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Nell Irvin Painter

Nell Irvin Painter, a leading historian of the United States, is the Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, Princeton University. In addition to her earned doctorate in history from Harvard University,[…]

A conversation with the professor of American history at Princeton.

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Nell Irvin Painter:  Okay, Nell Irvin Painter and I have tworntitles.  One is Edwards Professorrnof American History Emerita, Princeton University, and the other is lowlyrngraduate student.

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Question: After so manyrnhistories of nonwhite people by whites, does your book seek to correct thernimbalance?

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Nell Irvin Painter:  It’s not an attempt to correct anrnimbalance, but I think it may function that way.  For me it was an answering of questions.  I started with a question I couldn’trnanswer.  Why are white peoplerncalled Caucasian?  You knowrnwhy?  So that was where I startedrnasking questions and it went from one thing to another.

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Question: Where and whenrndid 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 isrnsome people who are kind of light skinned and other people who are kind ofrnbrownish and other people who are kind of darkish, so people notice that yournknow immediately, but since there wasn’t a lot of motion around from one’s townrnor one’s village that didn’t come up very much, so somebody like Herodotus forrninstance, who did travel, he could say that for instance the Scythians, whornmade quivers out of the arms, the skinned arms of the people they vanquished,rnthat man’s skin is very showy and white, so it was clear that people were lightrnskinned, but to make it into something called a race or a variety, and then tornendow that with certain characteristics, racial temperament for instance, thatrnlatter kind of way of dealing with race, that’s an invention of the Enlightenmentrnof the eighteenth century.

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Question: How didrnEnlightenment-era notions of race develop?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nell Irvin Painter:  Yes, because drawing lines of varietiesrnor races also is drawing lines about physical attractiveness, so for Blumenbachrn1795 Caucasian was his choice of name because it had to with the most beautifulrnskull in his skull collection.  Nowrnthe skull was actually from Georgia. rnIt was from a sex slave from Georgia, and so what this skull did wasrnembed in the name Caucasian the idea of beauty because the idea was that thernCaucasians or the Circassians or the Georgians were the most beautiful peoplernin the world, and that’s why Blumenbach chose that name, but also female andrnsubjected, so the struggle in the nineteenth century was to pull the beautyrnpart of Caucasian away from sex slaves into virile men, and that’s one of thernthings that Ralph Waldo Emerson did. 

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Question: How do wernreconcile Emerson the passionate abolitionist with Emerson the champion of the “Saxon”rnrace?

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Nell Irvin Painter:  Well first of all, Emerson was notrnpassionate about abolition.  Hernwasn’t a passionate person.  He wasrna cool intellectual, and I think he probably was a little uncomfortable withrnpassionate people, but he was against slavery.  There is no question of that, but for Emerson the Americanrnwas the same as an Englishman and the Englishman was the same as a Saxon.  Now when he said Saxon he didn’t meanrnSaxon from Saxony.  If you’rernfamiliar with Germany there is a well-known region called Saxony, which is inrnthe eastern part of today’s Germany, and the big cities there are Dresden andrnLeipzig and Weimar, which was the city of Goethe and Schiller, so that Saxonyrnis a well known area and it was a very important area in the nineteenthrncentury.  That’s not what Emersonrnmeant.  Emerson meant a kind ofrnfloating area off to the west, kind of between the Netherlands and Denmark,rnmaybe Hanover is involved, so that’s where his Saxons, came from and he alsornmeshed them in together with Vikings, so it’s a kind of northern masculinerninvention.

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

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

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Question: How havernnon-Anglo-Saxon ethnicities been incorporated into, or excluded from, therndefinition of “white”?

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Nell Irvin Painter:  Yes, mostly incorporated into.  The dialogue changed.  The discourse changed according to thernneeds of the time, so in the middle of the nineteenth century when Emerson wasrnwriting when he looked around his New England there were these very poor peoplernwhom he did not consider Saxons. rnThey were Celts and they were immigrants.  They were poor Irish immigrants.  These were the famine immigrants, but the end of the centuryrnthose people had children and those children had gone to school and made theirrnway up the economic ladder a little bit. rnThat was one side of it. rnThe other side was the turn of the twentieth century brought a wave ofrnnew immigrants, people from Southern and Eastern Europe and the near east andrnso the former Celts as a separate race got tucked into American whiteness, notrnas Saxons, but as Nordics, so the twentieth century term is Nordics, which hasrnto do with Europeans from the northwest of Europe, which includes Ireland, sornthat was an incorporation of people who had been despised.  So the early twentieth century sawrnsomething that we can only call racism against immigrants, poor immigrants fromrnSouthern and Eastern Europe and by the time their children and grandchildrenrnwere mobilized in the new deal in the Second World War and then allowed to buyrnhomes for white people only in the suburbs after the Second World War then theyrnbecome white people, and there is a large sort of passé part of whiteness thatrnincludes everybody and that’s the whiteness that we inherit in the twenty-firstrncentury.  It’s a whiteness that hasrnalso been buffeted around a bit.

