Nell Irvin Painter: 2010 National Book Festival

Uploaded by LibraryOfCongress on 12.10.2010

>> From the Library of Congress in Washington D.C.

>> Good morning.
My name is Rachel Hartigan Shea editor
of the Washington Post Book World.
The Washington Post is very proud to be a charter sponsor
of the National Book Festival and I am very pleased
to introduce the next author.
Nell Irvin Painter is one
of the leading historians in and of this country.
She is a professor of American history at Princeton University
where she has also served as director of Princeton's program
in African-American studies.
She's written seven books including Sojourner Truth,
Standing at Armageddon which is a history of the progressive era
and The History of White People.
In The History of White People she argues that I quote,
"race is an idea, not a fact" and traces the development of that idea
from classical times to the present.
Not one to shy away from a challenge,
she has arm wrestled Stephen Colbert on TV and is currently working
on an MFA in painting at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Please join me in welcoming Nell Irvin Painter
[ Applause ]
>> Hi folks.
Thank you much for staying.
Glad to see you all.
I'm not going to read from my book, The History of White People.
I'm gonna talk about it a little bit
and then leave some time for questions.
And if you have a question, please use the mics.
So if you already have a question, you can go to the mic now.

I often get ask why did I write The History of White People
as if my body would stop me from any area of inquiry.
I'm a historian and I write on what I want.
I was thinking when I started this book back
into the 20th century why are white people called Caucasian?
Have any of you asked yourself that?
Do you know why?
No. And this was when the Russ-- well, it's still happening.
The Russians and the Chechens and Chechnyas
in the caucuses were having tremendous struggle.
So, why are White Americans called Chechens?

Well, I did find the answer.
The answer took me to Germany, took me to Germany in the 18th century.
Now, the idea of race was invented in the 18th century.
It doesn't go back to antiquity.
There were not White people in antiquity.
But since so many people thought that, I thought I should address it.
So my book actually starts with the Greeks and the Romans
and their commentary on the people who became Europeans.
And what the Greeks and Romans discovered were people
who lived in various ways.
For the Greeks they talk about what we call culture.
And for the Romans who ward in various ways
because the Romans were imperialist and we're very interested
in who was a good fighter and who could help
and who had to be vanquished.
I followed this German idea into the United States via Madame de Stael
who was a French intellectual and Thomas Carlyle
who was a British intellectual and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
So I spent a long time with Ralph Waldo Emerson who was the kind
of genius of 19th century White race theory.

Ralph Waldo Emerson didn't have a great deal to say about Black people
but he had a lot to say about White people.
Now, in the 19th century the idea prevailed
that there were many White races.
So there were people who were considered white.
No one can question their whiteness.
Very clearly the Irish were white.
Very clearly people descended from English people
or Scottish people were white or German people.
But they belong to different races.
They were white but they belong to different races.
So for instance, the Irish Catholics were thought to belong
to the Celtic race and people descended
from English people were thought to belong to the Saxon race.
And the Saxons were better than the Celts.
It was not until the middle of the 20th century which many
of us remember vividly that the idea of one big White race came
into being in which everybody
who was white was the same as everybody else.
And it's not an accident that that happened through politics.
It happened through the national mobilization
of the Great Depression, the Second World War
and the federal policies crafted after Second World War.
So one big White race is an idea based in politics.
My book is called The History of White People.
Let me say a few things that it does not do.
It does not talk very much about people who are not white.
There is very little about African-Americans, Indians, Asians,
Latinos, people of color.
They do appear from time to time and they appear very much at the end.
But it really is a book about the construction
of the idea of White races.
It's not a book in which I get to beat up White people
for the bad things they've done to others.
And when I started, sometimes people would say to me,
are you writing it as a Black person?

