Nell Irvin Painter: 2010 National Book Festival

Nell Irvin Painter: 2010 National Book Festival


>>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. Yes?>>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. Yes?>>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]. Yes?>>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. Yes?>>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 ]>>This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at loc.gov.

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