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The Milton Measure

Historian Painter Speaks at Milton

by Rachael Allen on Friday, December 7th, 2012

A distinguished historian, writer, and painter, Nell Irvin Painter will be this year’s Heyburn speaker, discussing her recent book, The History of White People, on Wednesday, December 12.

A retired professor at Princeton University, Painter earned her doctorate in history from Harvard University in addition to numerous honorary doctorates from Wesleyan, Dartmouth, SUNY-New Paltz, and Yale. Serving as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and as president of the Organization of American Histories and the Southern Historical Association, Painter has developed a strong and fresh opinion of race and history, one which this new book voices with gusto.

As others have done before her, Painter has explored the way race has evolved in The History of White People; however, she brings a new perspective when discussing how race has no basis: it is something man-made. The San Francisco Chronicle praises her book as “a scholarly, non-polemical masterpiece of broad historical synthesis, combining political, scientific, economic and cultural history.” It has earned her interviews on C-SPAN, ABC News with Dianne Sawyer, and The Colbert Report, among others. As Christopher Lydon of Huffington Post’s “Open Source” sums up, Painter writes that “‘race’ is a social concept not a scientific one; a construction, not a fact—she’s asking so who invented ‘whiteness’ as a human category? …Who expanded [it], and shrank [it]?”

Through her analysis of various groups of people and historical events, she traces the evolution of the idea of whiteness. For instance, she discusses how at first white only encompassed Anglo-Saxons and lowland Scots; however, after the Civil War, more people were included in this category—or “big, white tent,” as the San Francisco Chronicle defines—which truly had no basis but people’s perspectives. In her opinion, whiteness is not a fact but rather a perspective.

Before an arm wrestling match on the Colbert Report, Painter discussed these ideas with a sense of humor, explaining how people used to view race as something permanent inside you; however, it’s not, you can really change it. “To change what color you are, all you need to do is have sex,” she joked. On “Open Source,” Painter reiterates her opinion that “what I am is what my parents made me, and what I have made myself. I am not my biology. Your biology is not you.” Ultimately, Painter aims to deconstruct race not from a biological or solely ethical standpoint, but rather from one of history.

Goodreads book review calls her book a “myth-destroying exploration of ‘whiteness,’” but some, like Christopher Lydon, of “Open Source,” find her reevaluation of the cultures and specific people who played a part in these myths questionable. Some also find Painter’s new perspective too radical or unbelievable, for people have accepted race—whether good, bad, or equal—as a part of themselves for so long. Lydon, wrote in his blog that he found Painter’s presentation of Ralph Waldo Emerson rather controversial, for in her book, Painter views Emerson as “the philosopher king of American white race theory.” Lydon pointed out, in reference to Emerson’s journal, that “before there was a ‘melting pot,’ Emerson coined the phrase ‘smelting pot,’” in reference to the same sort of melding of cultures.

Mr. Hilgendorf who has read her book—along with the rest of the history department—urged students to consider: “Do you really believe, as she does, that whiteness is a total construction or fiction, with no basis in reality?” Mr. H agrees with her in the sense that whiteness is a fiction, but we make it into a reality, similarly to how we react to gender. If this is the case, then perhaps this assembly will motivate us to take it a step further, not only recognize that race is a fiction, but also start living a little more that way. Painter’s arrival at Milton will likely spark controversy over race, a topic that remains fundamental to Milton’s image as a school.

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Posted by Rachael Allen on Dec 7 2012. Filed under News, Recent News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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