And I would say, I would get huffy and I would say,
I'm writing it as a historian.
But I realize that what they meant,
are you going to use this book to settle scores?
No. I don't settle scores.
It's not about what White people have done to others.
So, it's not very much about Black people,
which is what we usually think of in the United States
when we think about race.
When people hear the world race they automatically jump
to African-American history to Black people.
This is not my book.
What I did learn was that race is an idea that is used to create,
at worst, to create bad separation
and to rank people and to stigmatize.
It can be used as a tool of hatred.
It can be used as a tool of racism.
Sometimes race is a source of pride.
It can be a source of identity in which people rally around
and find themselves together in difficult circumstances.
It can be a response to racism, racial pride.
But wherever the situation occurs, race functions
to identify difference, to separate, even at best it separates.
And it's always used loosely but it says these are people
who are permanently this way and these are people
who are permanently that way.
Sometimes it says these are people
who are permanently like this and like that.
So I learned as I worked on this book about 10 years
that whether the racism question are colored
or the racism question are white, that race is a tool
of differentiation and separation.

Someone asked me when I was doing my book tour earlier this year
if I favored a national debate on race.
Let me ask you.
Let's take a vote.
Do you think it's a good idea for us
to have a national discussion about race?
If you think yes, put your hand up.

If you think no, put your hand up.
If you're not sure, put both hands up.
[Laughter] We got a lot of not sure.
Yeah. If you had asked me that before I worked on my book,
I probably would have said, yeah, it's a good idea
because we need to clear the air.
But then when I realized how these ideas-- and race is an idea,
it is not a biological fact.
It is an idea.
>> As I worked on the history of this idea, I began to change my mind
and I now no longer favor the idea of the discussion of race.
I would much prefer that we had a discussion
of the various conditions, concerns, actions, thoughts,
opinions, wishes that we share.
I would much prefer that we de-emphasize difference
and reemphasize likeness.
I much prefer that we work--
[ Applause ]
>> Thank you.
I much prefer that we think about what holds us together so that
in this moment of national crisis we can work together.
I wanna stop here with the word together
and invite questions or comments.
[ Applause ]
>> Yes.
>> Thank you, Professor.
>> You're very welcome.
>> That was very-- that was-- one of the ones who put their hands
in the air for we should have a discussion and then I
like to change my answer to what you just said.
>> Okay.
>> So, I was wondering since we were talking about it,
the word White people, the word Black people
and I heard you use the word African-American and I wonder
if we're ready to maybe stop using that expression
and start using the word Black more.
I don't-- I wondered just as a black person yourself--
>> Yeah.
>> -- if you feel like that's a comfortable way to be labeled.
>> The book that I published before the White book was the Black book.
[Laughter] It's called Creating Black Americans:
African-American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present.
And in that book, I did use the word black.
And I use it because it's a more encompassing word
and a less cumbersome word than African-American
or all these other terms.
The reason it really stuck out, I remember facing a class at Princeton
in which there were several students of African descent.
Some of them were people whose ancestors,
whose African ancestors left involuntarily in the 18th century.
So they were Americans with very deep roots.
Others had themselves been brought to the Untied States as children
or their parents were immigrants.
So we talked about nomenclature and we said, well,
what do you call brown colored people of African descent
with deep American roots?
They said, oh, those are African-Americans.
So what do you call brown colored people of African descent
who came from Africa last week?
And they said, oh, those are African-African-Americans.
[Laughter] So I'm thinking about my book and the length of the book
and the number of words I can get there
and I'm thinking how long African-African-American is
in Caribbean African-Americans and Latino African-Americans,
you know, so I just used Black.
>> Hi. When you read about current statements
