Of Skulls and Buttocks

February 23, 2010 Topics: Society Regions: Americas Tags: UndefinedRacismSociology

Of Skulls and Buttocks

Mini Teaser: Europeans came to believe everything beautiful emanated from the Caucasus. The journey of their swarthy Mediterranean forebears was transformed into a caricature of the white marble statues they left behind.

by Author(s): Anthony Pagden

Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010), 496 pp., $27.95.


[amazon 0393049345 full] NELL IRVIN Painter's title is somewhat misleading. This is not a history of white people. It is a history, breezy and effective, of how certain white people came to invent the concept of "whiteness." More precisely, it is a genealogy of how certain Europeans and some Americans came to distinguish not only between themselves and others of different colors, but between themselves and others of (more or less) the same color. Today, it is widely assumed that race is largely a matter of differentiation between "Blacks" and what the U.S. Census Board still quaintly calls "Caucasian." What is forgotten, or simply ignored, is that for a crucial period in the history of the United States-from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries-what mattered most was not the line between "Whites" and "Blacks"; it was the near-impossible distinction between "Anglo-Saxons" or "Teutons," as they were sometimes called, and others of European origin-Celts, Italians, Poles, etc. It is, except among scholars, a now largely forgotten history; yet, it is also a very recent one. Nell Irvin Painter has done an invaluable service in resurrecting it in a complex, lively manner, which despite the fact that so much of the material she has to deal with is perverse, turgid and obscure-not to say downright nasty-never fails to catch the reader's imagination.

She occasionally falters: No one in the fifth century BCE believed that the world was flat. That was Washington Irving's invention. There never was such a thing as a "Greek Empire," nor is there any trace of mysticism in Kant. The Mughals were not Persians but Persianized Timurids. "Indo-European" is a language group, not a synonym for northern European. But in a book which covers such a long period of time, and such a wealth of different materials, such slippages are inescapable.


THE ODD tale of race starts in ancient Greece. As Painter readily admits, neither the Greeks nor the Romans had any conception of race as we might understand it.1 Nor did they have much concern with whiteness. They were themselves pretty brown and had far stronger ties, both physiologically and aesthetically, to the peoples of North Africa, Egypt and Asia than they did to the whiter, blonder peoples of northern Europe. And since they were widely traveled, most of them did not epitomize a single culture either. The Greek historian Herodotus, for instance, voyaged from his native Halicarnassus, then part of the mighty Persian Empire, as far up to the Nile as Elephantine, to Babylon and Carthage, to Cyrene in Libya and finally to the banks of the Dnieper in southern Russia, and described in detail all the peoples whom he met there. What the Greeks and the Romans did have, and what the citizens of Europe and their overseas-settler populations have inherited from them, was a vivid interest in classification; and they classified peoples as they did plants and animals.

The Greeks and the Romans also held the concept of a single human species, and words-anthropos in Greek, homo in Latin-to describe it. In this they may not have been unique, but they were certainly unusual. It was the source of Greco-Roman, and consequently European, universalism. It also presented them with a considerable problem. If all mankind was one, what caused the obvious differences in appearance and behavior between the various peoples of the world? An obvious answer, offered by Aristotle, embellished by the Greco-Roman historian Polybius, picked up by St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century and elaborated into a full-scale theory of cultural-not racial-differentiation by Montesquieu in the eighteenth century, was climate.

Crudely stated, the theory argued that those who lived in hot southern climes reacted to their environments by becoming lethargic and indolent. Those who lived in cold northern ones became hyperactive, aggressive and uncouth. Only the Greeks, and in later versions Europeans generally, because they were poised midway between these two extremes, could achieve the necessary balance to remain free, in control of their passions, reflective and morally active. Crucially, although the hypothesis was based upon a medical theory of the humors, there was nothing inherently deterministic about it. As peoples moved from clime to clime so too, after a while, their dispositions changed. But if this diagnosis was not exactly a theory of race, it laid the foundations of what Painter repeatedly calls "race science."


