tv Maria Hinojosa One-on- One PBS March 12, 2016 4:00pm-4:31pm PST
>> hinojosa: our guest today says race is not about skin color, but is, instead, a construct and one that hasn't always existed. she digs deep into the roots of white identity in her book, the history of white people. leading historian and author nell irvin painter. i'm maria hinojosa, this is one on one. nell irvin painter, it's great to have you here. you are the author of sojourner truth: a life, a symbol and your latest book, a history of white people. >> "the"... >> hinojosa: the history. >> ...history of white people. >> hinojosa: well, welcome, nell, to our program. >> thank you. >> hinojosa: so speaking of the history of white people... >> mm-hmm? >> hinojosa: do you think that there might be a time, let's say
100 years from now or 200 years from now, when other historians are looking back at this moment in history and saying, "oh, god, those silly americans of back then." and these would be other americans... >> yes. >> hinojosa: ...saying, "well, god, they divided people up into race!" >> yeah. >> hinojosa: do you think that that's possible? >> yes. if they're historians, they won't cast judgment, however. they'll just say, "in the past, americans divided people up by race." they also divided people up by religion, so it used to be a really big deal if you were jewish or catholic. so these are categories that have fallen by the wayside, and conceivably, race could be another one. however, i will add that race is really in our national dna in a way that religion kind of isn't, and certainly not head shape, which was also important. >> hinojosa: okay, so when you say, "it's in our dna as a country"... >> mm-hmm? >> hinojosa: ...what does
that... what does that mean? >> well, one of our great values is freedom, and freedom makes sense with its opposite, slavery. >> hinojosa: slavery. >> and so slavery is kind of a foundation. slavery was at its greatest in the united states in the 18th and 19th centuries, and our country was founded in the late 18th century, so it's all in there together in terms of time and history. >> hinojosa: because basically, to be white came to be what it is to be an american... >> it came to be what it means to be free. >> hinojosa: to be free... >> yes. >> hinojosa: ...and that meant that you had to have blacks who were not free or people of color who were not free. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: but it also... >> no, it's s e other way around. you have... you mark blackness as "slave"... >> hinojosa: as slavery. >> ...and then what's left as whiteness is "free." and that was a kind of two or
three step dance, because, in the early days of the united states, in the 1790s, there was a category of unfree white people. that fell away. >> hinojosa: in the united states? >> yes, that feel away in the early 19th century, what we historians call the "jacksonian revolution," and then the way to be a citizen was to be a white male. it didn't matter how much money you had, as long as you were not a felon. so freedom, citizenship, maleness, whiteness, all those came together before the civil war. >> hinojosa: and majority? like, did white also at that time signify, "we are the majority population"? >> yes. i hesitate because in some parts of the united states, white people were not the majority, and those were the very heavy slave-owning areas, which in
symbolic terms, were very important. so ( hesitantly ) yes. >> hinojosa: at least in their... in the mentality. >> mm-hmm. >> hinojosa: but if there comes a time soon, then, when white america is a "minority," what does that mean? is that part of what is getting people so worked up, because that's just an image that's never existed for them? >> yes... um... i'm hesitating, maria, because our idea of whiteness is something rooted in the mid-20th century, so it's fairly recent. there used to be different white races. you could be considered white but belong to a superior or inferior white race. >> hinojosa: for example? >> saxon, superior. celtic, inferior. jewish, inferior. italian, inferior. anglo-saxon, superior. so that was... that was an idea of the late 19th and early 20th century.
we've forgotten about that, so even in the 20th century there was this... not quite a sense of overweening white majority-- stress on the "overweening." so we're... it's... these classifications have always been fluid. they've always been changing, and it's only been useful to speak of this one great big white race in which all the white people are equal since about the second world war. >> hinojosa: you actually want people to think about things like the fact that slavery predated racial... racial definitions of slavery. >> they go together. slavery is time immemorial. it's wherever you have very stark differences of power and money. >> hinojosa: but the image of holding... of having... of white holding white slaves is not one that we... >> this is true. but we also don't think about head shape that much anymore.
