Big Think Interview With Nell Irvin Painter

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Nell Irvin Painter:  Okay, Nell Irvin Painter and I have two\r\ntitles.  One is Edwards Professor\r\nof American History Emerita, Princeton University, and the other is lowly\r\ngraduate student.

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Question: After so many\r\nhistories of nonwhite people by whites, does your book seek to correct the\r\nimbalance?

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Nell Irvin Painter:  It’s not an attempt to correct an\r\nimbalance, but I think it may function that way.  For me it was an answering of questions.  I started with a question I couldn’t\r\nanswer.  Why are white people\r\ncalled Caucasian?  You know\r\nwhy?  So that was where I started\r\nasking questions and it went from one thing to another.

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Question: Where and when\r\ndid the concept of “whiteness” originate?

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Nell Irvin Painter:  Yes, yes.  Yeah, there are two ways of talking about it.  one is just to notice that there is\r\nsome people who are kind of light skinned and other people who are kind of\r\nbrownish and other people who are kind of darkish, so people notice that you\r\nknow immediately, but since there wasn’t a lot of motion around from one’s town\r\nor one’s village that didn’t come up very much, so somebody like Herodotus for\r\ninstance, who did travel, he could say that for instance the Scythians, who\r\nmade quivers out of the arms, the skinned arms of the people they vanquished,\r\nthat man’s skin is very showy and white, so it was clear that people were light\r\nskinned, but to make it into something called a race or a variety, and then to\r\nendow that with certain characteristics, racial temperament for instance, that\r\nlatter kind of way of dealing with race, that’s an invention of the Enlightenment\r\nof the eighteenth century.

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Question: How did\r\nEnlightenment-era notions of race develop?

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

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Question: Before race\r\nbecame “taxonomized,” was there no racism as such?

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

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

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

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

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Nell Irvin Painter:  Yes, because drawing lines of varieties\r\nor races also is drawing lines about physical attractiveness, so for Blumenbach\r\n1795 Caucasian was his choice of name because it had to with the most beautiful\r\nskull in his skull collection.  Now\r\nthe skull was actually from Georgia. \r\nIt was from a sex slave from Georgia, and so what this skull did was\r\nembed in the name Caucasian the idea of beauty because the idea was that the\r\nCaucasians or the Circassians or the Georgians were the most beautiful people\r\nin the world, and that’s why Blumenbach chose that name, but also female and\r\nsubjected, so the struggle in the nineteenth century was to pull the beauty\r\npart of Caucasian away from sex slaves into virile men, and that’s one of the\r\nthings that Ralph Waldo Emerson did. 

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Question: How do we\r\nreconcile Emerson the passionate abolitionist with Emerson the champion of the “Saxon”\r\nrace?

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

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Question: Are Emerson’s\r\nracial ideas still embedded in our own?

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

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Question: How have\r\nnon-Anglo-Saxon ethnicities been incorporated into, or excluded from, the\r\ndefinition of “white”?

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

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Question: How have Jewish\r\npeople become incorporated into this definition?

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Nell Irvin Painter:  The taxonomist in the eighteenth\r\ncentury 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\r\nthe United States white was not enough to be the American or to be the right\r\nkind of American, but in taxonomical terms were Jews Europeans.  Well yes, but, so in the early\r\ntwentieth century the reigning scientific knowledge said that there were three\r\nEuropean 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\r\nin and out depending on the particular scheme, so it’s really the Holocaust and\r\nthen suburbanization that took away the racial taint and I use taint because\r\nrace is not always a taint.  It\r\ntook away the racial taint from Jewishness and left the quality of Jewish\r\nethnicity, but there is changes have been occurring throughout the second half\r\nof the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, so for instance,\r\npeople who are now the grandparent generation may well feel that they are not\r\ncompletely white or they’re white and Jewish or they’re mostly Jewish and they\r\ndon’t feel white.  Their children\r\nprobably feel both, maybe more white than Jewish depending on how they were\r\nbrought up, but the grandchildren probably just think of themselves as white\r\npeople and if they have one parent who is Jewish and one parent who is\r\nsomething else, especially if it is something else as attractive as Italian\r\nthey may well identify as Italian-American.

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Question: Will other\r\nethnicities become redefined as “white,” or will racial definitions change\r\naltogether?

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

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Question: To what extent\r\nis the American notion of “whiteness” based on class and not race?

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Nell Irvin Painter:  I don’t think you have to make a\r\nchoice.  I think in the United\r\nStates we’ll always have both together because as long as we continue to\r\nbelieve in race, kind of like people believe in witches, no matter how often it\r\ngets disproved that will have a kind of gut-level feeling for us that the\r\nnotion of class doesn’t.  in\r\nBritain for instance, in England class has a gut-level feeling, but not in the\r\nUnited States, so they’re not the same thing and it’s not either/or, but you’re\r\nabsolutely right to think that race is less important when people are doing\r\nwell, so it’s not that somebody will look at somebody who looks like me and\r\nsay, “Oh my gosh, you’re white.” \r\nIt’s that it won’t matter so much anymore. 

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Question: Have American\r\nnotions of race been exported around the world?

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Nell Irvin Painter:  The American sense of the importance,\r\nthe fundamental importance of the black-white dichotomy, comes out of societies\r\nfounded in the era of the African slave trade, so societies like ours, that is\r\nto say the western hemisphere, the Caribbean and so forth, we share a lot in\r\ncommon.  In places like Germany or\r\nFrance the idea of black-white is not so much black-white but “our people and\r\nthem,” and “them” can be people from the near east like Turks or Muslims or\r\nNorth Africans, all of whom might well be considered white in the United\r\nStates.