by political leaders regarding immigration and Islam and so on,
is there a period of American history that seems most instructive
to you and what does it teach us?
>> Yeah. The current brouhaha over immigration to my mind sounds just
like the period right after the First World War
and this was a period of hostility and hysteria
against immigrants from Europe.
And the racist as people said were the Jewish race,
the Slavic race, the Italian.
Actually, there were two Italian races.
There was the north Italian race and south Italian race.
These were considered racist
and they actually had been scientifically certified
to be intellectually inferior.
And that hysteria actually led to a cutting off
of European immigration first in 1921 and then in 1924,
so it sounds to me like 1919, 1920, 1921 until about the mid '20s.
>> In talking about the development of the concept of the
"White race" you said this developed largely after World War II.
And you said, one other things you said that contributed to it
in the addition to the word itself was national policies and I wonder
if you could explain a little bit what you meant by that.
>> Certainly, national policies.
During the 19 teens, in the early part of the 20th century,
there was not a lot of political mobilization to get people voting,
and particularly not to get immigrants
and the children of immigrants voting.
But during the Great Depression, as Franklin Roosevelt and his team
of democrats tried to get some heft on their side,
they mobilized this group of naturalized Americans
or their children who had been born in the United States
who were of the working class.
They were workers and they tended to vote democratic when they voted.
So there was first a mobilization of voters
on the democratic side during the Great Depression
and that made possible the new deal and continuing the new deal.
During the Second World War there was an even greater emphasis
on national unity in order to pursue the goals of the Second World War
and the Second World War was a war against fascists
and Nazis and racial states.
And so there was a ground swell of culture partly fostered
by the federal government but largely because many Americans felt
that we needed to pull together.
It was a kind of multiculturalism of [inaudible] before the word.
So that came out of the Second World War.
And then after the Second World War,
there were two very important policies that created the suburbs.
One was the Federal Housing Administration which was not new
but took on a very important new role as a guarantor
of mortgage lending, and the Veterans Administration.
And this is the GI Bill of Rights.
These were administered in a cruelly racist fashion
and they underwrote the suburbs in a way that White people
of any background were able
to get this wonderful 30 year fixed rate mortgages low down payment.
And people living in mixed neighborhood, city neighborhoods,
Black neighborhoods could not.
Remember that it was not illegal to discriminate in lending
and housing policies until 1968.
So the suburbs became White land.
People who had been part of these many white races,
and the cities became Black land.
And then there's Malcolm X who always talked about the White man.
He didn't say the south Italian has been oppressing.
You know, he said the White man.
So the postwar era really cemented this sense of a Black world
and a White world separated by a [inaudible].
>> Hi. First of all I do own your book.
I haven't read it yet but after this I'm going to.
I wanted to address two things.
First of all you talked about that when you were writing the book,
people were coming to you and saying is this something that you're going
to use to settle a score.
Curious, was that audience that came to say
that to you, was it generational?
Did you have older people that were saying that, younger people,
or was it across the board?
>> Older people.
>> Okay. Of whom I am a card carrier member.
[Laughter] But I must say that has changed and for
that I wanna thank the American people.
>> Yeah.
[ Applause ]
>> Another question?
>> The second question was when you talk
about race being the culmination of race
and the White race per se being a political thing.
My question is and you kinda--
just kind of dovetailing with the gentleman before me talked about.
If it was a political thing and it was meant not only to get people
to vote a certain way but was also meant to entitle.
If you have a situation where that is happening,
what is going to encourage people that are entitled
to have a conversation about equality?
>> I don't know.
[ Pause ]
>> Thank you.
[ Laughter ]
>> Yes?
>> Yes. I have a comment.
I have two of my grandchildren are--

