Nell Irvin Painter’s title, “The History of White People,” is a provocation in several ways: it’s monumental in sweep, and its absurd grandiosity should call to mind the fact that writing a “History of Black People” might seem perfectly reasonable to white people. But the title is literally accurate, because the book traces characterizations of the lighter-skinned people we call white today, starting with the ancient Scythians. For those who have not yet registered how much these characterizations have changed, let me assure you that sensory observation was not the basis of racial nomenclature.
Some ancient descriptions did note color, as when the ancient Greeks recognized that their “barbaric” northern neighbors, Scythians and Celts, had lighter skin than Greeks considered normal. Most ancient peoples defined population differences culturally, not physically, and often regarded lighter people as less civilized. Centuries later, European travel writers regarded the light-skinned Circassians, a k a Caucasians, as people best fit only for slavery, yet at the same time labeled Circassian slave women the epitome of beauty. Exoticizing and sexualizing women of allegedly inferior “races” has a long and continuous history in racial thought; it’s just that today they are usually darker-skinned women.
The modern intellectual history of whiteness began among the 18th-century German scholars who invented racial “science.” Johann Joachim Winckelmann made the ancient Greeks his models of beauty by imagining them white-skinned; he may even have suppressed his own (correct) suspicion that their statues, though copied by the Romans in white marble, had originally been painted. The Dutchman Petrus Camper calculated the proportions and angles of the ideal face and skull, and produced a scale that awarded a perfect rating to the head of a Greek god and ranked Europeans as the runners-up, earning 80 out of 100. The Englishman Charles White collected skulls that he arranged from lowest to highest degree of perfection. He did not think he was seeing the gradual improvement of the human species, but assumed rather the polygenesis theory: the different races arose from separate divine creations and were designed with a range of quality.
The modern concept of a Caucasian race, which students my age were taught in school, came from Johann Friedrich Blumenbach of Göttingen, the most influential of this generation of race scholars. Switching from skulls to skin, he divided humans into five races by color — white, yellow, copper, tawny, and tawny-black to jet-black — but he ascribed these differences to climate. Still convinced that people of the Caucasus were the paragons of beauty, he placed residents of North Africa and India in the Caucasian category, sliding into a linguistic analysis based on the common derivation of Indo-European languages. That category, Painter notes, soon slipped free of any geographic or linguistic moorings and became a quasi-scientific term for a race known as “white.”
Comment: Interesting. Article has an interesting graphic. Two in our family are really light skinned. My sister in law who traces her ancestry back to Ireland, and my wife (whose maiden name is "White") who traces her's back to Austria. Kathee's sister is very olive skinned.