The Expanding Definition of Whiteness

How did Italians, Jews, and other peoples become "white”? And will other, currently “nonwhite” ethnic groups follow suit?
  • Transcript


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.