The History of White People
By Nell Irvin Painter
Review by Dr. Herbert L. Calhoun
The author begins her search for whiteness in the midst of Greek and Roman Myths, where, as is still true today, power determined the markers of ethnic differences rather than physical attributes such as skin color. Both Rome and Greece attributed ethnic differences -- especially beauty and strength -- to climate, warrior-like qualities, chastity during war, and the heartiness of being wild and free.
Both cultures, unlike the later conquerors of the Americas, learned to live with, and to give backhanded respect to the warrior qualities of the barbarians they conquered, enslaved and eventually came to rely on as proxies to fight their wars. But once these barbarian tribes were conquered and civilized into Greek and Roman culture, they were then seen by the conquerors themselves as losing their bellicose noble savage masculinity, and instead of being seen as strong and brave, were seen as going soft, leaning towards the same effeminacy that the Greek and Roman men saw in themselves.
So, if the full truth were ever told, any search for the true ancestors of white Americans must invariably lead back to the "dirty, funny-looking, non-literate but warlike" Europeans that stalked the walls of a crumbling Roman Empire -- certainly not back to Romans and Greeks themselves. These barbarians, that were eventually conquered and used as slaves by Greece, Rome and the Ottoman Empire, made up the tribes of whites who constituted the pool that would eventually populate Western Europe and North America.
Time and again, ever since, the better classes concluded as the Greeks, Romans and Ottomans did, that enslaved people were responsible for their own enslavement and thus deserved their lot. Today we recognize this kind of reasoning only as it relates to blacks, but for centuries the markers of perceived "ethnic inability" that produced slaves (and much later the idea of race) had nothing at all to do with skin color, and, for more than two centuries, had everything to do with Europe's own white slaves.
The prototype tribe for what would later become Germans, the Germani tribes that remained unconquered by the Romans, were admired for their war-like abilities, but perhaps more importantly, for a moral ability that would become one of the first markers for racial identification: the ability to deny oneself sex while training for war.
For Roman purposes, politics, sexual virtue, and warfare defined ethnic identities. To them, morality and sexual virtue, not blood or skin color, or even languages, set peoples apart. Romans believed these first hints of racial ability made both the Germans and Gauls militarily stronger than themselves. So, it was during the Gallic Wars, that, for the first time, instead of conquest and commerce being the basis for distinguishing tribes, the river Rhine and chastity during war, as well as military bravery served as the dividing line between permanently dissimilar peoples.
The first inkling of white people as a race, was given its most enduring expression as part of an Ottoman strategy for recruiting female slaves for their harems. It seems that they fancied fair-skin white women from the Caucasus region over all other slaves. Apparently this preference of the Ottoman rich, not only stuck with the slave traders, but was also enlarged when it was depicted in Renaissance art, and later enshrined forever by Johann Frederick Blumenbach's farcical 1775 fifteen-page PhD thesis, in which, for the first time he defined all whites, not just Caucasus harem slaves, as superior in their beauty and physical form. It was a stretch without any rhyme or reason.
The unintended consequences of this fortuitous attribution by a German economist is one of those odd flukes that reverberates across history, and against all reason and logic, remains operative even today: In short, one year before the American Revolution, the master race was hatched out of thin air, patterned after an Ottoman harem recruitment strategy, and ever since, has served as the basis for white superiority by a race that has since referred to itself as being Caucasian?
The way the Ottoman slave trade worked was that warfare among barbarians knocking on Rome's backdoor, steadily drove refugees onto the market where their chiefs sold them to slave traders for luxury goods. Out of economic necessity, many parents also sold thousands of their own children into slavery. Constantinople and Istanbul not only dominated the market, but as the Moors swept across Europe, they soon also choked off commerce and access by northern and Western Europeans, forcing them to seek slave markets of their own beyond Europe.
Thus, the Ottoman monopoly of commerce and the slave trade, spurred the transatlantic slave trade. It is just coincidental that the Ottoman monopoly of commerce occurred around the same time that religious wars were taking place in Britain and Western Europe. Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Britain solved the Ottoman monopoly problem by setting sail and exploring the world in search of new markets and slave routes. In the West we called this "the Age of Exploration." Their success at finding new slave markets ushered in a new global economy based on sugar, tobacco, cotton and a brisk market in African slaves.
Britain used exploration to solve its own rampant social problems by enacting the Transportation Act of 1718, which allowed for the removal of convicts to the North American colonies. Other illicit means were used to "con" as many unwary Europeans onto British colonial American ships as possible. Between the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade and its ending with the American Revolution, some 50,000 convicts were forcibly transported to British North America and another 100,000 to Australia. At the same time, about ten times that many came to American shores through various unsavory land schemes such as the "head right system," in which each head sent to America was worth fifty acres of land to the headhunter.
