The Sunday Magazine·The Sunday Edition

There is no such thing as the 'white race' — or any other race, says historian

At a time when conversations about race are reaching a fever pitch and believers in white supremacy feel support from the President of the United States, Nell Irvin Painter, author of The History of White People, argues that race doesn't exist.
Nell Irvin Painter is the author of The History of White People. (Penguin Random House Canada)

This segment originally aired on Sept. 17, 2017.

The murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville in 2017 — and that of Viola Liuzzo on an Alabama highway in 1965 — showed that even white people can be at mortal risk from the violent factions of the white supremacist movement. 

But even without their more militant extremes, the fact that white nationalists celebrate leaders who fought to preserve slavery, and that they cling to Nazi-influenced theories of racial superiority, would be proof for most people that they are anything but superior.

Science has indeed debunked claims that white people are superior to other races. More than that, there's really no such thing as the white race — or any other race — in the first place.

People have been able to see differences in skin colour from as long as we know, but the meaning of those differences has changed over time.- Nell Irvin Painter

At least, there's no scientific basis for race. Human DNA is about 99.9 percent the same across the full spectrum of skin colour and ethnicity.

Yet, race has been one of the most powerful narratives in the world for hundreds of years, in enlightened Western democracies and despotic regimes alike. Ideas about race have structured societies and politics, created national myths, and led to enslavement, war and genocide.

And a belief in the supremacy of white people remains persistent and pernicious in some quarters — an invention, just as race (including the white race) was an invention.

Nell Irvin Painter is an eminent American historian who made the story of the white race the subject of her landmark book The History of White People.

She's the Edwards Professor of American History Emerita at Princeton University.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.