hard for me to hear, although this is not a new idea to me. But it's better to hear it and deal with it and stop doing that bs. The subtle humor of the author comes into view at various times of the read, and it's refreshing when the weight of the facts and sheer illogic of racism and classism can really weigh you down.

One thing I wish Painter would dealve into more: the othering of Indigenous Americans and how the process of colonialism and our current settler society (meaning the land we live on is, literally, stolen from the recent ancestors of our American Indian neighbors) ties into the house of cards of whiteness and settler identity.

I recommend this book. Thank you Nell Irvin Painter.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • Salih Abdullah
  • 24-04-15

Important history

It's hard to say you can dislike a history book. it's nothing more than the narration of supposedly factual events. I believe this historical text is something that should be taught in American public schools. We should understand this social construct of race. How it originated, developed, and divides us today is something that the youth deserve to know so they can lead in effectively in the future. For those reasons this book is a great academic introduction to this concept.

23 of 27 people found this review helpful

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  • Cameron Richardson
  • 07-02-18

Great Book on the Construction of American Whiteness

Painter's analytical account takes the reader from Greek Antiquity to the recent American past (Obama-era), detailing important thinkers and history otherwise. Clearly written and easy to read. The author finds a rational middle ground between important broad strokes and specific supporting detail (i.e. motif of the changing ideas of western political leaders, such as Caesar, Napoleon, and a litany of America presidents, which supplements the analysis of academic racial thought and reflects the trends in this history's progression). It's an admirable balance unless one hopes for a more exhaustive look at such history, in which case I'd still recommend this book, albeit along with further research. Though racial discourse can seem inherently divisive, this fair, largely detached description of informational storytelling offers only the analysis-based conclusions that readers ought to come to on their own. It shouldn't be controversial to anyone not personally invested in protecting the notion of biological determinism, or racial permanence. That being said, readers should not expect "deep" sociological analysis. Rather, readers should expect to gain understanding with respect to the history of "whiteness", whether or not they are familiar with notions of social construction and race. It's my personal opinion that we'd all feel less divided for understanding and learning from this history. Definitely read this book; definitely listen to this audiobook.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Pgood
  • 15-12-15

Brilliant

An eye-opening exploration of the construct of race. Regardless of whether you're "black" or "white" or anything in between, this book will change the way you think of the concept of "race".

10 of 12 people found this review helpful

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  • CMH75
  • 23-02-19

Enraged & Engaged

This book enraged and engaged me -- It's really the history of privileged white men pontificating about what beauty means and pulling science out of their butts as a tool to feel good about their pinkness. I was rolling my eyes at them for 3/4 of the book.

Rage aside, I was enthralled. I'm currently also reading Zinn's People's History and appreciated the additional race-centered perspective regarding historical events. Also, it's fascinating to watch the progressive transformation of thought and to think about what the future may bring, in light of new science and climate change.

Loved the narration and a great book that racists will probably can't learn from because division is their myth, their religion...

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Afrizans
  • 30-09-18

Disappointing

This book should have been titled “The history of white racism”. Very disappointing and misleading title. A total waste of my time and money.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Paola V. Hidalgo
  • 26-07-17

Very Interesting

all white people should read this book without judging this woman who did a great job writing it

5 of 6 people found this review helpful

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  • DEON E PROVOST
  • 30-08-16

must read

a completely different take on race in America and it's emergence without vitriolic finger-pointing. am awesome read and narration

4 of 5 people found this review helpful