used to be a big deal. so if you look at normal rockwell's paintings, for instance, the people... the men have bumps in the back of their heads. they're not flat headed, because that's part of what used... used to be important for anglo-saxons, the shape of their heads. to be irish and catholic is not a big deal anymore. it was a very big deal in say, 1855, 1860, 1890. so the categories, the importance of the categories, changes over time, and i'm sure it will keep changing. >> hinojosa: and you... you kind of dove right into this. i mean, you've... >> well, it was a slow... >> hinojosa: well, you've been a historian... >> i've been a historian for a long time, yeah. >> hinojosa: ...an amazing historian based at princeton, and yes, you have studied history, but... >> and i've done lots of different books. >> hinojosa: oh, amazing books. >> this is not my first book, yeah. >> hinojosa: sojourner truth, the making of the black american? >> creating black americans. >> hinojosa: creating black americans. >> yeah, southern history across the color line, the united
states 1977-1919... >> hinojosa: you've been pushing up against this as a... as an academic... >> yeah, i've been... >> hinojosa: your entire career... >> yeah. >> hinojosa: ...has been kind of like, "i'm going to push these buttons." >> no, no, no, no, me? moi? >> hinojosa: ( laughing ) you? >> i... i just write. >> hinojosa: what is the motivation? i mean... >> i love history. i love to do historical research. i love to write history books. i love history. >> hinojosa: you, nell, i know that you don't like to talk a lot about your personal experience, but it does influence who you ended up becoming and the work that you ended up doing. >> absolutely, absolutely. >> hinojosa: you grew up... you were born in texas... >> yes. >> hinojosa: ...but you grew up in... in the bay area. >> in oakland. >> hinojosa: yes. >> i only spent ten weeks in texas. >> hinojosa: so you're not really a texan. >> ( sighing ) >> hinojosa: ( laughing ) so then you also travel around the world... >> yes. >> hinojosa: the world... your mom was extraordinary. >> both my parents.
>> hinojosa: both of your parents. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: how did that influence the work that you ended up doing and kind of how you saw yourself? >> it made all the difference in the world, maria. >> hinojosa: because? >> i... my parents were behind me. my father taught me to draw, my mother taught me to write. i... it's... i come from an academic family. i had an academic career. that was something i knew how to do. but not to have to worry about taking care of anybody else financially-- in fact, having... having financial support-- coming from an educated family, coming from a place like northern california where there was... i didn't have to face racial segregation sort of slapping me in the face all the time. so that was of absolute, fundamental importance. and then when i... being able to travel as a young person, particularly spending a junior
year abroad in bordeaux and learning about another world. and then especially, two years in ghana in the 1960s, a black majority country. >> hinojosa: and so how old were you then? >> i was in my 20s, so... >> hinojosa: that must have been... i mean, well, the united states was going through its civil rights battle, and you're living in a black majority country in africa. >> yeah, yeah. >> hinojosa: what were you thinking? >> well, i was learning. i was learning. i was... you know, we didn't have television, so i wasn't watching super closely, but of course, this was world news, what was going on in the united states. i remember one response i had. i was in ghana during the watts uprising in 1965, and it was the cover of paris match. my job was to do the french broadcasts for ghana radio, so i was in close touch with the french press. so watts was on the cover of
paris match, and i looked at the houses and they were absolutely amazing houses. ( laughing ) that's what really hit me-- the difference in wealth in the united states and in west africa. that was what hit me then. but more than that, i learned in ghana to think in class terms, not just in race terms. and class or the economics, what the marxists would call "the material dimension," that is so important and so hard for us to see in the united states because we use race as a proxy. and race doesn't fit, necessarily, and it used to fit less awkwardly in the 20th century. in the 21st century it's... it's sort of not going together in many, many ways. so that was a crucial part of my personal education.
>> hinojosa: you talk about the essence of democracy of you as a woman, about basically wanting to tell the history, the stories of the forgotten voices. >> mm-hmm. >> hinojosa: does that also come from the fact that you were a woman of color of a certain privilege, and you were able to see that while you had a voice, there were so many others around you who didn't. >> yes, yes, that's absolutely the case. my dissertation was about black southerners, people who had started their lives in slavery. and i was able to find many of their voices, they were not mute, but i had to go look for them. that's the beauty of research. whereas other people with more power-- politicians or writers who were published at the time-- those voices came to much more easily. so yes, that is something i wanted to do, and it was something that came out of my experience in ghana. >> hinojosa: and so as... you know, why did you decide to say,
"i'm going to jump into writing this history of white people"? i mean, just even... >> it didn't start like, "i'm going to write this history of white people." it started with a question. you see, for... the first thing is that i've done so many books that i can just answer the questions in my mind. so for instance, sojourner truth, i didn't start saying, "i'm going to write a biography of sojourner truth." i said, "why is it that the visions that we have of sojourner truth, the visual imagery, is of this demure, bourgeois lady with knitting or her... a picture of her grandson on her lap? that's the visual sojourner truth, but the verbal sojourner truth was this sort of black power figure, ain't i a woman, rip off your dress, show your... you know, all stuff is going on. they didn't go together. so i started out by saying, "what's going on here?" so with the history of white people, i started by saying, "how is it that chechnya, you
know, which was in flames at the time, which is the caucuses, why are white people in the united states called chechnyans, basically, caucasian? you know, how does that happen? so that's where it got... it started. >> hinojosa: do you think... i mean, there is a lot of change going on in that country right now. >> mm-hmm, mm-hmm. >> hinojosa: and a lot of it is visual. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: a lot of it has to do with numbers, when you start looking at the demographics. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: so when people react in fear... >> mm-hmm. >> hinojosa: ...because it's unknown what's going to happen... >> when people react in fear, bad things happen. >> hinojosa: but you understand the fear. >> intellectually, yes. >> hinojosa: and beyond that? >> if somebody asked me to write about it, i would do some research, but you know, off the top of my head, i can only react in a very superficial way.
