Review Overview: The History of White People

A new book chronicles the formation of white identity

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The recent travails of Bob McDonnell, Tavis Smiley, and Michael Steele all illustrate the driving role race still plays in the national conversation. In that sense, The History of White People, a new book from Nell Irvin Painter, is well-suited to the moment. Painter, a historian at Princeton University, enters that conversation from an unusual angle, exploring the way "whiteness," as a racial and social category, has been constructed over the centuries. Critics agree that her scholarship is impressive, and that her subject couldn't be more relevant to American life in the year 2010.

  • Indispensable  At the San Francisco Chronicle, Paul Devlin has nothing but accolades: Painter's book is "a scholarly, non-polemical masterpiece of broad historical synthesis," one that "ranges far and wide with authority" and demonstrates that "framing of 'the other'... [is] an integral part of Western tradition."
  • An Excellent General Primer  Linda Gordon, writing in The New York Times, points out that what's old news to academics--the idea that "racial divisions are fundamentally arbitrary, and that deciding who is white has been not only fluid but also heavily influenced by class and culture"--hasn't really made its way into the greater cultural consciousness yet. But Painter's work is "widely readable," and communicates big ideas using "insightful and lively exposition."
  • Could Have Been Structured Better  In a wide-reaching New Yorker review worth reading in its entirety, Kelefah Sanneh puts Painter's work in dialogue with several other recent books about whiteness, including the print volume of the hipster-humor blog Stuff White People Like. The scope of Painter's project is ambitious, Sanneh notes--perhaps a bit too ambitious: "As the theorists and theories pile up, Painter starts to seem, like nineteenth-century Norway, a bit exhausted ... The tone and the format conspire to make these architects of whiteness hard to distinguish, and harder still to care about."
  • Great--As Far As It Goes  Writing in Newsweek (under the irresistible book-review rubric "Swipe This Critique"), Raina Kelley praises Painter for refusing to endorse the idea of a post-racial America. She serves up "an excellent rebuttal to all that 'Kumbaya' drivel people have been pushing since November 2008." But in the midst of dissecting the historical roots of racism, Painter misses an opportunity to explore the forms it takes today: "With just a bit less literary criticism and a healthy dash of cultural and media analysis, she could have made this book sing."
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