THE IDEA that through rigorous method one could codify and categorize various peoples into more or less worthy subtypes began with the work of a German doctor named Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. His On the Natural Variety of Mankind, penned in 1775, became one of the most influential attempts to establish differences between races on the basis of the measurement of skulls. By placing a series of human skulls from different peoples-Europeans, Africans, Asians, South Seas dwellers-in a line and measuring everything from the height of the foreheads to the length of the nasal bones, Blumenbach came up with what he called the "vertical norm." On the basis of this (and a judicious admixture of data about height, pigmentation and such like) he divided all the inhabitants of the world into five "varieties"-declaring Caucasian the most perfect.

What made Blumenbach's Caucasian so enduring, however, was an elision of scientific classification and a nebulous set of aesthetic judgments. For centuries, the slaves imported into Western Europe had come from the region around the Black Sea, labeled variously Circassian, Georgian or Caucasian. They were famous, the women in particular, for their beauty. By linking this beauty to the vertical norm, Blumenbach and his followers-notably another German, philosopher and University of Göttingen professor Christoph Meiners-succeeded in establishing beauty and ugliness as, in Meiners's words, "one of the most important characteristics of tribes and people." And in his view, and in Blumenbach's, only those of "Caucasian stock" were truly beautiful. This, Painter explains, is why "the social sciences, the criminal justice system, and, indeed, much of the English-speaking world" persist in labeling all "white" people after the inhabitants of a troublesome, mountainous borderland between northern Turkey and the Caspian Sea.

But the Europeans were to hit upon a bit of a dilemma. For ever since the Renaissance, European standards of aesthetics had been based on classical models, creating a bizarre conundrum in which the concept of an exemplary Caucasian beauty had to be squared with the fact that the historical Greeks and Romans had lived far from the Caucasus. In the late eighteenth century, then, a strange transformation took place in which, through some unknown magic, the ancients were made to look northern European rather than eastern Mediterranean-for that area was overrun by hirsute, stunted and far from white interlopers from Asia and couldn't possibly represent the white ideal. (It also helped that nearly all the representations of Greco-Roman figures that survived were in shining white marble.) The Greeks and Romans, at least as aesthetic and racial ideals, could now be seamlessly merged with the Caucasian.

There is, however, another aspect of this complex story which Painter does not consider. The original "Greeks," the Dorians who fought in the Trojan War, were themselves believed to have originated somewhere to the west of Attica. Long before Blumenbach, then, a Caucasian pedigree had been established for the peoples of the ancient world. Having thus created a remote ancestry somewhere far removed from the Mediterranean, it did not require too much heated racial imagination to push it still farther north and west, until the supreme examples of the "Caucasian type" became the Germans and English or, as they would soon be called, the Anglo-Saxons-precisely, of course (although this aspect of the story has been passed over in silence), those who were responsible for the destruction of classical civilization in the West; the victors always write the history.

The torch of ancient Greco-Roman civilization, from which all European peoples proudly claimed to be descended, had now passed from the southeast to the northwest. For Meiners, whom Painter calls the "favorite intellectual ancestor" of the Nazis, the Germans were in possession of the "whitest, most blooming and most delicate skin," and the men were the "tallest and most beautiful" in Europe, which meant, of course, in the entire world. All the rest, those living around the Mediterranean, even the French (not to mention the Slavs and others farther east, virtually indistinguishable from Asiatics), were shorter, darker, less manly-a crucial marker-and ultimately less civilized. Henceforth, racial distinction would focus increasingly on the division within the "white category," which meant, in effect, on the differences between the various peoples of Europe-and those of them who had settled overseas, above all for Painter's purposes, in the United States.


THE CONCEPT of whiteness, and the supremacy of one group of white people over another group of white people, became deeply embedded in the Western psyche. No longer was it good enough to simply have light-colored skin. One quickly had to become a bona fide member of the Anglo-Saxon race. Christoph Meiners may have enjoyed what Painter quirkily describes as a "fringy popularity," but the idea that the peoples of Europe might be divided into different races was introduced to a wider public by two far less fringy writers: the English essayist Thomas Carlyle and his American epigone, Ralph Waldo Emerson (once described unkindly, if not entirely inaccurately, by English critic John Ruskin as "a sort of cobweb over Carlyle").

Essay Types: Book Review