We in the West tend to classify people by the color of their skin, or what we casually call “race.” But, as Nell Irvin Painter shows in her fascinating new book The History of White People (Norton, 2010), it wasn’t always so. The Greeks didn’t do it, at least very seriously. The Romans didn’t do it, at least very often. And the folks of the Middle Ages didn’t do it, at least with much gusto. In fact, the people who invented the modern concept of “race” and the classification of people by skin color were Europeans and Americans of the Enlightenment and Romantic Era.
Why then and there? As Painter points out, a number of historical trends coincided to produced “racial science” and its child “whiteness” in Europe and North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These trends included: the “discovery” of New Worlds (and the people in them) in the Americas, Asia, and Africa; the evolution of the African slave trade and with it the historically novel identification of “negroes” with slavery; the birth of proto-anthoropology and with its ancillary sciences (e.g., “craniometry”); nationalism, and desire of nationalists (especially Germans) to discover the intrinsic “greatness” of particular nations (notably theirs); the massive influx of “undesirable” Irish and Eastern Europeans into the United States; and the “progressive” idea that human populations could be bred for “superior traits,” that is, eugenics. All these things forced European and American elites to think hard about what kind of people they were.
The conclusion they reached was that they were (variously) “Anglo Saxons,” “Nordics,” “Aryans” and eventually just “Whites.” That they believed themselves to be superior to all other “races” should not surprise us (humans being naturally prideful). But the muddle-headed quality of their thought on matters racial should raise some eyebrows, for these people were not dumb. They were, however, afraid, and fear often drives even well-intentioned, intelligent people to say foolish things. This they certainly did. Alas, some people still do. They should read Nell Painter’s fine book.
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