Big Think Interview With Nell Irvin Painter

A conversation with the professor of American history at Princeton.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

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.

Question: How did Enlightenment-era notions of race develop?

Nell Irvin Painter:  Sure.  Well when we think of science, science is a truth that is true no matter what, no matter when and for all time and science as the kind of gospel truth replaces the gospel, which was religion.  Before science, before the eighteenth century, religion answered the questions, and so in the nineteenth century for instance there was a real jostling between science and religion over the truth and this is why Darwin was so controversial, but by the nineteenth and twentieth century science and taxonomy had created categories, all sorts of things.  Carolus Linnaeus, eighteenth century, is the father of taxonomy, that is of categorizing things and so that science of categorizing things comes out of the eighteenth century, comes out of the Enlightenment and counts up everything and gives it a name, including people.

Question: Before race became “taxonomized,” was there no racism as such?

Nell Irvin Painter:  Not so much racism because race hadn’t been invented yet, but the big differences were religious, so on the one hand the Catholics and Protestants, on the other hand Christians, Jews and Muslims, so religion was the big defining factor before race and in fact, as we see in our own world religion still plays a very important part and it plays a part in a way that race does in that you can say that somebody has a particular religion and then that conjures up all sorts of other ideas about what is in that person, how that person thinks, how that person goes through his or her everyday life, what it means to be a man or women, so there is lots that we pack into these categories, whether they’re racial or religious.

Question: How was the emerging notion of race tied to 18th-century scientific thought?

Nell Irvin Painter:  For Linnaeus—and the great version of his taxonomy was 1758—he did categorize people, so but he categorized them according to where they were from, so they were categorized, there were four different varieties, and they were categorized by their continent.  They did have continental temperaments, so people from Africa were flighty and people from Europe were thoughtful, but their names had to do with where they were from.  So Johann Friedrich Blumenbach writing in… actually publishing on the 11th of April, 1795 enlarged Linnaeus’ four categories into five and called one of them Caucasian.  Note that he is calling them varieties, not races.  Race is…  He wrote in Latin and so the translation becomes races and races is the nineteenth-century word.  So for Blumenbach at the very end of the eighteenth century it was already clear that these varieties shade from one to the other imperceptibly.  He said you can’t draw a clear line that all of this kind of person will be on one side and all of that kind of person will be on another, and he also offered his readers several different numbers of varieties.  He said you could choose.  For instance, he said I know a person who says there’re only two.  He didn’t name that person, but we know who it was—Christoph Meiners, who was his colleague—and Meiners’ two races were ugly and beautiful.

Question: How does the idea of “whiteness” intersect with European art history and aesthetic theory?

Nell Irvin Painter:  Yes, because drawing lines of varieties or races also is drawing lines about physical attractiveness, so for Blumenbach 1795 Caucasian was his choice of name because it had to with the most beautiful skull in his skull collection.  Now the skull was actually from Georgia.  It was from a sex slave from Georgia, and so what this skull did was embed in the name Caucasian the idea of beauty because the idea was that the Caucasians or the Circassians or the Georgians were the most beautiful people in the world, and that’s why Blumenbach chose that name, but also female and subjected, so the struggle in the nineteenth century was to pull the beauty part of Caucasian away from sex slaves into virile men, and that’s one of the things that Ralph Waldo Emerson did. 

Question: How do we reconcile Emerson the passionate abolitionist with Emerson the champion of the “Saxon” race?

Nell Irvin Painter:  Well first of all, Emerson was not passionate about abolition.  He wasn’t a passionate person.  He was a cool intellectual, and I think he probably was a little uncomfortable with passionate people, but he was against slavery.  There is no question of that, but for Emerson the American was the same as an Englishman and the Englishman was the same as a Saxon.  Now when he said Saxon he didn’t mean Saxon from Saxony.  If you’re familiar with Germany there is a well-known region called Saxony, which is in the eastern part of today’s Germany, and the big cities there are Dresden and Leipzig and Weimar, which was the city of Goethe and Schiller, so that Saxony is a well known area and it was a very important area in the nineteenth century.  That’s not what Emerson meant.  Emerson meant a kind of floating area off to the west, kind of between the Netherlands and Denmark, maybe Hanover is involved, so that’s where his Saxons, came from and he also meshed them in together with Vikings, so it’s a kind of northern masculine invention.

Question: Are Emerson’s racial ideas still embedded in our own?

