Author Examines 'The History Of White People' Conversations about race often focus on what it means to be black. But in her new book, The History of White People historian Nell Irvin Painter explores the concept of "whiteness" — and finds that who is "white" has actually changed throughout America's history.
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Author Examines 'The History Of White People'

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Author Examines 'The History Of White People'

Author Examines 'The History Of White People'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan, in Washington.

Once upon a time, notorious laws in this country defined as black anyone with as much as one drop of black blood. Similar laws struggled with the rights of people of mixed race, octoroons, for example. But nowhere can you find a definition of white people, and as a practical matter, that non-definition has changed. Ethnic groups now regarded as white Irish, Jews, Italians - were once very much on the outside.

These points from Nell Irvin Painter's new book, "The History of White People," which traces ideas about color and race from antiquity to the Obama administration. The author joins us in just a moment, but we also want to hear from you.

Is your definition of white different from what that was for your grandparents? How? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation at our Web site. Thats at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we'll be talking about the basketball tournaments, the college basketball tournaments, which get underway later this week, and with Greivis Vasquez, the star point guard at the University of Maryland.

But first, Nell Irvin Painter joins us. She's the Edwards Professor of American History Emerita at Princeton and joins us today from member station WBGO in Newark. Thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. NELL IRVIN PAINTER (Author, "History of White People"): Hello.

CONAN: And I wonder, you conclude at the end of your book, you say the fundamental black-white binary endures even though the category of whiteness or we might say more precisely a category of non-blackness effectively expands. That non-blackness, is that by lack of a definition of whiteness?

Ms. PAINTER: Yeah, that's about how it goes. There as you noted, there have not been legal definitions of whiteness. It's kind of what's leftover from blackness.

CONAN: What isn't.

Ms. PAINTER: And blackness, there's the idea of a one-drop rule is an idea. What the states did was say one-fourth, one-eighth, that kind of thing, one grandparent, one great-grandparent. That's how they decided what one drop was.

I suppose people use the word one drop because actually color disappears very quickly in people. And so you can look functionally white with one black grandparent, which in most places would make you legally black. So what makes you black has been defined and redefined and re-re-redefined. What makes you white is what's leftover.

CONAN: And in fact, you say that has been, well, ill-defined but redefined and redefined over the years, too.

Ms. PAINTER: Yeah. Is it enough to be Caucasian? No, if you're Caucasian, but you're not white, as Mr. Thin(ph) found out in the '20s. Or if you're white but not Caucasian, as Mr. Ozawa(ph) found out, also in the '20s. So it's slippery.

The whole point of defining races is mostly to put people down, and so those needs change over time. Who do you want to put down? Well, you want to put down, say, Jews and Italians and Slavs 100 years ago, but 150 years ago, you wanted to put down the Irish.

CONAN: It's interesting. You take this back to antiquity.

Ms. PAINTER: I do.

CONAN: People say wait a minute, you know, how...

Ms. PAINTER: Yeah, yeah, what are you doing?

CONAN: But there are two dates I want to bring up this week - two dates this week that are very important in the history of white people, and today, of course, is the Ides of March, the death of Julius Caesar in the Forum. And you say his Gallic commentaries were, in fact, an important mark in the definition of the peoples who would become regarded as our European ancestors.

Ms. PAINTER: Well, for people who became German nationalists or white nationalists because Julius Caesar talked about the Germans, and a large, thick, deep, long-lasting strand, long in the sense of a couple of hundred years, of thinking about what makes white people or the right kind of white people, traces Saxons, Americans as Saxons and Saxons as Germans, back to Julius Caesar.

Now, Julius Caesar didn't think in the kind of terms that we think in, in the 21st century, not even the kind of terms that Americans thought of in the 20th century. He was a general in what is now France, and he was trying to figure out how to dominate people and who was what there in northern now France and what is now Germany. So he was looking at people to figure out how well they could fight.

CONAN: And indeed, he it's funny, the Germans, you say, derives from the Roman word. It's not what they called themselves. I guess it's the same root as germane. It means authentically, these are the real deal.

Ms. PAINTER: That's one theory about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PAINTER: So the idea was that the Gauls used to be Germani until they got tamed, and they started drinking wine, and then they lost their manliness. So the ones who are left as wild are the genuine Germani over there beyond the reach of the Romans.

CONAN: Beyond the Rhine, yeah.

Ms. PAINTER: But this comparison between the civilized and the wild, the manly and the you know, these are terms that we can trace back, and they slip around. They slip around.

CONAN: And indeed, this becomes important in Germany later, the battle between northern Germans, or the Prussians, if you will, who are from Weimar, and the soft, civilized, Romanized, if you will, Germans in Vienna.

