Nell Irvin Painter


"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 life history.

Reproduced from The Chronicle of Higher Education, 12 July 2002. Copyright Nell Irvin Painter.

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