reading “the history of white people” by nell irvin painter part 02


[CN: discussions of colonial gaze, sex slavery/trafficking, patriarchy, white supremacy, anti-black racism]

Painter’s history begins in the time of ancient greece, which may be striking to some, since white people didn’t get made until the 18th century. nevertheless, the earliest peoples with light skin lived in societies that flanked the greek empire, and the knowledge produced on these folks by the likes of herodotus contain the germs of the origin myths that sustain much of contemporary white nationalism.

this part of her discussion focuses on white slavery, which sustained western civilizations for a millenium before the trans atlantic slave trade. the anti-blackness that would have the world agree on Africa as the slavable continent and entrench itself into our government is gaining. but in this section, Painter focuses on the experiences of white women under slavery and how this shaped western patriarchal values, as well as orientalism — another crucial logic of white supremacy.

after all, in her introduction, Painter expresses her concerns with the distribution of wealth, power, and beauty.

history as we understand it is at the mercy of whoever set out to write shit down. Painter emphasizes this as she introduces the first two main “white” folx: the Scythians, early slavic people east of Greece, and the Celts.

We cannot know what those people called themselves, for the Greek names stuck.

and in any case anyone still thinks “race” as a category is a timeless constant:

recall the naming skills of fifteenth-century Europeans as they looked west in the Americas. Their backs to the Atlantic Ocean, Europeans described sparsely settled people they had never seen before as “Indians.” Such precision regarding faraway, unlettered peoples has been commonplace throughout the ages. Those at a distance became the Other and, easily conquered, the lesser. But not in antiquity because of race. Ancient Greeks did not think in terms of race (later translators would put that word in their mouths); instead, Greeks through of place. Africa meant Egypt and Libya. Asia meant Persia as far to the east as India. Europe meant Greece and neighboring lands as far west as Sicily. Western Turkey belonged to Europe because Greeks lived there. Indeed, most of the Greek known world lay to the east and south of what would become recognizable later as Europe.

a theme in this section is the questioning of easy narratives of origin/creation

Russians and Ukrainians who now claim ancient Scythians as glorious ancestors look to Yalta in the Crimea as their ancestral home. Some Russian ancestors surely would have lived there, but the region’s tumultuous history renders any single origin an invented tradition.

Nowadays, the notion of Celtic ancestry is widely appealing. Thinking wishfully, self-proclaimed Celts like to root themselves in French Brittany, the islands of teh English Channel, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, easily separating themselves from Germans, Anglo-Saxons, and Franks.

Painter’s main sources on greek knowledge come from the (chauvinistic, colonial) writings of herodotus and hippocrates. the latter wrote on the practices of these “barbarians” with a creepy fixation on their sexual habits.

the material and cultural growth that allows for this anthropologic work came from the labor of slaves.

Quite likely, slaves outnumbered free people in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, probably numbering 80,000 to 100,000 in Athens alone. Multitudes of enslaved women worked primarily at household tasks, providing sservices that could be sexual, medical, and domestic, while male slaves, skilled and unskilled, labored in the fields, on board ships, and in industrial workshops. Athens used an enslaved Scythian police force numbering between 300 and 1,000, for Scythians were known as skilled archers.

and it is here that Painter introduces the economy of beauty in her analysis:

ancient Greeks are rightly known for their appreciation of good-looking boys, and when ancient sources speak of the beauty of slaves, they mean boys, not women and girls.

we move on to the Roman hegemony and its relationship with the germanic peoples who would eventually sack the capital and extort vast wealth from its political elites. Again, Roman superiority was not conditioned by race.

Clearly, to the Romans, civilization, not blood, set the two peoples apart.

Painter also brings to our attention a curious documentation of monsters in Pliny the Elder’s compilation of historical knowledge (around 77 CE). specimens include cyclopses, people with a single huge foot that can be used for shade, and dog-human hybrids.

monsters remained part of the accepted scientific view of humanity until Johann Friedrich Blumenbach disproved their existence in his Ph.D. dissertation of 1775. It says a great deal about the intellectual inertia of medieval Western society that the notions to be found in Pliny’s Natural History held on for fifteen hundred years.

that “intellectual inertia” has perhaps transformed into a political inertia for the white establishment to grant humanity to black people and give up their racial privilege. The 3/5th’s clause, the civil war and reconstruction, the civil rights movement — in a general sense, amerikkka has been deferring the same basic problem: white people cant live without black death.

each era of europe’s history contains so much movement and mixing of diverse peoples that “no clear lines of descent trace back over two millenia.” hell, even in a country as young as the US, “pure” whiteness in an individual is actually pretty unlikely. and this is definitely the case for our so-called culture, to which white people have contributed nothing that they didn’t steal, and black people just about everything that we really enjoy.

(seriously. if money were created everytime i heard a white man who luuuuuuuvs jazz say “now if only those city thugs would stop hating themselves and achieve as much as duke ellington–“)

the final leg of this section develops the construction of european beauty standards which now blight the world, which arrived in the context of white woman slavery.

in Ireland a female slave represented a unit of currency, like a dollar or a euro.

vikings, Italian merchants, and Ottoman merchants moved slaves across eurasia. their captives were russian, greek, moorish, and ethiopian. at this point, arabs were also enslaving north african peoples and shipping them to the iberia. this is in the early to mid 15th century.

As the price of slaves increased and slaves became luxury goods, the Italian trade shifted from able-bodied workers toward good-looking youth, especially adolescent girls. Women with a European appearance seemed more attractive and fetched higher prices than strong young Tartars.

the link between colonization and drug culture is powerful. the demand for sugar brought european slavers to the west coast of Africa, sending their human cargo to work in the brutal sugar plantations in the amerikas and the caribbean.

These new plantations with their African workforce have largely obscured the memory of the older, European history of sugar, with its Mediterranean and Balkan workforce, leaving a large conceptual gap.

…In sum, before an eighteenth-century boom in the African slave trade, between one-half and two-thirds of all early white immigrants to the British colonies in the Western Hemisphere came as unfree laborers, some 300,000 to 400,000 people. The eighteenth century created the now familiar equation that converts race to black and black to slave.

this brute labor slavery was contrasted by white anthropologists with the luxury slavery of white women. These women, the “odalisques,” became “epitomes of human beauty.” The “erotic figure” of the odalisque would invade Western art, universalizing “beauty” as a thin woman with pale skin. and this appearance was then conflated with “racial purity.”

As this slavery faded, so did its iconography, but the ideals of white beauty endured. They had become firmly embedded in the science of race.

and so the stage is set for the development of the modern racial theories that would eventually justify the statistics constructed by the police (who began as the slave patrol) that rationalize for whites the enduring trauma of slavery — in the prisons, the underfunded schools, the ruined safety net, and the bloody streets.


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