>> hinojosa: so as a citizen... >> mm-hmm? >> hinojosa: ...but you have this basis, right, because you have delved into history, but... >> mm-hmm? >> hinojosa: ...so as a citizen, are we looking at an optimistic future in our country? >> i'm an optimist, so finally, i would say, "yes." ( laughing ) yes. but they're are bound to be bumps along the way. somebody asked me at the national book festival if there was a time in american history in which the hysteria about immigrants was as high, and i said, "yes, in the 1920s." so i think when... to try to answer your question, i go back to the 1920s, and in the 1920s, race was the way americans talked about difference, so they racializ jews, they racialized italians, they racialized greeks, and these were considered alien races. and part of the threat was
racial degeneration. they weren't talking about black people or brown people or red people or yellow people. they were talking about people we consider white people. racial degeneration. however, for a series of reasons, that time receded, and the end of that time was national mobilization during the 1930s and especially during the 1940s, as those people who had been considered alien races naturalized or their american born children became americans and voted. so politics was absolutely crucial to getting from this roiling mess of anger and the will to get rid of these people to another era in which we have the nation united against the
threat of nazism. so politics is very much involved in what's going on, and as new people become citizens, vote, get rich, spend, our view of our population can shift. and i have seen this from, say, the 1970s and 1980s to now, i saw a big change in the visual image of the american population, and i would date it to the second half of the 1990s. when i grew up, all the pictures in public life were white, and most of them were male, so i saw a difference from an idea of the american as white male to a more
multicultural america in which you can't wrap up the whole population in one figure. >> you basically say that what's happening now is this... what you call this "fourth great expansion," where defining ourselves as american no longer means defining ourselves as white. >> or in your face as white. >> hinojosa: and one of the things that's so beautiful, i was going to say, about the work that you do, nell, is that you make us, in reading history and therefore, understanding what comes, understand beauty, and how beauty... i mean, this whole notion of like, skull construction... >> yes, yes, yes. >> hinojosa: ...it's just like, "ooh, i hadn't really thought about that." >> right. >> hinojosa: now, as you know, one of the models of beauty in america is michelle obama. >> yes. >> hinojosa: i have been in places... well, in one place in particular where it's not just about beauty, but it's about intelligence.
for example, sonia sotomayor... >> yes. >> hinojosa: ...who was actually in the same room of jennifer lopez, and all the young women wanted to get the autograph from sotomayor. >> ah-hah! >> hinojosa: that was who they... you know. i'm thinking, "wow, this is"... so talk a little bit about how that popular culture interpretation of beauty, and how... how far along have we made it? >> part of beauty has to do with money. beauty... >> hinojosa: just a part? >> ...my next book, actually, is called the truth about beauty, and it's going to be mostly pictures and just a little bit of text, because there's not a lot to say. beauty is a mixture of sex and money, youth, and wealth. so what... the image of youth doesn't change that much. so we always want to see young people as beautiful. but who has the power and the money, that can change over time. and so our ideas about what is
beautiful... so you just mentioned beauty as intelligence and power in terms of sotomayor, but we can also talk about beauty, just plain old sex beauty, as having broadened since the 20th century. >> hinojosa: so you write in your book, you say, "so long as racial discrimination remains a fact of life and statistics can be arranged to support racial difference, then the american belief in races is going to endure." >> yes. >> hinojosa: but then you actually say, "but if you actually look at the existing american population, the notion of american whiteness is going to continue to evolve"... >> yes. >> ..."and change." >> and the notion of american whiteness continued to evolve from the moment people started thinking about it. so people... somebody once called in a radio program and said, "well, what is the real
definition?" i said, "what are you trying to prove?" because it's an instrumental category. so the meaning of whiteness changes, or the meaning of white changes, depending on what you want to prove and when you're trying to prove it. that is somewhat separate from the whole question of racism against non-white people. so we have both things going on at the same time. >> hinojosa: so what do you want... what do you want us to rethink? i know that that's like, again, you wrote the whole book, but leave some ideas for our... our audience to just be like, "okay, let me ask myself that question." >> yes, yes, that ideas about race and ideas... and that white people are raised, those ideas change over time. race is a concept, and our ideas, concepts, change according to when and why; who was speaking to whom and why