Ms. PAINTER: In Vienna, yeah. Also the Viennese being Catholic, that was a big deal. In the 19th century, part of being really the right kind of white person, that is to say Teutonic or Saxon or German, you also had to be Protestant.

We think of race as something physical, biological and permanent, but the way people used race in the 19th and 20th centuries and probably still today is that it has to do with temperament, racial temperament. So how people look on the outside is a key to what they're like on the inside, their temperament. So that had to do with Protestantism, too.

CONAN: You get that same north-south division in a lot of places, in Italy and certainly in Britain...

Ms. PAINTER: Yes, yes.

CONAN: ...and certainly in this country, too.

Ms. PAINTER: Yes, it works backwards in Britain, though. In Britain, it's the northerners who wait a minute, wait a minute.

CONAN: No, it works. The hardy...

Ms. PAINTER: Yeah, yeah, the hardy, yeah, yeah.

CONAN: The hardy, pure-race northerners, you know...

Ms. PAINTER: Yeah, but you don't want to go too far north because then you get to Celts.

CONAN: Well, that's another thing entirely, which brings us to the other important date this year, that of course St. Patrick's Day, March 17th. And you tell us a lot about the life of St. Patrick to remind us that for much of its sordid history, slavery was very much not the black thing that most Americans think about but was very much an equal-opportunity employer, if you'll forgive me.

Ms. PAINTER: Well, yes. The point about slavery is that the people who get caught up are the vulnerable aliens, and it's not a matter of color or race. It's not even a matter of geography. It's who can be caught up and victimized.

We still have slavery in the world today. and two of the areas pinpointed for slavery are Latin America, notably Brazil, and Eastern Asia.

CONAN: Eastern Europe, as well.

Ms. PAINTER: Well, that's not in the big two. It's probably in the big three.

CONAN: Okay. There you get a lot of people who are drawn into the sex trade and other things, virtual slaves, and it's interesting. Anyway, we're interested in how your grandparents may have defined white, and whether that's different from the way you define it. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us,

Let's begin with Bobby(ph), Bobby with us from New York.

BOBBY (Caller): I am. Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

BOBBY: I'm so interested in this topic. I'm a graduate of Yale Drama School. And I'm an Italian-American, and I look, I guess, what would be considered to be a stereotypical Southern Italian-American. And in show business, they have what they call colorblind casting, and they call themselves equal-opportunity employers.

And more often than not, what's been my experience is that they mean African-Americans or Asian-Americans or Indian-Americans, which basically leaves me without a job because I'm considered white. So if I get sent up for a Latino role or a Middle Eastern role I look more Middle Eastern, a lot of people say, than Italian - they'll say to me, well, you're not a person of color. So we can't even audition you for these roles.

So basically, with a $90,000 Yale degree, I'm left with mafia guys and criminals and cops that have one or two lines here and there. It's a really interesting topic to me because I'm considered white.

CONAN: It's interesting, Nell Irvin Painter, you describe how, in fact, racial laws made a transition in the late part of the 20th century from being used to exclude persons of color to define injustices against persons of color.

Ms. PAINTER: Not persons of color, Negroes, to be exact. The laws were against Negroes. But you're absolutely right that before desegregation, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, all those laws, exclusionary laws, were meant to keep Negroes out. And the counting up was to keep Negroes out.

And after that, particularly after the 1970s, the need to rectify the injustices meant that we had to count people in order to straighten things out. So now we count up racial categories, say, to track mortgage lending, where there's still a good deal of racial discrimination.

So in the census, the census keeps counting us by race for purposes of undoing racial harm in the past.

CONAN: And Bobby, you find yourself getting caught up on the short end of this.

BOBBY: Absolutely. I mean, I've been able to carve somewhat of a career for myself, but I'd be lying if I didn't say it wasn't always the same thing. In other words, it's I have to accept that I'm always going to be what nobody else wants to be anymore, and that's usually a criminal.

Ms. PAINTER: Well, you know, this gets to some very nasty stereotypes about Italian-Americans.

BOBBY: Right.

Ms. PAINTER: And if I were still writing books I'm not writing books anymore, I'm drawing books, I'm painting books it would be about Italian-Americans.

I live in Newark, which was heavily - actually bulldozed in the 1960s in urban renewal. And we think of urban renewal as harming black people, which of course it did, but it also hit some other vulnerable people, and Italian-American neighborhoods also got it. So there's a big story there that you've only touched on.

CONAN: Bobby, good luck to you.

