19 May 2010

Day 53: The History of White People

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter.  ISBN: 9780393049343.

Author Note: I was going to try to avoid talking about race, but the very nature of this book sort of prevents it.  I will attempt to tread carefully, I will try not to step on toes, but even on a good day I am not the most diplomatic of speakers.

Oh man, reading this has really taken me back.  Painter's work parallels what I was writing about in my senior project.  Granted, her work has much more in-depth scholarship and covers a much broader range of people. Despite its 400 pages, I have practically devoured this book because it's a topic that still interests me.  And this book definitely makes me want to pick up my research again and work on my flimsy 35-page project.

For those of you who wonder what the hell I'm talking about, my senior project was about perceptions of German immigrants and German Americans by native-born Americans during the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.  I compared this with perceptions during times of peace, and a lot of that involved discussions of whiteness.  I cannot tell you how important something like this book is, not only to my research, but to the understanding of racial identity in America.  Period.

In some ways, racial identity might as well not even exist.  I am not saying that it hasn't influenced people (individually and as a group); I am saying that it is a social construct and for the most part any differences we actually have are cultural and socioeconomic.  Painter states this as well: "No consensus has ever formed on the number of human races or even on the number of white races.  Criteria constantly shift according to individual taste and political need." (Page 383).  On the other hand, I also understand that I'm coming from a place of privilege.  I understand that for billions of people, race does exist, because it has given them benefits or disadvantages.  The thing is, over the past 100 years the American definition of what a "good" immigrant (or ethnic) is has changed drastically.  As we include more racial groups and as racial lines continue to blur together, I think that race will eventually matter less and less.  To again quote Painter: "Acknowledgment of the existence of people of 'mixed race,' as in the U.S. Census, means acknowledgment of the impermanence of race." (Page 396).

I think in some ways this intermixing will lead to a better human species.  It is easier to accept what you are familiar with.  If we can see each other in the faces of our enemies, it will be one less thing we are likely to fight over.  I am concerned about the potential loss of culture, but I think we will find new ways to differentiate ourselves from our neighbors, and perhaps not so much as to start the warmongering all over again.

**I am extremely uncomfortable talking about race given my privileged background and education.  I have tried to be delicate and not wrong-headed, but if I've said anything wrong-headed it was meant to evoke discussion and not flare up hard feelings.  Like everyone else, I have prejudices; I hate that I have prejudices, and I am working on not letting those prejudices negatively affect my life or the lives of others.  If I have said anything completely fucked up, please let me know (preferably politely).  I am a work in progress.

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