Scholar questions role of race, historians
Published: Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 01:02
Speaking and writing about race, and racism, in history can be a provocative topic.
One nation-wide bestselling historian and intellectual, Nell Irvin Painter, posed a simple, yet complex, question at a lecture Tuesday evening.
“Can a black scholar write about white people?” she asked.
In her lecture, Painter asked many similar questions concerning race and history. Her answer came with scholarly insight and much humor to the audience of approximately 100 guests in the auditorium of the Patel Center for Global Solutions.
Painter, the author of “The History of White People,” a former president of the Organization of American Historians, said as she traveled on a book tour, she found “Americans have a fascination with black people,” asking her questions about her own race despite the fact she had just completed 10 years of study, a book and a tour about the history of white people.
“Though my book devotes hundreds of pages of constructions to white racial identity, in question-and-answer sessions following my talks, questioners would invariably ask about black people,” she said.
Painter said she was constantly asked about the Atlantic trading of African slaves, though her book mentioned other slave trades like that of Eastern Europeans in the Mediterranean.
She said her audiences asked about racial, not economic or political, concerns and also asked about President Barack Obama and the census.
“In 2010, everybody wanted to talk about President Obama,” she said. “I conclude that for many Americans, black people are simply much more interesting than white people.”
The audience laughed at this and many other responses throughout the lecture.
The census, which she has studied, she said, raised many interesting topics concerning races. People in the 1940s only labeled three races, she said, but since then the census has added many more races, to approximately 15 categories.
Surprisingly, she said, many concerns about the census came from the white people she spoke with, who said they felt “squeamish” for various reasons to check the box labeled “white.”
“I said they should check the black box, because we need more black people,” Painter said.
During the question and answer segment with the audience, Painter said the system of race and the census will eventually “collapse” as the increasing number of races and the new option to select more than one provides a “taxonomical nightmare.”
“Scientists never agreed on the number of races, nor the criteria for deciding that,” she said.
Though Painter said race can be a necessary socioeconomic measure in society, she compared race to beauty. Both are first impressions, but are meaningless until there is more depth added by action.
“If you are beautiful, you have a real advantage,” she said. “But that advantage only lasts until you open your mouth and make a fool of yourself or show how smart you really are.”
Anthony McCray, a junior majoring in history, said he read Painter’s “The History of White People” for his Theory of History class.
“It’s interesting to get another perspective of history,” McCray said.
Painter concluded her lecture with an answer — yes, she said, anyone can write history about anyone.
She said this was a simple answer at the beginning of the lecture, but maintained that scholars, black or white, must be aware of the necessary research.
“Black scholars can write about anybody as long as they do their scholarly homework,” She said. “Anybody can write about anybody as long as they do their scholarly homework.”