BOBBY: Okay, thank you very much for having me. Take care.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking about "The History of White People," the new book from Nell Irvin Painter. More with her in just a moment, and more of your calls. How is the definition of white different than it was for your grandparents? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington. Nell Irvin Painter is our guest, her latest book titled "The History of White People," a look at the roots of race and racism, how the meaning of white has changed over centuries.

You can read about how power and not race ruled the slave trade in Ancient Greece. That's an excerpt on our Web site, at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And we'd like to hear from you. Is your definition of white different than it was for your grandparents? How? 800-989-8255. Email And you can also join the conversation on that Web site. Thats at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's go next to Patricia(ph), Patricia calling us from Memphis.

PATRICIA (Caller): Hi, Neal, thank you so much for having me on. I'm so glad you're talking about this today. I have been wrestling with this ever since I moved to the United States about 21 years ago.

I'm from Brazil originally, and I really never gave it so much thought. I was a Brazilian. I was a white girl from Brazil, and as soon as I moved to the United States, people immediately would ask me, well, what are you? And I would say, well, do you mean who am I? I'm a Brazilian girl who's living here now.

And there was this obsession, it's nothing less than an obsession, to pin you down and give you a label and hyphenate you in some way. I'm Portuguese, mainly Portuguese descent, some German, and I honestly had never thought about it.

In Brazil, you're white, or you're black, or you're brown, but its something that's so far in the background. People just relate to each other as people, and I noticed that this was so different in America. And so all of a sudden I've become Hispanic, and I've never thought of myself as Hispanic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PATRICIA: I'm just a person. I'm a person.

CONAN: How about Lusitanian?

PATRICIA: So it has been truly an education, and it's something that I it still befuddles me. It still bewilders me sometimes because I really feel that people in America, I think they get race, ethnicity and culture all mixed together, and those are all different.

Race, we're all the same race because we can procreate with each other. That's the definition of race. We have different ethnicities, and we have different cultures. But I think that people get really just bogged down with this label, and they have to find the shade. You are this certain you are this particular shade. Therefore, you are you have this label. America yes.

CONAN: No, I just was going to ask Nell Irvin Painter to comment on this. Obviously, your definition of race, well, DNA has proven that to be true in a sense that all of us are African-American because that's where we all came from.

Ms. PAINTER: That's right.

PATRICIA: And I think that it's your culture that defines you more, and of course, there are also shades of your ethnicity there because they are very, you know, tightly aligned. But I think that it's so much more about, you know, it's not so much about your skin type, you know, what you look like. And it seems to be that that's the American I joke with my friends...

CONAN: To be fair, Patricia, it's not just America. I've not been to Brazil, but I've read that indeed, color there can be a barrier to a lot of people, too. There are, you know, discrimination against darker people.

PATRICIA: There are. There are. It's something that unfortunately seems to be more, seems to be rising, and I don't know why that is, and of course, I am not African-American or African-Brazilian. So I have not been in their shoes, but it is not something that is so in the forefront of basically when you meet someone, you basically have to then, just in the back of your mind, categorize them. And that is something that I find happens here a lot more than it happens in other places.

CONAN: Well, I think, Nell Painter, she's almost certainly right about that.

Ms. PAINTER: I think that's true. Last semester, I had a class with people who had not grown up in the United States. And they said pretty much what Patricia said, that they were absolutely shocked by Americans' preoccupation with categorizing people by race.

So mostly I agree with what Patricia has to say, but I will disagree with her on one point, and that is what you look like. What you look like is really important, especially if you're a woman.

What you look like in fact in Brazil, they have a category for employment which is a good appearance, which means whitish. But a good appearance for women is still of great importance, and that touches on the whole question of beauty, which is still very much bound up not only with whiteness but whiteness of a certain sort, that is to say a kind of Teutonic, Saxon whiteness. And so the theme of beauty runs right throughout my book.

CONAN: Indeed, there's a lot of interesting material about the odalisques and the entire tradition of Circassian or Georgian beauty in, indeed, harem slavery that contributed so much to this. And indeed, one of the great things I found in your book was the idea that these white marble statues were the ideal of female beauty, and indeed male beauty.

Ms. PAINTER: Male beauty, yeah.

CONAN: And they were, of course, Roman copies of Greek statues that were originally, well, of different kind of marble entirely and painted.

Ms. PAINTER: And painted, yes.

CONAN: So that they got them completely wrong.

Ms. PAINTER: Well, the idea of beauty being white, that is another enlightenment idea, actually, an 18th-century idea by another German, named Winckelmann, who's the father of art history and who embedded a kind of gay aesthetic in art history.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Let's go to Sonja(ph). Sonja with us from Athens, Ohio, speaking of classical times.

