reading “the history of white people” by nell irvin painter part 01


[CN: white supremacy, slavery, erasure]

why i am hyped for reading this book:

  • i think im coming out of a extra bad 6-month downturn plus a small breakdown bc of my depression, and im getting the enthusiasm to read stuff again.
  • nell irvin painter is a black woman historian of the south
  •  this text is the kind of epic longue duree presentation that tickles me personally; and what better subject to learn about right now than the constructed concept of whiteness (which i dont bother separating from white supremacy these days)
  • ive only read the introduction so far and it’s already exciting
  • im ready to get schooled in premodern history which i dont know shit about
  • im ready to have the lingering anti-blackness/racialized nuances in white people/ahistorical assumptions about race that are still in my head challenged

i read too much establishment history, bc i was struck by the introduction’s refusal to summarize the text’s structure or have some statement of purpose/importance or w/e.

instead, we get 9 paragraphs that only sketch out what is to come. but they cover a wide breadth of ideas that lay down critical groundwork that keeps the audience on the same page re: race is a fiction, whiteness is conditioned by anti-blackness.

many Americans cling to race as the unschooled cling to superstition.

this chapter is split into two sections that represent the two complex myths of whiteness that painter highlights. the first is the tenacious belief by white people in multiple white races. the plurality of categorizing systems for the “caucasians” illustrate how the

biological definitions of white race remain notoriously vague — the leavings of what is not black.

blackness is nonwhiteness within an idea as reductive as race, yet it is whiteness that that is the negative category.

a constant revelation in studying history is just how young the current structures of control and power really are (birth certificates, the police). and similarly, our dominant conceptions of race and whiteness are easily traceable to those enlightenment fuckers. so why the need to frame this text into a deeper antique history?

given the prevalence of the notion that race is permanent, many believe it possible to trace something recognizable as the white race back more than two thousand years. In addition, not a few Westerners have attempted to racialize antiquity, making ancient history into white race history and classics into a lily-white field complete with pictures of blond ancient Greeks. Transforming the ancients into Anglo-Saxon ancestors made classics unwelcoming to African American classicists.

so  this project considers the white historical gaze that sees a mirror in the past to rationalize the privileges in the present. and like this isnt even an exaggeration: just look at the biblical epics of hollywood including the more recent shit.

The second myth is that race has any objective biological truth, that race has influenced human society/organization thruout time, and that slavery is inherently racialized (white=free, black=slaves).

The history of unfree white people slumbers in popular forgetfulness, though white slavery (like black slavery) moved people around and mixed up human genes on a massive scale. The important demographic role of the various slave trades is all too often overlooked as a historical force.

it would be a challenge for me to try to discuss these nuances in whiteness w/o serving white supremacy by centering the experiences of the privileged. but painters’ language reminds us that what we are talking about here is the “parody of history” as james baldwin called it, that is embraced by white reality.

the notion of American whiteness will continue to evolve, as it has since the creation of the American Republic.

within the context of white myths, it is an attack of sorts to describe whiteness as “evolving” thru historical time and right now.

im really interested by how the text is talking about whitewashing the classical era while engaging in a sort of classical presentation of history, starting on the greeks and proceeding to the present “fourth expansion of whiteness.” linear time, causal development, narrative-driven, “history for lay people”.

i hope these qualities make the text more likely to be read by whites.



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