All of those transported in these schemes were white people, and the bulk of them came as unfree labor, such as indentured servants, a British euphemism for slave. Not until around 1830, forty years after the American Revolution, did white slavery formally come to an end in colonial North America. And then, it did so only when the "natural increase" in homegrown black slaves became large enough to offset the difference in both the lost of white slaves and the end of the transatlantic slave trade. By making blacks and their children slaves in perpetuity, Colonial America, not only made up the difference but also became the world's largest exporter of slaves. In short, as the author so aptly noted, "the eighteenth century created the now familiar equation that converted race to black and black to slave."
Thus, in this story, the history of biological racism has come full circle: from the artistic depiction of the bodies of Caucasian harem slaves, to measuring skulls as anthropology, to the misguided use of Darwin's theories as science, to America's Eugenics program as a form of human compassion, to Hitler's ovens as a final solution to the Jewish problem, modern biological racism, (so-called scientific racism), was through and through a Western invention.
The Conceptual Meaning of Whiteness: A missed Opportunity
In summary, the story told in this book is one based only on those facts left by white people to be used to tell their history. And despite the fact that their story has never been told in quite as coherent and scholarly manner as has been done by this author, it is still only one half of a much larger much deeper, multi-sided story about the white race.
The author's history, for all its many virtues, is still more about whiteness as biology (skin color and beauty, Craniology, intelligence, survival of the fittest, etc.), than about whiteness as a concept or an idea -- about white reality -- that is, about white psychology, white power, the white ideology of racism, its economics and hegemony, etc.
Certainly some of this is implied when the remnants of biological theories are traced back through white-sanctioned history as is so carefully and scholarly done in this book. However, I would argue that a cleaner separation is needed between biological racism, and the long tail of racist psychology and ideology, if one is to get a full picture of the meaning of whiteness through Western history.
Much to her credit, this author carefully lays out end-to-end, the facts of the biological version of white history. These "artifacts" of whiteness told as history, may on the surface appear to have an uncomplicated existence, but the truth is that no matter how thorough it might be done, narratives such as this one, are not even half the story.
For just beneath the surface, a slew of seething unacknowledged complications in the meanings of whiteness lie. These complications go well beyond a straight forward narrative recitation of white historical facts and events. They lop over well into the much more difficult realms of white racial meanings as they apply to personal white racial psychology, morality, economics, ideology and beyond.
I would argue that the evolution of these expanded meanings are every bit as important to white history as isolated facts about how race came into being. Is it not true that they make up the inescapable backdrop of the continuously evolving ideology of whiteness, which, without question, is coterminous with white history? This ideology must be seen as an integral part of any history of white people, not as a separate adjunct (like the crazy cousin that must be segregated and hidden off in a closet in the back room?)
For instance, in the introduction, the author reiterates an important self-evident truth: that "white people" is a conceptual category rather than a "biological reality." Or, to make it even more ontologically and epistemologically clear: while whiteness may be a biological fiction, it is very much a moral, psychological, ideological and economic reality. This being the case, is it unfair to ask the author why she elected to create a narrative that tracks precisely only with the dead end path of the biological meanings of whiteness?
Pluralizing "white peoples" as a literary artifice, does not exactly solve the larger problem of how to account for the long tail of biological racist meanings that remain attached to whiteness even though the theories of biological racism have long since been declared dead. It simply shifts those meanings further along the same biological axis, allowing the author to safely skip over them rather than engage the more complex moral, psychological, economic and ideological meanings that derive directly from this long historical tail of theories of biological racism. If nothing else, it reinforces a well hidden negative idea: that even though biological racism may be dead, it is far from being buried in contemporary race-based cultures such as America, Brazil and South Africa.
Given that whiteness, without its biological underpinnings, is like a free-floating concept set adrift at sea, whiteness, in the absence of biological racism, is clearly now an idea in search of new meanings? But, except for Germany, no such new meanings have been forthcoming, nor can they arise unacknowledged and unforced out of the dust and denials about the continued existence of biological racism. They must be consciously and pro-actively shaped in a counter-ideology of anti-racism just as has been done in post-War Germany -- pursued and forged through a new kind of non-race-based definition of whiteness, period. There is no other way.
Yet, with the exception of Germany, no such "new kind of whiteness" is forthcoming in the primary white racist nations. In point of fact, the strongest discernible impulse among "post modern non-biological racist whites" seen today is that of circling the tribal wagons defensively, trying to finesse and ride out the issue of what whiteness really means in the absence of its biological racist underpinnings.
