Talk to examine whiteness on Oct. 9
MIDDLEBURY — Nell Irvin Painter, Edwards Professor of American History Emerita at Princeton University, will deliver one of this semester’s signature lectures at Middlebury College on Friday, Oct. 9, at 4:30 p.m. Painter’s lecture, “The History of White People and What It Means For Now” will be available via Zoom.
Responding to the urgency of confronting this country’s racist past and present, Professor Painter, author of “The History of White People” (2010), will trace the invention of the idea of race and how that invention centered a certain sort of whiteness as superior. In an interview with NBC online news, Dr. Painter described a general movement that “millions of white Americans are waking up to their whiteness and being puzzled by it. For so much of American history, being white, being praised as white has been a large part of our national culture.”
In view of the national reckoning with racism in the wake of the demonstrations and grassroots movements against police brutality and other racist practices, Dr. Painter sees a willingness on the part of white people to learn and understand what it means to be raced as white. In her estimation, “we are entering a new phase of American whiteness.” For Dr. Painter, white identity in America is an ideology, not a biology, “more like witchcraft than empirical science.”
In an article for NBC’s “Think: Opinion, Analysis, Essays,” on June 27, 2020, she explains how white supremacists rely on the pervasive idea of one big white race as “full-blown and unchanging.” In the U.S., this idea, however, is less than 100 years old. Up until the 1940s, race scientists and ordinary people thought there were several white races, such as the Celtic (Irish) race, the Northern Italian race, the Eastern European Hebrew race, the Southern Italian race, which were ranked high to low beneath the Anglo-Saxon/Saxon/Teutonic/Nordic white race. When the National Socialist regime in Germany started committing racially motivated atrocities that ultimately culminated in the Holocaust during World War II, national unity became a top priority in the U.S. Experts taught Americans that whiteness was unitary, a key point used to prop up anti-Black segregation.
Since the second half of the 20th century, the concept of “unitary whiteness” has been complicated by immigrants from Latin America and Asia. On the U.S. census, for example, racial categories (black, white, etc.) now coexist with ethnic ones (Hispanic, non-Hispanic). Dr. Painter finds hope in envisioning a future in which white people consciously renounce exclusionary laws and customs favoring them, paving the way to a more just and equitable society. Her talk will be streamed on the Middlebury website: https://middlebury.zoom.us/j/9976943927?pwd=RERNUVZoY1luNFMxQzZYUTZNdmQ4dz09 Password: GSFS.
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