"What People Just Don't Understand About History,"
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 12 July 2002
From the issue dated July 12, 2002
What People Just Don't Understand About Academic Fields
We asked several scholars to explain some common misconceptions
about or within their disciplines. Here, they set us straight:
Nell Irvin Painter, professor of American history at Princeton
University and author of Southern History Across the Color Line: Essays
(University of North Carolina Press, 2002):
I'd say the most misunderstood concept among historians
formed in the United States is race. I could generalize to practically
all people of all racial-ethnic backgrounds formed in racialized societies
(a quick definition: a racialized society keeps official records according
to categories of race).
For the most part, historians don't go beyond nonscholars'
thinking about race. This Gramscian common sense essentializes race, assumes
that only racially marked people have racial identities, and sees marked
racial identities as historical causes. The history of race disproves
all three of these assumptions:
* Racial identities change according to chronology and
geography (at the very least). In other times and places, what we now
think of as ethnicities (e.g., Celts, Poles, Ibos, Mandinkas) seemed to
constitute races. People once racialized (e.g., Jews in the United States)
can disappear into race -- whiteness -- as times and cultures change.
* One of the markers of white American racial identity
is individualism -- the assumption that white people do not have a meaningful
communal identity. Another is innocence -- white Americans are not responsible
for bad things. We also conflate white womanhood with ladyhood, as though
a racial identity implies class standing. All belong to white racial identity.
* With people identified as white, as with people identified
as black, racial identity constitutes only part of a panoply of overlapping
identities, including individual subjectivity. Knowing a person's race,
whatever that is, does not automatically tell you much about that person's
Reproduced from The Chronicle of Higher Education,
12 July 2002. Copyright Nell Irvin Painter.
Return to top Return to Articles