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Question: How have Jewishrnpeople become incorporated into this definition?

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Nell Irvin Painter:  The taxonomist in the eighteenthrncentury and the nineteenth century had a lot of trouble with Jews.  Were Jews…?  Well they were pretty much white people, but as we see inrnthe United States white was not enough to be the American or to be the rightrnkind of American, but in taxonomical terms were Jews Europeans.  Well yes, but, so in the earlyrntwentieth century the reigning scientific knowledge said that there were threernEuropean 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 andrnin and out depending on the particular scheme, so it’s really the Holocaust andrnthen suburbanization that took away the racial taint and I use taint becausernrace is not always a taint.  Itrntook away the racial taint from Jewishness and left the quality of Jewishrnethnicity, but there is changes have been occurring throughout the second halfrnof the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, so for instance,rnpeople who are now the grandparent generation may well feel that they are notrncompletely white or they’re white and Jewish or they’re mostly Jewish and theyrndon’t feel white.  Their childrenrnprobably feel both, maybe more white than Jewish depending on how they werernbrought up, but the grandchildren probably just think of themselves as whiternpeople and if they have one parent who is Jewish and one parent who isrnsomething else, especially if it is something else as attractive as Italianrnthey may well identify as Italian-American.

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Question: Will otherrnethnicities become redefined as “white,” or will racial definitions changernaltogether?

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Nell Irvin Painter:  Well, both.  Both at the same time. rnThe idea of the American… rnFor Emerson there was not a problem.  The American was a Saxon and he was a man and he wasrneducated.  By the twentieth centuryrnthe American you might kind of put women in, still pretty much male, but stillrndefinitely white, but not a Saxon anymore.  We live in a world in which it’s harder to talk about thernAmerican in the singular, so we’re a multi.  We have several different people who represent the UnitedrnStates, so in that sense whiteness, the salience, the importance of whitenessrnis kind of tamping down some.  Onrnthe other hand, the idea of blackness, that is poor dark-skinned people, Irnthink we will have that with us always, and when we particularly at this momentrnof economic crisis and this moment in which we have a small number of very richrnpeople and a lot of people who are kind of scraping by and then tremendousrndifferences.  We have a greatrninequality of wealth and income. rnThis group of people who are scraping by there will be a lot of them,rnbut they will probably be largely black and brown and that will tend tornreinforce racial ideas.  So on thernupper strata, among these few people up here who are doing very well there willrnbe people of various colors and from various backgrounds, but they willrnprobably not be so racialized as the people who are not doing well. 

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Question: To what extentrnis 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 arnchoice.  I think in the UnitedrnStates we’ll always have both together because as long as we continue tornbelieve in race, kind of like people believe in witches, no matter how often itrngets disproved that will have a kind of gut-level feeling for us that thernnotion of class doesn’t.  inrnBritain for instance, in England class has a gut-level feeling, but not in thernUnited States, so they’re not the same thing and it’s not either/or, but you’rernabsolutely right to think that race is less important when people are doingrnwell, so it’s not that somebody will look at somebody who looks like me andrnsay, “Oh my gosh, you’re white.” rnIt’s that it won’t matter so much anymore. 

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Question: Have Americanrnnotions of race been exported around the world?

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Nell Irvin Painter:  The American sense of the importance,rnthe fundamental importance of the black-white dichotomy, comes out of societiesrnfounded in the era of the African slave trade, so societies like ours, that isrnto say the western hemisphere, the Caribbean and so forth, we share a lot inrncommon.  In places like Germany orrnFrance the idea of black-white is not so much black-white but “our people andrnthem,” and “them” can be people from the near east like Turks or Muslims orrnNorth Africans, all of whom might well be considered white in the UnitedrnStates.

