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Princeton prof. asks: What is whiteness?

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

What makes white people white?

This is the question that Nell Painter, professor emeritus of American history at Princeton, asked Monday night in Salomon 001 as she discussed her new book, “The History of White People.”

Painter’s book explores the history of whiteness throughout the world, as did her lecture, though she focused on material not explicitly covered in the book.

“We are obsessive about imagining blackness and talking about blackness, but we don’t know the history of whiteness,” Painter said to the audience. “Part of the mythology of whiteness is that it has always been.”

Tricia Rose, professor of Africana studies and chair of the department, introduced Painter before her lecture — the first in what will likely be a series about the book, she said.
“Professor Painter really is a titan in the field,” Rose said. “There is really no one of her caliber doing the kind of work that she does.”

Painter started her presentation by asking the question, “What makes light-skinned people white people?”

She then began to explain the complex history of the cultural definition of whiteness.
“From roughly 1800 to the mid-1920s, the idea was that there was more than one European race,” she said.

“This was based on pigmentation and head shape,” she said. “Head shape was a very big deal.”

After analyzing a number of images of different skull shapes and explaining the different types of whiteness considered in the 19th and early 20th centuries, she explained that “today we think more in terms of skin colors than head shape when talking about race,” Painter said.

She discussed what caused people to become different skin tones after the earliest humans dispersed from Africa.

“The ancient hominids were covered with hair and had light skin,” she said, “When people lost that hair, they darkened up to protect against the sun.”

As people went to different parts of the Earth, they went to places with less sunlight than Africa, where there was not enough ultraviolet radiation for dark skin.

This, she explained, is what caused human skin tones to lighten in certain areas of the world.

“What is going to happen as the ozone layer gets thinner and thinner and thinner and people are subjected to more and more radiation?” she asked. “Will white people stay white?”

Painter discussed four phases in history in which the term “whiteness” was enlarged.

The first, she said, occurred in the Jacksonian era of American history in which “voting and citizenship moved from people with income, property and taxes to just being a white male.”

The second, in the 19th century, expanded the definition of whiteness to include “people who were children of impoverished Irish immigrants.”

The third enlargement of the white race occurred during the New Deal at the hands of the Federal Housing Administration, she said.

“The suburbs were about 99 point 99 point 99 point 99 percent white when they were created in the 1950s and 60s,” she said. This was due to racially biased lending policies established during this era, she said.

The “apartheid suburbs” as Painter calls them, polarized whites and blacks to an even greater extent and allowed civil rights activists to broaden their definition of the white race.

“Malcolm X talked about the ‘white man,’ ” she said, adding that “Malcolm X helped create the idea of one single white race.”

The fourth enlargement of American whiteness, she said, is occurring right now. “There are simply more people allowed in,” she said. “Racial identity is less important than it was in, say, the 1930s.”

Painter spoke about race more generally to wrap up her lecture.

“By and large, racialization exists to put people down,” she said. “And the people it’s meant to put down are the people who do the work.”

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