We’ll Always Believe In Race (and Witches)

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.

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