Who Draws the Lines?

At a recent YWCA “It’s Time to Act” event, guest speaker Dr. Nell Irvin Painter, a retired history professor from Princeton and author of “The History of White People,” talked about how the 2016 presidential election focused our attention on the understudied question: What does it mean to have white identity?

She discussed how races have been classified, generally by white men, through history. Painter indicated these classifications change, because the borders we create around race are man-made ideas — not based on innate facts. 

For example, in the late 1800s, biometrics developed as the science of measuring characteristics to label individuals. At the time, the shape of faces was measured and it was decreed that the Anglo-Saxon race was superior to Celtic. After some countries fell out of favor because of World War I, she said, “Celtics got ‘in’” and the Mediterranean pigmentation of Italians was deemed inferior.

Eventually classification was less about face shape, and more about “racial temperament.” Americanus was stubborn, Africanus was crafty and negligent, Asiaticus was sallow and distracted, and Europeaus were deemed gentle and inventive. The classifications were created in Europe.

After World War II, Painter said, classification focused on the working class person as “inferior, dirty, ignorant, drunk, socialist, and anarchist.” The superior race was deemed to be the Nordic outdoorsmen, who were sons of nature and hunting —as determined by Nordic outdoorsmen.

“It’s about who draws the lines,” Painter concluded. 

It seems that since the 1950s, classification of largely white male values — strong patriarchs with protective and militaristic tendencies 
— has been the prevailing mindset about what identity type is superior. 

Suggested resource: sceneonradio.org/seeing-white