Nell Irvin Painter:  Yes, in certain ways, but what American historians for instance have done is take Emerson’s concept of Saxon, and when Emerson used Saxon he was not including the Celts.  The Celts were considered a separate race.  The Irish were considered a separate race and Catholicism was considered part of their separateness, so for him Saxon went back to these Protestant Germans and Englishmen. So what American historians have done is take the twentieth-century word white and read it backwards and equate white with Anglo-Saxon, with Saxon, with “free white” for instance in the census of 1790, whereas at the time, 1790 or 1856 those were not the same meanings.  They were different terms because they meant different things.

Question: How have non-Anglo-Saxon ethnicities been incorporated into, or excluded from, the definition of “white”?

Nell Irvin Painter:  Yes, mostly incorporated into.  The dialogue changed.  The discourse changed according to the needs of the time, so in the middle of the nineteenth century when Emerson was writing when he looked around his New England there were these very poor people whom he did not consider Saxons.  They were Celts and they were immigrants.  They were poor Irish immigrants.  These were the famine immigrants, but the end of the century those people had children and those children had gone to school and made their way up the economic ladder a little bit.  That was one side of it.  The other side was the turn of the twentieth century brought a wave of new immigrants, people from Southern and Eastern Europe and the near east and so the former Celts as a separate race got tucked into American whiteness, not as Saxons, but as Nordics, so the twentieth century term is Nordics, which has to do with Europeans from the northwest of Europe, which includes Ireland, so that was an incorporation of people who had been despised.  So the early twentieth century saw something that we can only call racism against immigrants, poor immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and by the time their children and grandchildren were mobilized in the new deal in the Second World War and then allowed to buy homes for white people only in the suburbs after the Second World War then they become white people, and there is a large sort of passé part of whiteness that includes everybody and that’s the whiteness that we inherit in the twenty-first century.  It’s a whiteness that has also been buffeted around a bit.

Question: How have Jewish people become incorporated into this definition?

Nell Irvin Painter:  The taxonomist in the eighteenth century and the nineteenth century had a lot of trouble with Jews.  Were Jews…?  Well they were pretty much white people, but as we see in the United States white was not enough to be the American or to be the right kind of American, but in taxonomical terms were Jews Europeans.  Well yes, but, so in the early twentieth century the reigning scientific knowledge said that there were three European races, Teutonic, Alpine and Mediterranean.  Now this left out two problems peoples.  One was the Laps, who were in and out and in and out depending on the particular scheme, and the Jews, in and out and in and out depending on the particular scheme, so it’s really the Holocaust and then suburbanization that took away the racial taint and I use taint because race is not always a taint.  It took away the racial taint from Jewishness and left the quality of Jewish ethnicity, but there is changes have been occurring throughout the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, so for instance, people who are now the grandparent generation may well feel that they are not completely white or they’re white and Jewish or they’re mostly Jewish and they don’t feel white.  Their children probably feel both, maybe more white than Jewish depending on how they were brought up, but the grandchildren probably just think of themselves as white people and if they have one parent who is Jewish and one parent who is something else, especially if it is something else as attractive as Italian they may well identify as Italian-American.

Question: Will other ethnicities become redefined as “white,” or will racial definitions change altogether?

Nell Irvin Painter:  Well, both.  Both at the same time.  The idea of the American…  For Emerson there was not a problem.  The American was a Saxon and he was a man and he was educated.  By the twentieth century the American you might kind of put women in, still pretty much male, but still definitely white, but not a Saxon anymore.  We live in a world in which it’s harder to talk about the American in the singular, so we’re a multi.  We have several different people who represent the United States, so in that sense whiteness, the salience, the importance of whiteness is kind of tamping down some.  On the other hand, the idea of blackness, that is poor dark-skinned people, I think we will have that with us always, and when we particularly at this moment of economic crisis and this moment in which we have a small number of very rich people and a lot of people who are kind of scraping by and then tremendous differences.  We have a great inequality of wealth and income.  This group of people who are scraping by there will be a lot of them, but they will probably be largely black and brown and that will tend to reinforce racial ideas.  So on the upper strata, among these few people up here who are doing very well there will be people of various colors and from various backgrounds, but they will probably not be so racialized as the people who are not doing well. 

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.

Question: What has Obama’s election changed about race in the U.S., and what hasn’t it changed?