SONJA (Caller): Yes, I was just commenting on the fact that every time I'm confronted, excuse me, with a checkbox of different ethnicities on a form or something, as a Jewish-American person, I know that I'm being asked to check the box that says white because I'm never given any alternative that seems to reasonably fit my ethnicity other than that. And every single time I'm confronted by that, I have this internal battle about it because I don't want to embrace a term that my own grandparents or great-grandparents wouldn't have been able to adopt themselves.

And on the other hand, I know that I have to accept the fact that I have certain privileges in society now based on our current definition of white, and that's part of the reason I'm being asked to identify myself that way.

Ms. PAINTER: Yeah, you put your finger on a conundrum that many people are facing, and usually you have an other that you can check, but, you know, when in doubt, you can just check black.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SONJA: Yeah, but I mean, I sort of feel like I'm being dishonest to, you know, current generations who are currently struggling with you know, and our need for diversity within certain fields or certain occupations or certain programs, and I feel like, well, how fair is it for me to just have the privilege even of checking other?

Ms. PAINTER: Yeah, well, I don't want you to spend too much time on this. Let's settle with other. How's that?

SONJA: Okay, thanks.

Ms. PAINTER: But the problem that you point out is I mean, our census is going into taxonomic meltdown largely because of immigration and Latinos, Hispanics. Patricia mentioned that as someone from Brazil, which is Portuguese-speaking, she doesn't exactly feel like a Hispanic because when we thing of Hispanic, we think more of Spain.

But we always have an asterisk by Hispanic or Latino, which says that Hispanics or Latinos can be of any race.

CONAN: Sonja, thanks very much for the phone call.

SONJA: Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Mike(ph). Mike's with us from Flagstaff.

MIKE: Hey, how are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.


MIKE: Very interesting discussion. I'm a historian here, and we read a book about Arizona called "The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction."

Ms. PAINTER: Oh yes, a fine book.

MIKE: It looks at a group of Irish orphan train children who left New York not considered white and ended up in a Hispanic Catholic town in Arizona and all of the sudden became white because of their appearance rather than how someone had rated them before.

Ms. PAINTER: Yeah, Linda Gordon does a great job with that, pointing out the importance of context. Neal has asked about time, generation, which is a crucial part of how people get defined or define themselves, but also, as you point out, Mike, geographic situation is very important.

MIKE: And what's fascinating about that story is that whites in the town who were Protestant felt that these now white children could not go to Hispanic Catholic families and abducted them from their foster parents.

CONAN: Even though they were Catholics.

MIKE: Even though they were Catholic, the whiteness trumped the...

CONAN: The bigotry.

Ms. PAINTER: The Catholic, the religion.

CONAN: Yeah, the religious part, yes.

MIKE: Yeah, fascinating. Interesting discussion.

CONAN: Interesting. Mike, thanks very much for the phone call. Here's an email we have from Jay(ph): I have taught my sons never to call themselves white since that is not the color of their skin. The proper name for our ethnicity and culture is Anglo-Saxon. Therefore, we mark other on forms.

I guess going to back to Sonja's conundrum. Anglo-Saxon, though, is an interesting, is an interesting derivation, going back to pictures of, what is it, Horsa and Hengist.

Ms. PAINTER: Yes. Anglo-Saxon is a fascinating term, of interest only to British and American people, because the Saxon part is a kind of floating area between the Netherlands and Denmark and western Germany because the Saxony that we really think of as Saxony, the important Saxony, Saxon in Germany, is in eastern Germany. The important cities are Dresden and Leipzig. You also mentioned Weimar. So that's the historic Saxon. But this Anglo-Saxon thing with Horsa and Hengist as the founders of Anglo-Saxon, England, that is kind of mishmash of bits of history and legend, and how are we going to separate ourselves from the Normans.

CONAN: Who were, well, they were Norse.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PAINTER: Well, it depends on who you ask. If you ask Thomas Carlyle, the Normans were Norsemen who had just learned how to speak French.

CONAN: Right, and sometimes very badly too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: The Vikings, though, you write a lot about...


CONAN: ...indeed as some of the people who mixed all of these different bloodlines and the idea of racial purity and going back to the whole German problem, that manifested itself so horribly in the 20th century. But nevertheless...

Ms. PAINTER: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: ...the Vikings, as we think of them as raiders, pillagers, nevertheless some of the greatest slavers ever seen on the world.