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Question: What hasrnObama’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 arncitizen, not as an expert of any sort, and it seems to me that the election isrnmore an outcome of changes that had been taking place since about the latern‘90s.  For instance, when I startedrnworking on this book a century ago in 1999 very often I would get peoplernsaying, “Well are you writing it as a black person?”  And at first you know I took this rather…  I mean I’m a professionalrnhistorian.  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 arnhistorian. 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 rightrnretort.  Let’s put it thatrnway.  But people stopped asking mernthat.  It became possible forrnpeople, for Americans to imagine that a person in my body might have access tornknowledge.  That I think was arnchange, so I think that American… rnAnd this is also subjective. rnI mean it’s all that is coming to me.  I think that as I see it Americans are more able to talkrnabout race or think about race as having other qualities besides skin color,rnand that there might be knowledge that is useful and that white people mightrnhave a race, so in the late twentieth century if you were white then you didn’trnhave race.  You were an individualrnand I think now large numbers of white people understand themselves asrnindividuals, but also as people who are raced.  Now in terms of the possibility of electing a mixed racernperson or a person identified as black, I never thought that would occur in myrnlifetime, I was very surprised. And very pleased I would add. So I think thatrnalso reflects a shift in American values. rnNow could the black president be someone who had 100% nativernAfrican-American background?  ThisrnI don’t know.  It seems to me thatrnwhen it comes to terms of difference that people are often more comfortablerngetting an exotic, so the first woman to be Secretary of State was not born inrnthe United States.  MadelinernAlbright was an immigrant.  So wernwill see if these changes hold on, but my sense is there has been a kind ofrnunclenching when it comes to ideas about race in the United States because inrnpart the racial identity and the class identity in terms of black equalingrnpoor, that is opening up. So I think when middle-class people see otherrnmiddle-class people who are just as middle-class, but who are not white of skinrnthat kind of relaxes it a little bit. rnIt doesn’t help those people who are poor.

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Question: Why did yourntransition 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 andrnis hard, but I’m sticking with it. rnI love making art.  Makingrnart for me is not fun in the sense of la, la, la, la, but it’s something that Irnfind very absorbing and very satisfying and I have a hard time stopping, sornit’s 11:00 and I need to go to bed and if I just do this one little bit ofrnyellow.  You know, it just goes onrnand on and on.  Many, many yearsrnago when I was an undergraduate I kind of came to a fork in the road.  My father had taught me how torndraw.  My mother had taught me howrnto write.  I come from an academicrnfamily in Oakland, California and I was majoring in art at the University ofrnCalifornia Berkley and I took sculpture and sculpture was hard and I thoughtrnthis proves I haven’t got the talent. rnWell this of course was nonsense. rnThis 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,rnthe 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’mrnwearing, so the visual sense has always been with me.  In the 1990’s I wrote a biography of Sojourner Truth andrnSojourner Truth did not read and write. rnShe had her photographs taken, so I needed to learn the meaning ofrnphotographs, the history of photographs and I wrote a chapter on SojournerrnTruth in photography.  That took mernover to the art history library at Princeton, which is a magnificent libraryrnand I really enjoyed that, so that was kind of the first nudge.  Also my mother who died a little over arnyear ago changed her career at 65. rnShe started writing books. rnIt took her 10 years to write and publish her first book, 10 years tornwrite and publish her second book and she was working on a website when sherndied at 91, so I thought well I can do that and if I’m going to live to be 91,rnI will have an art career too, as long as many successful artists who are withrnus today.  So it was that kind ofrnsense of possibility.  They’rerncalled encore careers.

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Question: Which artistsrninspire you most?

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Nell Irvin Painter:  Absolutely.  I can tell you two or three artists whose work Irnadmire.  I think someone who hasrnbeen with me for sometime is Robert Colescott, who died a couple of years ago.rnColescott was an African-American artist who was deeply engaged in the history,rnof art history and so his work did have a lot of cultural meaning andrnhistorical meaning and also he was really a riotous painter with a great sensernof color and kind of…  I hate tornuse the word riotous again, but his compositions also were like that, that hernwould pull together images that would seem not to fit together, images thatrnwere uncomfortable, but I found them very satisfying, so Robert Colescott hasrnbeen someone who inspires me and has inspired me.  At the moment I am very inspired by Maira Kalman who doesrnthe 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 regardedrnbooks.  One she illustrated, Strunkrnand White’s Elements of Style, and the other it was Principles of Uncertainty,rnwhich came out of her New York Times blog.  What I really like about Maira Kalman is that she usesrntext.  She uses text.  She used drawings, paintings and shernuses photographs together, so for me that is very inspiring.  I am nowhere near her abilities, herrnskill, her imagination and her humor, but to see what she does with these threerndifferent kinds of representations is very illuminating.  And then somebody like Charline vonrnHeyl, who is actually an abstract painter, but I like her work very much.  Denyse Thomasos is also an abstractrnpainter, an African-American… a Canadian painter actually, who doesrnarchitectural compositions with a great sense of energy, and so even though herrnwork is abstract you can see a kind of sense, not of figuration because sherndoesn’t put figures in, but of representation.  So these are just four artists, but there are many othersrnwhose work I like very much.

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