Once upon a time in America; Italians, Jews, and Irish people were not considered White. Yes, it’s surprising. Some people who are classified as White may not consider themselves Caucasian. Many people consider the concept of race to be an illusion, a construct to be defined and re-defined. For example, you may consider yourself white until you find out that your great-great-grandfather was a Louisiana born Black Creole who passed for white in the north.
Last night I saw author and Princeton professor Nell Irvin Painter was on “The Colbert Report” discussing her new book “The History of White People” [Read some of it for free on Google Books]. She talked about how race is not permanent, how definitions of race are affected by education, class and sex, and the history of the definition of whiteness. The interview was a lot of fun, but I [like Colbert] had no idea what the book was really about at the end of the segment. Her interview with NPR provides A LOT more information.
Painter is the author of Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (1996) and several other scholarly works on the history of slavery and race relations in America, most recently Creating Black Americans (2006). Her latest selection examines the history of “whiteness” as a racial category and rhetorical weapon: who is considered to be “white,” who is not, what such distinctions mean, and how notions of whiteness have morphed over time in response to shifting demographics, aesthetic tastes, and political exigencies. After a brief look at how the ancients conceptualized the differences between European peoples, Painter focuses primarily on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There, the artistic idealization of beautiful white slaves from the Caucasus combined with German Romantic racial theories and lots of spurious science to construct an ideology of white superiority which, picked up by Ralph Waldo Emerson and other race-obsessed American intellectuals, quickly became an essential component of the nation’s uniquely racialized discourse about who could be considered an American. Presenting vivid psychological portraits of Emerson and dozens of other figures variously famous and obscure, and carefully mapping the links between them, Painter’s narrative succeeds as an engaging and sophisticated intellectual history, as well as an eloquent reminder of the fluidity (and perhaps futility) of racial categories. –Brendan Driscol, Booklist
Here is part of an awesome documentary that aired some years ago on PBS that deals in detail with the evolution of race