Ms. PAINTER: Yeah. Well that's - pillaging is a word for slaving, you could say. You go and grab people and then you sell them for money or wine or clothing or whatever. Yeah, the Normans were great mixers up of people - the Normans and also the Romans. So Julius Caesar in his book about the Gallic War, he talks about that there was great slaughter, there was mass slaughter everywhere. And then he sends 54,000, what we would now call French people, down to Rome to help pay his soldiers.

CONAN: To sell them - men, women, and children - into slavery.

Ms. PAINTER: Mostly women and children, yeah.

CONAN: We're talking with Nell Irvin Painter, the Edwards professor of American history emerita at Princeton. Her most recent book is "The History of White People." She's with us today from Newark, where she lives, WBGO, our member station there. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And let's get another caller in. This is Brons(ph) - Mike(ph), is that right...

BRONS (Caller): That is correct.

CONAN: ...calling from Birmingham, Alabama. Go ahead, please.

BRONS: Good afternoon.


BRONS: Being an African-American man of chocolate hue from Birmingham, Alabama, I thought it's particularly important that I make the statement that there is nothing fair about fair-skinnedness(ph) and the mode in which we have not asserted that dark-skinnedness(ph) in America has been used as a sorting ground for opportunity. And I think even this conversation, in an almost glib-like manner, does the same thing, by not placing a finger upon the fact that skin tone controls opportunity in America to a very, very great extent.

Without extraordinary opportunity, there is no way for people to move forward, especially young children. I think we're being a little light here.

Ms. PAINTER: Well, you may remember when I was talking to Patricia, I told her that appearance is really important, especially for women.

BRONS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. PAINTER: And yeah, I do believe it is more important for women than it is for men. That doesnt mean skin tone doesnt count. What has changed in the 21st century is that what we think of as class privilege can go a long way in blunting the color phobia that you mentioned in a way that simply...

BRONS: Well, I would agree to that. I agree with...

Ms. PAINTER: Just a second, that simply was not true in the 20th century.

CONAN: Go ahead, Brons.

BRONS: I understand that. But to say that there has been any real change is to say that we live in a post-racial America, which we are...

Ms. PAINTER: It is not, not at all.

BRONS: So...

Ms. PAINTER: You can have both. And I have both.

BRONS: Right. So let me say this. As a dark-skinned African American from Birmingham, Alabama, it was only extraordinary opportunity which blunts these inequities for myself and my brother...

Ms. PAINTER: Mm-hmm.

BRONS: ...for example, who are brown people.

Ms. PAINTER: Mm-hmm.

BRONS: But we still do not acknowledge, again in the discussion, how identity and lightedness(ph) and darkness, no matter what your race is, are almost 50 percent defining factor in American society, because unfortunately that is how Americans, black and white, understand themselves. And I think we're being light here again. So thank you all.

CONAN: Okay. Thank you very much.

Ms. PAINTER: Okay. Let me just say that you don't have to make a choice, just because you say that things in the 21 century are not the same as they were in the 20th century, doesnt mean that you're saying that we're in a post-racial society. We are not in a post-racial society, but things are not like they were in the age of segregation or slavery.

CONAN: And I wanted to - we just have a couple of minutes left - but I did want to ask you about the impact of DNA. And particularly if you've seen some of the TV shows that have been done on public television of late, by Skip Gates about...

Ms. PAINTER: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: ...showing people their racial background, and to great surprise of many people. And discovering what many regard as the truth about how intermixed we are, a fact which is one of the major themes of your book.

Ms. PAINTER: That is a major theme of my book. And it's something that we discover sort of periodically, every generation or so, since genetics in the early 20th century. Two things are going on. One is we discover through genetics or the genome or through culture, through migration and so forth, anthropology that racist dont exist, biologically, that you can't box people up in little boxes according to race.

We discovered that. And then our culture says, wait a minute, you don't know everything you need to know until you can sort things out by race. Because our society was founded on racial difference, or on racial oppression, I should say, that theme runs throughout our culture. The fact that people are so interested in having this discussion, even when were talking about white people, means that race is still an important issue in American life.

So, recently, there was an attempt to race the genome, to discover that there are patterns, racial patterns in the genome. I think that has subsided since about 2005, but I wouldnt be surprised if there are other attempts, because of our cultural yearning for racial difference.

CONAN: Nell Irvin Painter, professor emerita of American history at Princeton. Her book, "A History of White People." You can read about how power and not race ruled the slave trade in ancient Greece. There's an excerpt in our Web site at, click on TALK OF THE NATION. She joined us today from member station WBGO in Newark. Thanks very much for your time.

Ms. PAINTER: Pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: Coming up, March Madness, who's lining up for the glass slipper, and we'll talk with Greivis Vasquez, the University of Maryland's star point guard, ACC Player of the Year. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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