Professor emerita Nell Irvin Painter traces a racial construct and its expansion through time and across continents
Nell Irvin Painter examines racial thinkers who have shaped and redefined a racial category.
Nell Irvin Painter examines racial thinkers who have shaped and redefined a racial category.
Robin Holland

Nell Irvin Painter’s wide-ranging 400-page historical investigation of “whiteness” began with a simple question: Why are white people called “Caucasian?”  

Her question was prompted by the mid-1990s violence in Eurasia and images in the news of Chechens, who are literally Caucasian yet look different from white people in America.  

Her answer led her to the way race became an idea in the 18th century and to the German anthropologist and race scholar Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who studied skulls along with skin color. Blumenbach declared that his most beautiful skull had come from a woman in the Caucasus, a mountainous region in Eurasia. The term Caucasian eventually “floated far from its geographical origin,” according to Painter, and became the “scientific term of choice for white people.”

Painter’s new book, The History of White People, published by W.W. Norton in March, brings the academic discipline of “whiteness studies” — the examination of white as a racial and cultural construct — to a broad reading public. Painter is the Edwards Professor of American History emerita at Princeton, where she taught a class on the subject.

Painter examines the evolution of that racial category and racial thinkers through history, to show that the definition of “white” depended on the dominant culture and often was influenced by notions of beauty and power.

A renowned scholar of African-American history, Painter traces the emergence of the concept of “whiteness” as American and European thinkers read and corresponded with one another, bouncing ideas back and forth across the ocean in the 18th and 19th centuries. While much of the ­theory about race was first developed in Europe, America with its mix of nationalities provided a ready testing ground.  

The linchpin in Painter’s story of whiteness in America is Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom Painter calls “the philosopher-king of American white-race theory.” The idea of white changed with Emerson as he applied it — in his hallmark English Traits — to ­Anglo-Saxons, arguing that American Anglo-Saxons were the true whites and a superior race.  

Emerson’s link between American and Saxon primed American thought for the onslaught of “scientific” studies, including I.Q. tests, in the early 20th century. Along with anthropological studies, these tests quantified racial ­difference and universally concluded that recent immigrants, such as Eastern European Jews and Italians, were innately inferior and did not belong
in the category of white.  

Painter shows that the definition of white has expanded since World War II: European minority groups, like Eastern European Jews, now are considered white. To many people, questions of race in America today tend to exclusively mean questions of white and black, Painter says. And we no longer recognize that the different races of Europe were not considered white, she says, but were considered separate racial categories. Says Painter: “It’s a forgotten history.”  

Who Cares? Public Ambivalence and Government Acti­vism from the New Deal to the Second Gilded Age KATHERINE S. NEWMAN, C.K. WILLIAMS, Leaves of Grass On Whitman China and the Vocation of History in the Twentieth Century: A Personal Memoir East Asian Library Journal FREDERICK W. MOTE, Global Capitalism: A Sociological Perspective MIGUEL A. CENTENO,