And if I am interpreting this author's manuscript correctly, this "wait-and-see strategy" is working out quite well for those who wish to use denial to delay facing the music. Indeed, few whites would disagree that the most common reaction to the discredited notions of biological racism is a defensive one ("We had nothing to do with slavery or massacring the Indians," anti-racist whites are race traitors, using coded racist language to retain the remnants of biological racism, etc.)
But would we not be remiss not to mention in a book on white history that the history of white psychology began on the plane of commercial exploitation, moved quickly into the realm of collective justification of current and past brutal crimes, and then molded them both into a firmly entrenched but defensive ideology of racism and white supremacy?
Thus, put simply, there is nothing "more historical" about white people than the seamless evolution of the racist psychology that they have readily embraced across the last two centuries. In fact, the worse kept secret in the Western World is that, despite being discredited, and against all reason, biological racism remains a palpable reality even today. Its existence is so pervasive that, arguably, except for Germany, which has purged its culture of a dependence on biological racism, it still constitutes the most important existential parameter in the collective white mindset.
And here, not to belabor the point, but it is an elementary exercise to show that the aspect of white history missing from this book is not a very well-hidden one. To wit:
Everyone knows that without the biological theories of racism to lean on, white people must continue to passively, and unconsciously, go about the business of "pretending not to know" that their whole self-worth, self-esteem and humanity is still heavily invested in, mediated by, and tethered to, the psychology of biological racism.
Put more graphically, the whole of the white identity remains tethered forever to Johann Frederick Blumenbach's model of biological whiteness as Caucasians. In short, their whole existence is tethered to biological racism as a norm, as a "pretend respectable way of life."
Enforced through a weak layer of racist tyranny imposed in all racist cultures, the sanctity of whiteness exists way out on a fragile moral limb -- as liable to break as to remain intact. An integral part of white ideology today, is for us all, whites and non-whites alike, to quietly submit to collective denial and pretense with them, by continuing to deny that their white humanity, permanently tethered to biological racism as it is, is counterfeit.
This collective denial, by us non-whites, is a very high price for a culture to pay, especially in the face of at least one Western nation, Germany, that has come clean with its collective conscious and forged a new more pristine, authentic and legitimate anti-racist white humanity.
Is it thus not fair to ask: When is America, Brazil and South Africa going to wake up from their respective denials and intoxication with their favorite fetish, white racism, and forge a new more authentic anti-racist concept of whiteness?
Again, the proof is rather self-evident. The rules of Western society have been sensitively arranged so that the benefits of biological racism are "passively acquired" by anyone with white skin, or who identifies themselves as "being white." Thus, white skin, equals white identity; and this is all you need in order to cash-in on and be able to take home a bundle of illicit benefits, perks, advantages, and prerogatives for life.
Simply by doing nothing, white identity alone entitles white skin to all of the benefits, perks, and advantages (both tangible and intangible) that accrue to the bankrupt theory of biological whiteness. Other than respecting and defending the unwritten illicit rules and norms of biological racism, all a recipient has to do, is allow the benefits to be passively accrued and never, throughout a life time, ever openly acknowledge their existence. How utterly morally bankrupt is that as a basis for a people to rest its humanity on? Yet, that is the basis of post-modern whiteness in most of the world except in Germany, where proactive action has been taken to expel the world's last scourge of humanity, white racism.
Therefore, I want to argue that this book offers us only one half of the history and meaning of whiteness, and thus only the meaning white people in denial about race themselves feel comfortable with. The other half, and I would argue, the more important half, has to do with the psychology, economics and even the philosophy of the tightly woven meanings of whiteness as an ideology of American racism.
I did not intend for this review to be this long, or to be a critique of what is perhaps the most complete, if not the finest work ever written on the complicated subject of whiteness and white history. Yet, I would have been remiss not to at least have tried to raise some of the problems that are inherent in the conceptual misunderstanding that arises as an adjunct to this strange and all-pervasive concept called "white people," whose only real meaning is contained in the twisted conceptual baggage of the dying theories of biological racism.
Without at least trying to explicate the psychological, baggage inherent in the concept of whiteness, a baggage that serves as both the mid-wife and the ongoing platform for attributions of all meanings to "conceptual whiteness," then by default, everything else thus falls back on the scaffolding of the already discredited biological meaning of whiteness.
In a treatise this well-done, we simply could not allow that to happen. The whiteness spoken of in this treatise is little more than the "conceptual ghost" that the hidden hand of biological racism has written. There is a lot more that needs to be said about this, but I think I will stop here. This is one fine piece of scholarship. 100 stars!
Editor's note: This review was written by Dr. Herbert L. Calhoun and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.