change over time. >> hinojosa: and so you want our audience to like... how... again, because most people aren't historians and walking around with this kind of baggage of know... so when they're out on the street, when they're in a... what do you want them to ask themselves? >> well, when they're out in the street, i want them to ask themselves, "how can i love my neighbor?" ( laughing ) >> hinojosa: that's a nice one. >> "how can we be together." but... >> hinojosa: how can we all get along... >> together, yes. and what i would like them to do is not start by classifying people, "this person is this, and that person is that, and this person is this," because race, fundamentally, is a way of dividing people, of creating difference. even when it's used in the best possible ways to create pride-- not against others-- it's still a way of saying, "i am this," meaning, "you are that." >> hinojosa: and that is so controversial, because you know so many institutions are... civil rights institutions, are
based on the fact that... you know, you have the naacp. >> yes, yes. and that's why i say, "as long as racial discrimination is a fact, we will have race, for better or worse." but that doesn't mean that you can't understand that race is a concept. you can do both things. >> hinojosa: do you feel like this conversation of understanding race as a concept for our country, beyond the work that you've done, do you feel it's kind of out there in the american lexicon? >> depends on who you ask. so if you ask people in the academy, it's a commonplace, but if you ask people on the street, they probably believe that race is something in there, biological, permanent, and separates people. so the idea of race, the core of the idea of race, is that it's biological and it's permanent. that's the meaning of the idea. >> hinojosa: so leave our... our audience with some thoughts
about moving forward, not from a place of fear, not from a place of, "your gain means my loss," and, "if this country changes we're going to go down the tubes because that's not what we know." what do you want... what do you want us to think about the future? >> i'd like us to think about our grandchildren. and everybody loves their grandchildren, no matter who their... well, nearly everybody loves their grandchildren. and if we could think about our neighbors as our grandchildren and think about what we have with them as part of us. abbey lincoln has a song called the people in me. i've got some irish in me, i've got some chinese in me. i wish that that kind of a feeling of commonality, instead of difference and separation,
because we have so much in common across lines of race and gender and class. >> hinojosa: because really, there's no way that you can say that you are... and i... this is not a term that i like to use, but that anyone is "racially pure." >> that's right, that's right. >> hinojosa: so therefore... >> it's true in terms of biology, and it's also true in terms of culture. >> hinojosa: therefore, why should i fear you if you are actually me or will be soon? >> yeah, yeah, we could get together and talk about our grandchildren. >> hinojosa: and you are hopeful... >> yeah, yeah. >> hinojosa: in your day to day experience. >> well, okay, don't push me so hard. ( laughing ) it's true that i have my moments of fear and i think, "oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no," but by and large, yeah. i don't think i would've gotten... i would've persisted this long if i hadn't been an optimist. >> hinojosa: and final thoughts... >> mm-hmm? >> hinojosa: ...on beauty? >> mm-hmm. >> hinojosa: there are probably a lot of young women of color who are watching this show, or
older women of color... >> yeah. >> hinojosa: ...and older women. >> keep talking. >> hinojosa: tell us what we need to know, because this is your next book... >> yeah. >> hinojosa: ...about understanding our own beauty. leave us with an uplifting thought about understanding our own beauty. >> we need to understand that most of the images we see as beauty are meant to sell us things. that's not what it's about. so to women of color, to older women of color, to older women, to younger women, don't get sucked in by the beauty industry, because beauty is something entirely different. and i should... if there... is a plural for the adjective "differences," that you can be beautiful in many ways, and it's not about what people want to sell you and make you feel that you're awful unless you buy this thing. >> hinojosa: i'm not buying anything now but your books. >> ( laughing ) thank you. >> hinojosa: thank you so much for a wonderful conversation.
funding for "overhead" with evan smith is provided in part by m.f.i. foundation, improving the quality of life within our community. and from the texas board of legal specialization, board certified attorneys in your community. experienced, respected, and tested. also by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy. and by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation. and viewers like you. thank you. i'm evan smith. he's a reformed political consultant with more than 150 local, state, and national races to his credit. most famously the campaigns to elect and re-elect president barack obama. his just published memoir "believer: my forty years in politics," is a new york times bestseller. he's david axelrod, this is "overheard." [applause]. >> actually, there are not two sides to every issue. >> so i guwe