>> Can you speak a little more?
I can't quite hear you.
>> Two of my grandchildren are European, Southeast Asian,
Indian and African-American, and so they aren't a race.
They are not a race.
And I discussed their ethnic backgrounds
and I don't understand why we don't replace the term race with ethnicity
because we do all have different ethnic backgrounds.
I'm German and Irish.
My grandchildren have like five ethnic backgrounds,
and that's the current state of America.
So the discussion of race is really anachronistic.
Any comment?
>> The discussion of race has never made sense except as a means
of ranking people, as differentiating people.
And the means and the discussion have always differed
so there's never been any scientific or nonscientific agreement
on how many human races there are
on how many White races there are on how you tell.
So in the 20th century, and I used to have my students
at Princeton do this, in the early 20th century the way
to tell various White races was to measure heads.
So if you had a round head that was flat
in the back you were probably an Alpine.
Okay. If you had a long head and you were blond and blue eyed,
then you were a Teutonic.
And if you had a long head and you had dark hair
and dark eyes you were a Mediterranean.
Any of you heard of those races?
>> Yes.
>> Yes. Okay.
But most of you I suspect have not.
But those were important scientific terms in the early 20th century.
So the means of differentiating and the names and all
that never has there been an agreement.
It is race has always been a figment of the cultural imagination,
not something in the body.
And certainly as the question you pointed out, not permanent.
So today we are faced with many children.
In fact, some grown ups with very complicated backgrounds.
Now, in the 20th century, if you were brown and you identify this
as Black or African-American or colored,
you could have all kinds of ancestors.
So most of us who say we're Black or African-American have ancestors
from three continents, from Africa, from America and from Europe.
And in fact historians say
that if you can trace your American ancestry back to the middle
of the 19th century, you too, no matter how you identify,
have ancestors from three continents, at least, at least.
So we've always been mixed up.
Human beings have been walking and moving
since human beings became human beings.
Human beings became human beings in Africa and started walking
and people have been walking and moving and migrating
and I won't use the more graphic Anglo-Saxon term for it
but they've been having sex.
[Laughter] And they've been having sex with lots of different people.
So everybody is mixed and this is not a new thing.
You ask the question about the word ethnicity.
I hear this being substituted from time to time for race.
It's seems like they're kinder,
gentler word and that's fine with me.
>> Professor Painter, my name is Olivia McDavid
Blackamore [phonetic].
So I'm a living, walking Blackamore.
And that's what I've always called myself--
>> Yes.
>> -- more so than African-American.
But we do know that the Africans went into Europe and other countries
and intermingle and intermarried.
Could you tell us a little more about that
and how we're connected with the White race?
>> Well, there is no such thing as a White race.
>> Okay.
>> There is no such thing as a Black race.
Races are things that people make up in order to differentiate you or me
or somebody else from somebody else.
It's a classification, a taxonomical issue.
So as people moved, some settled.
And when you settle you start to change.
Have you ever noticed how differently younger people sound
from us when they talk?
And that's just change is how people are.
So it all happened one by one.
You have sex, one-- no.
I was going to say you have sex one person at a time but then I realized
that you can have a lot of sex with a lot of people.
But generally you have sex with one person at a time and what
that produces or the situation under which it occurs,
sex can be a loving close bond making event
but it can also be a rape or something profoundly traumatic.
So sex occurs in all kinds
of situations among all kinds of people.
>> Okay. Thank you.
>> Yes?
>> First of all Professor, thank you for coming.
>> Thank you.
>> This seems to be a common theme but I come from this area
like I think many of us come and it's more multicultural area now,
and so it seems to me that the battles of the '60s and '70s
and the '80s have started to be reflected in my children,
our children's generation.
They seem to be much more comfortable crossing the lines
with each other.
>> Yes.
>> So as a historian, are you hopeful for the future?
Is-- are we marching forward as a nation?
>> As a historian I-- no.
As a human being, I am hopeful.
I'm an optimist.
If I weren't an optimist, I would have been long gone.
As a postmodern historian I say
that we don't always get better as time goes on.
We don't-- progress is not automatic,
so I don't know what's going to happen in the future.
However, I will say that the taxonomy of race is breaking down.
The clearest way to see the breakdown is
with the classification called Hispanic or Latino.
So if you see Hispanic Latino, there's an asterisk
and it says Hispanic Latinos can be of any race.
And something like 6 to 10 percent
of Latinos answering the 2000 census checked some other race.
That's a lot of people.
A lot of people are some other race.
So we are going to be seeing other ways.
For myself if I were designing it I would ask what
about family wealth and what about income?
Because I think that's where our policies need
to go but I don't design it.
>> Thank you.
>> We have time for one more question.
>> Ah, okay.
Which would be [inaudible]?
>> Good morning.
I live in DC, predominantly Black city,
and I live in a predominantly Black neighborhood and teach
at a predominantly Black college, and so the issue of race is one
that I deal with regularly.
And I just would be curious if you had any words of suggestion
or advice for those of us who regularly interact
with other races specifically the Black-White dynamic
and you would say to young people as well about all of that?
>> I would say to young people of any background as I said to all
of you, let us not emphasize difference and separation.
Let us emphasize what we have in common and work together
that we don't just sit and say I'm this and you're that.
But let us figure out what it is we wanna do and what we want to achieve
and how we can do it together.
Thank you very much.
[ Applause ]
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