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

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Nell Irvin Painter:  Well here I can only act, speak as a\r\ncitizen, not as an expert of any sort, and it seems to me that the election is\r\nmore an outcome of changes that had been taking place since about the late\r\n‘90s.  For instance, when I started\r\nworking on this book a century ago in 1999 very often I would get people\r\nsaying, “Well are you writing it as a black person?”  And at first you know I took this rather…  I mean I’m a professional\r\nhistorian.  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\r\nhistorian. 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\r\nretort.  Let’s put it that\r\nway.  But people stopped asking me\r\nthat.  It became possible for\r\npeople, for Americans to imagine that a person in my body might have access to\r\nknowledge.  That I think was a\r\nchange, so I think that American… \r\nAnd this is also subjective. \r\nI mean it’s all that is coming to me.  I think that as I see it Americans are more able to talk\r\nabout race or think about race as having other qualities besides skin color,\r\nand that there might be knowledge that is useful and that white people might\r\nhave a race, so in the late twentieth century if you were white then you didn’t\r\nhave race.  You were an individual\r\nand I think now large numbers of white people understand themselves as\r\nindividuals, but also as people who are raced.  Now in terms of the possibility of electing a mixed race\r\nperson or a person identified as black, I never thought that would occur in my\r\nlifetime, I was very surprised. And very pleased I would add. So I think that\r\nalso reflects a shift in American values. \r\nNow could the black president be someone who had 100% native\r\nAfrican-American background?  This\r\nI don’t know.  It seems to me that\r\nwhen it comes to terms of difference that people are often more comfortable\r\ngetting an exotic, so the first woman to be Secretary of State was not born in\r\nthe United States.  Madeline\r\nAlbright was an immigrant.  So we\r\nwill see if these changes hold on, but my sense is there has been a kind of\r\nunclenching when it comes to ideas about race in the United States because in\r\npart the racial identity and the class identity in terms of black equaling\r\npoor, that is opening up. So I think when middle-class people see other\r\nmiddle-class people who are just as middle-class, but who are not white of skin\r\nthat kind of relaxes it a little bit. \r\nIt doesn’t help those people who are poor.

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Question: Why did you\r\ntransition from emeritus history professor to graduate art student?

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Nell Irvin Painter:  At first it wasn’t hard.  It’s gotten harder and harder.  Being a graduate student is no fun and\r\nis hard, but I’m sticking with it. \r\nI love making art.  Making\r\nart for me is not fun in the sense of la, la, la, la, but it’s something that I\r\nfind very absorbing and very satisfying and I have a hard time stopping, so\r\nit’s 11:00 and I need to go to bed and if I just do this one little bit of\r\nyellow.  You know, it just goes on\r\nand on and on.  Many, many years\r\nago when I was an undergraduate I kind of came to a fork in the road.  My father had taught me how to\r\ndraw.  My mother had taught me how\r\nto write.  I come from an academic\r\nfamily in Oakland, California and I was majoring in art at the University of\r\nCalifornia Berkley and I took sculpture and sculpture was hard and I thought\r\nthis proves I haven’t got the talent. \r\nWell this of course was nonsense. \r\nThis 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,\r\nthe 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\r\nwearing, so the visual sense has always been with me.  In the 1990’s I wrote a biography of Sojourner Truth and\r\nSojourner Truth did not read and write. \r\nShe had her photographs taken, so I needed to learn the meaning of\r\nphotographs, the history of photographs and I wrote a chapter on Sojourner\r\nTruth in photography.  That took me\r\nover to the art history library at Princeton, which is a magnificent library\r\nand I really enjoyed that, so that was kind of the first nudge.  Also my mother who died a little over a\r\nyear ago changed her career at 65. \r\nShe started writing books. \r\nIt took her 10 years to write and publish her first book, 10 years to\r\nwrite and publish her second book and she was working on a website when she\r\ndied at 91, so I thought well I can do that and if I’m going to live to be 91,\r\nI will have an art career too, as long as many successful artists who are with\r\nus today.  So it was that kind of\r\nsense of possibility.  They’re\r\ncalled encore careers.

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Question: Which artists\r\ninspire you most?

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Nell Irvin Painter:  Absolutely.  I can tell you two or three artists whose work I\r\nadmire.  I think someone who has\r\nbeen with me for sometime is Robert Colescott, who died a couple of years ago.\r\nColescott was an African-American artist who was deeply engaged in the history,\r\nof art history and so his work did have a lot of cultural meaning and\r\nhistorical meaning and also he was really a riotous painter with a great sense\r\nof color and kind of…  I hate to\r\nuse the word riotous again, but his compositions also were like that, that he\r\nwould pull together images that would seem not to fit together, images that\r\nwere uncomfortable, but I found them very satisfying, so Robert Colescott has\r\nbeen someone who inspires me and has inspired me.  At the moment I am very inspired by Maira Kalman who does\r\nthe 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\r\nbooks.  One she illustrated, Strunk\r\nand White’s Elements of Style, and the other it was Principles of Uncertainty,\r\nwhich came out of her New York Times blog.  What I really like about Maira Kalman is that she uses\r\ntext.  She uses text.  She used drawings, paintings and she\r\nuses photographs together, so for me that is very inspiring.  I am nowhere near her abilities, her\r\nskill, her imagination and her humor, but to see what she does with these three\r\ndifferent kinds of representations is very illuminating.  And then somebody like Charline von\r\nHeyl, who is actually an abstract painter, but I like her work very much.  Denyse Thomasos is also an abstract\r\npainter, an African-American… a Canadian painter actually, who does\r\narchitectural compositions with a great sense of energy, and so even though her\r\nwork is abstract you can see a kind of sense, not of figuration because she\r\ndoesn’t put figures in, but of representation.  So these are just four artists, but there are many others\r\nwhose work I like very much.

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A conversation with the professor of American history at Princeton.

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