Nell Irvin Painter:  Well here I can only act, speak as a citizen, not as an expert of any sort, and it seems to me that the election is more an outcome of changes that had been taking place since about the late ‘90s.  For instance, when I started working on this book a century ago in 1999 very often I would get people saying, “Well are you writing it as a black person?”  And at first you know I took this rather…  I mean I’m a professional historian.  I do my research.  I have a PhD.  What does my race have to do with it?  So I would say I’m writing it as a historian. Or, what are my options? Or, I’m writing it as a white man.  I never got the right answer.  I mean I never had the right retort.  Let’s put it that way.  But people stopped asking me that.  It became possible for people, for Americans to imagine that a person in my body might have access to knowledge.  That I think was a change, so I think that American…  And this is also subjective.  I mean it’s all that is coming to me.  I think that as I see it Americans are more able to talk about race or think about race as having other qualities besides skin color, and that there might be knowledge that is useful and that white people might have a race, so in the late twentieth century if you were white then you didn’t have race.  You were an individual and I think now large numbers of white people understand themselves as individuals, but also as people who are raced.  Now in terms of the possibility of electing a mixed race person or a person identified as black, I never thought that would occur in my lifetime, I was very surprised. And very pleased I would add. So I think that also reflects a shift in American values.  Now could the black president be someone who had 100% native African-American background?  This I don’t know.  It seems to me that when it comes to terms of difference that people are often more comfortable getting an exotic, so the first woman to be Secretary of State was not born in the United States.  Madeline Albright was an immigrant.  So we will see if these changes hold on, but my sense is there has been a kind of unclenching when it comes to ideas about race in the United States because in part the racial identity and the class identity in terms of black equaling poor, that is opening up. So I think when middle-class people see other middle-class people who are just as middle-class, but who are not white of skin that kind of relaxes it a little bit.  It doesn’t help those people who are poor.

Question: Why did you transition from emeritus history professor to graduate art student?

Nell Irvin Painter:  At first it wasn’t hard.  It’s gotten harder and harder.  Being a graduate student is no fun and is hard, but I’m sticking with it.  I love making art.  Making art for me is not fun in the sense of la, la, la, la, but it’s something that I find very absorbing and very satisfying and I have a hard time stopping, so it’s 11:00 and I need to go to bed and if I just do this one little bit of yellow.  You know, it just goes on and on and on.  Many, many years ago when I was an undergraduate I kind of came to a fork in the road.  My father had taught me how to draw.  My mother had taught me how to write.  I come from an academic family in Oakland, California and I was majoring in art at the University of California Berkley and I took sculpture and sculpture was hard and I thought this proves I haven’t got the talent.  Well this of course was nonsense.  This was silly young person thinking.  You need to do some work even if you have the talent.  So I just went the way that was easier, the way I knew what to do, but I have always had the pleasure of the eye.  I’ve always enjoyed color.  I’m a knitter.  Actually I knitted this sweater I’m wearing, so the visual sense has always been with me.  In the 1990’s I wrote a biography of Sojourner Truth and Sojourner Truth did not read and write.  She had her photographs taken, so I needed to learn the meaning of photographs, the history of photographs and I wrote a chapter on Sojourner Truth in photography.  That took me over to the art history library at Princeton, which is a magnificent library and I really enjoyed that, so that was kind of the first nudge.  Also my mother who died a little over a year ago changed her career at 65.  She started writing books.  It took her 10 years to write and publish her first book, 10 years to write and publish her second book and she was working on a website when she died at 91, so I thought well I can do that and if I’m going to live to be 91, I will have an art career too, as long as many successful artists who are with us today.  So it was that kind of sense of possibility.  They’re called encore careers.

Question: Which artists inspire you most?

Nell Irvin Painter:  Absolutely.  I can tell you two or three artists whose work I admire.  I think someone who has been with me for sometime is Robert Colescott, who died a couple of years ago. Colescott was an African-American artist who was deeply engaged in the history, of art history and so his work did have a lot of cultural meaning and historical meaning and also he was really a riotous painter with a great sense of color and kind of…  I hate to use the word riotous again, but his compositions also were like that, that he would pull together images that would seem not to fit together, images that were uncomfortable, but I found them very satisfying, so Robert Colescott has been someone who inspires me and has inspired me.  At the moment I am very inspired by Maira Kalman who does the blogs in The New York Times, has done books.  Kalman began as an illustrator.  She wrote 12 children’s books.  She is still writing children’s books.  She did two very well regarded books.  One she illustrated, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and the other it was Principles of Uncertainty, which came out of her New York Times blog.  What I really like about Maira Kalman is that she uses text.  She uses text.  She used drawings, paintings and she uses photographs together, so for me that is very inspiring.  I am nowhere near her abilities, her skill, her imagination and her humor, but to see what she does with these three different kinds of representations is very illuminating.  And then somebody like Charline von Heyl, who is actually an abstract painter, but I like her work very much.  Denyse Thomasos is also an abstract painter, an African-American… a Canadian painter actually, who does architectural compositions with a great sense of energy, and so even though her work is abstract you can see a kind of sense, not of figuration because she doesn’t put figures in, but of representation.  So these are just four artists, but there are many others whose work I like very much.