Click on the title to access live links and video interviews (which I can't embed for some reason). The third part, the interview, is the longest and not copied in full here. - DG
Americans continue to believe in race—"kind of like [how] people believe in witches," says Princeton historian Nell Irvin Painter. Yet the concept of race as we know it didn't develop until the Enlightenment, and American notions of what constitutes a "white" or "nonwhite" person have a complex history—one in which Carolus Linnaeus, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and (possibly) Barack Obama all play a role. It's the story Painter tells in her new book, "A History of White People," and in her Big Think interview.
It's no secret that the definition of white has expanded over the centuries, such that it now encompasses not only "Anglo-Saxons" but also people of Irish, Italian, Greek, and Jewish descent. But how did this expansion take place? And will it continue in the centuries ahead—or will racial boundaries change altogether? Both, says Painter, who believes that even as the idea of whiteness grows more ambiguous, "the idea of blackness, that is, poor dark-skinned people," will survive as long as fundamental inequalities persist in American society.
In the second half of the interview, Painter discusses her second career as—you guessed it—a painter. Transitioning from distinguished history professor at Princeton to "lowly graduate student" at RISD wasn't easy, but she's getting plenty of inspiration along the way from some of her favorite contemporary artists.
The concept of race may be a kind of cultural superstition, but in America at least, it's not going away anytime soon.
Question: To what extent is the American notion of “whiteness” based on class and not race?
Nell Irvin Painter: I don’t think you have to make a choice. I think in the United States we’ll always have both together because as long as we continue to believe in race, kind of like people believe in witches, no matter how often it gets disproved that will have a kind of gut-level feeling for us that the notion of class doesn’t. in Britain for instance, in England class has a gut-level feeling, but not in the United States, so they’re not the same thing and it’s not either/or, but you’re absolutely right to think that race is less important when people are doing well, so it’s not that somebody will look at somebody who looks like me and say, “Oh my gosh, you’re white.” It’s that it won’t matter so much anymore.
Question: Have American notions of race been exported around the world?
Nell Irvin Painter: The American sense of the importance, the fundamental importance of the black-white dichotomy, comes out of societies founded in the era of the African slave trade, so societies like ours, that is to say the western hemisphere, the Caribbean and so forth, we share a lot in common. In places like Germany or France the idea of black-white is not so much black-white but “our people and them,” and “them” can be people from the near east like Turks or Muslims or North Africans, all of whom might well be considered white in the United States.
Nell Irvin Painter: Okay, Nell Irvin Painter and I have two titles. One is Edwards Professor of American History Emerita, Princeton University, and the other is lowly graduate student.
Question: After so many histories of nonwhite people by whites, does your book seek to correct the imbalance?
Nell Irvin Painter: It’s not an attempt to correct an imbalance, but I think it may function that way. For me it was an answering of questions. I started with a question I couldn’t answer. Why are white people called Caucasian? You know why? So that was where I started asking questions and it went from one thing to another.
Question: Where and when did the concept of “whiteness” originate?
Nell Irvin Painter: Yes, yes. Yeah, there are two ways of talking about it. one is just to notice that there is some people who are kind of light skinned and other people who are kind of brownish and other people who are kind of darkish, so people notice that you know immediately, but since there wasn’t a lot of motion around from one’s town or one’s village that didn’t come up very much, so somebody like Herodotus for instance, who did travel, he could say that for instance the Scythians, who made quivers out of the arms, the skinned arms of the people they vanquished, that man’s skin is very showy and white, so it was clear that people were light skinned, but to make it into something called a race or a variety, and then to endow that with certain characteristics, racial temperament for instance, that latter kind of way of dealing with race, that’s an invention of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.