We’ll Always Believe In Race (and Witches)
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, she has received honorary doctorates from Wesleyan, Dartmouth, SUNY-New Paltz, and Yale.
A Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Nell Painter has also held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the American Antiquarian Society. She has served as president of the Organization of American Historians and the Southern Historical Association. Those presidential addresses have been published in the Journal of American History (“Ralph Waldo Emerson's Saxons” in March 2009) and the Journal of Southern History (“Was Marie White?” February 2008). The City of Boston declared Thursday, 4 October 2007Nell Irvin Painter Day in honor of her Outstanding Book Award from the Gustavus Myers Center in 2006.
A prolific and award-winning scholar, her most recent books are The History of White People (W. W. Norton, 2010, paperback, March 2011),Creating Black Americans (Oxford University Press, 2006), and Southern History Across the Color Line (University of North Carolina Press, 2002). A second edition of Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919 and a Korean translation of Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbolappeared in 2008. Her other books are also still in print. For a complete list of her book and article publications and other honors and activities, please consult the CV on this website.
As a public intellectual, Professor Painter is frequently called upon for lectures and interviews on television and film. In January 2008 she appeared live for a three-hour “In Depth” program on C-SPAN Book TV. To see the program on the internet, go to the web page for “In Depth.”She has also appeared on Bill Moyers’s “Progressive America.” New Jersey Network’s “State of the Arts” documented her work as both a scholar and an art student.
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.
The concept of race may be a kind of cultural superstition, but in America at least, it's not going away anytime soon.