Day 78 of the “What are you reading, and why?” project. Brian has been reading The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter. Why? For a men’s book group.
Not the SOBs, another men’s book group you have read about earlier in this blog. It’s a different men’s book group altogether, though perhaps similarly made up of both academics and non-academics, men interested in history, sociology, politics, and big ideas.
The History of White People is one author’s close look at issues of race and definition, bringing together philosophical, cultural, and historical takes on what race is and what it means to be “white.” Apparently, it is hard to say what race is; it’s a blurry thing.
This book was published in March, 2010, and I notice it coincided with television documentaries & entertainments on race and heritage and of course with the United States Census, and its insistence on racial categories.
I had trouble figuring out how to answer the Census questions, which did not, in the first place, seem clear on who I was to count as members of my household. Ultimately, I counted everyone in my nuclear family, even though my son is off at college, because he did happen to be home on April 1…and then we went to Ohio. Should we have been counted as part of my sister’s family? Have I mentioned that I am math-challenged? Anyway, my son was blurry on how his college would count him, so I counted him.
And I did not know what race to call my children. My husband, though Hispanic, is officially white on the Census form, but descends from Spaniards and indigenous Cuban people, who are, what? to begin with, and who may have mixed with African black slaves, as well as Spaniards, like his grandfather, since they survived all the diseases that tended to kill off the natives with vulnerable immune systems.
Likewise, what am I? Why does it matter?
Well, it matters when those in power need it to matter. In The History of White People, Painter points out that Jews and Hispanics were considered “white” in time to fight in the front lines in World War II, afterwards enjoying more of their civil rights and less of the previously routine discrimination and prejudice, as Joseph Heller noticed, among other ironies (such as those found in Catch 22). Political equality happened later, and still not without struggle, for American blacks, as the army wasn’t fully integrated till the Korean War. The Vietnam War and the civil rights movement in the United States are naturally linked in this philosophy of the history of white people.
All this and more came out in the men’s book group discussion, as summarized by Brian the second time I interviewed him, at work. (He’s my boss.) The men found Painter’s ancient history a little sparse, but accepted that this is an overview directed at a general audience, not a scholarly one, and that more information is readily available to interested readers. She spent some time discounting dubious race studies but left more valid explorations untouched, and thus open to further research and interpretation.
Brian says she viewed earlier human divisions as tribalism instead of racism and suggests that the Enlightenment created racism. Essentially, the people in power, who were white, set up categories based on differences in appearance, and somehow arranged it so they themselves were on top. Not a big surprise. As Brian put it, summarizing her thesis, “There’s no such thing as race. It’s a cultural construction.”