Chronicling white history

Joe Harrington

Professor speaks about ‘notion of whiteness’

Nell Irvin Painter has been called the foremost chronicler of black history. But the former Edwards Professor of American History at Princeton University is focusing on a new cultural history: white history.

Painter was invited to speak last night as part of the guest Honor Series sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences, the department of history, the Honors College and the Office of the Provost.

Painter’s speech was on her future book, set to be released in January of 2009, titled The History of White People.

“What I am doing is historicizing the notion of whiteness,” Painter said.

Whiteness, Painter said, has a connotation as normal, where as “black” stands as a poor and working class culture. Painter said there are many different ways to classify black people, even mentioning disgraced radio-show host Don Imus, but the same is not true about white people. Painter said people don’t see whiteness as a race like they do with blackness.

“Race is a made up category,” said Painter. “We think race is real, and class is something Karl Marx made up.”

Painter’s research studies the history of white race studies. The research begins with early studies of different skulls, where the term Caucasian originated from and continues to present day, when the white race is starting to encompass social class meanings, rather than physical appearance.

People filled the Kiva to hear Painter’s speech. Maureen McCullough, senior Spanish translation major, came for extra credit, but said the speech will help in her foreign language and culture studies class.

“Part of the class is to study subcultures, so I really found the lecture interesting and informing,” McCullough said.

Painter asked the audience several question about how she should present the book. The big one was whether she should have a picture of herself on the cover or the in-fold. Painter, an black woman, said when white people are the subjects in a racial study, they become uncomfortable, which makes her think about the pros and cons of showing the readers that she is black.

“People ask me if I am writing the book as a black person,” Painter said. “At first I told them I am writing it as a historian, but now I tell them I am writing it as a white man.”

Contact College of Education, Health and Human Services reporter Joe Harrington at [email protected].