Thursday, March 18, 2010

stumble around aimlessly when they talk about the history of their people

Here's some lighter fare for a Friday -- Stephen Colbert interviewing Nell Irvin Painter, author of a fascinating book that I happen to be reading these days, The History of White People.

Colbert plays his usual bumbling role here, parodying in the process how poorly most white people talk about being white (while also highlighting how a person like himself is "the default American"). Painter gets in a few words edgewise about her book, and I suppose the best thing about the segment is that it brought some well-deserved attention to that book.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Nell Irvin Painter

[If anyone knows of a transcript of this interview, I would appreciate a link]

National Public Radio interview (includes a brief book excerpt)

From a review of Painter's The History of White People --

As Nell Irvin Painter, a professor of history emerita at Princeton University, reminds us, theories of race, grounded in heredity, that today seem bizarre, confusing and contradictory, were widely accepted throughout most of American history. And, although biologists and geneticists no longer believe in the physical existence of "races," the concept lives on, along with racism.

Designed for a popular audience, Dr. Painter's book is a useful synthesis of the evolution of ideas about "white races" from the ancient Greeks to the modern age.

Taxonomists, she demonstrates, never clearly defined race. They sometimes acknowledged the role culture and climate played in determining physical appearance, even as they claimed that the distinctive characteristics of groups were fixed and unalterable.

Sometimes, following the lead of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who in 1795 gave us the term "Caucasian," they transformed their own standards of beauty (like blue eyes and blond hair) into scientifically certified racial traits.

And sometimes, "even when the judgment of sound scholarship did not suffice," they turned languages into peoples, applying the word "arya," meaning noble or spiritual in Sanskrit, to an imagined superior race of Aryans.

Dr. Painter doesn't hide her contempt for her subjects. With the possible exception of Ralph Waldo Emerson, most of them deserve it.


  1. Hi everyone, long time lurker, first time commenter.

    It was definitely good to see Painter on the Report, but I really wish Colbert had actually let her finish even one sentence. I know he's gotta play the O'Reilly blowhard role, and something can be indeed be said for him parodying typical white discussions on being white. But he's not really O'Reilly, and people like Painter do not get many chances to talk about race on a show with a reach and influence like the Colbert Report.

    He had a great opportunity in this interview, but he chose to take the easy way out with the derail, however intentional it may have been (and I believe the intention definitely flew over a lot of viewers' heads, judging from numerous comments on HuffPo blaming Painter for not articulating her ideas better).

    I usually count myself among Colbert's fans, but this time he's left me disappointed.

  2. I always thought the whole "Aryans" thing was weird, considering that the original "Aryans" belonged to an empire in India and most certainly did NOT have white skin, did NOT have blond hair, and did NOT have blue eyes. The bastards must have known that, too -- they took the word from Sanskrit, after all.

  3. haha, Ben, as a child I called myself Aryan sometimes, because like you said, it came from Sanskrit. I had no idea it was assocated with racist white neo-Nazi scumbags.

  4. Even for Colbert's performance, I'd say that the swpd is "act as if they have nothing to learn about their history." I'd be willing to wager that the most common white reaction to Painter's book goes something like, "What can she tell us about white history that we don't already know?"

    I'm going to get the book.

  5. Hey Macon this is not a comment on the blog. I have wanted to post my experiences as a POC on your blog but i don't how to go about that i tried sending you an E mail but it did not work i was wondering if you have Gmail where i can Email you.

  6. Michael,

    Far as I know, my email address is working:

    unmakingmacon @ gmail . com

  7. vexatious vixen, lolMarch 19, 2010 at 1:13 PM

    LMAO! "Default-American." Awesome. I haven't really watched Colbert before but the derailing was sublime. I think I'll check out the book too.

  8. Aw, it sounded like she was about to say something interesting. :(

  9. I was kinda amused and miffed by the whole thing... I love the yin yang nature of John and Stephen, but I was really disappointed that Painter couldn't even finish a sentence. I almost want to think that it was almost intentional but, I don't know.... I'm a Male POC who's been reading for months but finally has posted for the first time. Got lots to say. Wait for it... btw, gotta buy the book now.

  10. Her book sounds interesting and something I may pick up soon. I would suggest another book that I read recently and which talks about the complexities and history of race and whiteness in the U.S. It's called "Whiteness of a different color" and it's written by Matthew Frye Jacobson. He also addresses the whole "how white people became Caucasian" thing in his book. I would recommend it to anyone who's interested in examining how race is sociohistorically constructed.

  11. It was good that her book is brought to a show on a mainstream network, but unfortunately, she never got to explain much. Colbert gave a nice comedic performance displaying how most whites react when it comes to race.

  12. Yeah I was a bit irked by him, I think he's brilliant, but sometimes hes just too much during interviews, I actually wanted to hear what she had to say! It brought attention to the book, but I don't think it made anyone besides people who are already interested in the topic (like us, people who read/write on this blog) want to buy it.

    ps, thought you'd enjoy this --

  13. HEY MACON, HI.

    This be venturing into meta territory somewhat, but given observations taken over the course of several months of this place and by extent various portals into the Winter Wonderland of white privilege - there should really, really be a SWPD post titled "throw their weight around white privileged communities for the sole purpose of demanding cookies, and generally pulling out every step in the Whitey Center Stage Act (derailing, tone argument, etc.)"

    Just thought of it given bullshit like this (identified from that comment down to the end of the thread) cast at POC that SHOULD be infrequent given the fairly incisive deconstruction of race this blog espouses, but it seems to happen in every. other. single. goddamn. thread.

  14. Indeed, CB, thank you for the idea. And if you're up for a guest post, I think you know my email.

  15. GYAH. That is to say, "throw their weight around markedly ANTIRACIST communities for the sole purpose of demanding cookies, and generally pulling out every step in the Whitey Center Stage Act (derailing, tone argument, etc.)"

    My bad. Must be starting to internalize the reading incomprehension that white privilege so often conveniently projects upon POC whenever we speak up!

  16. CB & Macon:

    I'm afraid you're both doing what the cake people were doing in the other thread: erasing POC.

    You complain about whites "derailing" and "taking center stage" but where am i in this narrative? When did I get kicked off stage?

    Indeed--although I do not concede its derailing--I fancy myself the Leader of the Derailers, the original usurper, a colorful and charismatic general descending on this space to expose bigotry in the land of anti-racism.

    But somehow I disappeared in your revisionist history. You take me off stage, place my white subordinates where I was, then complain about them occupying the very position on stage that you put them. A tad problematic, no?

  17. Manju,

    What are you talking about? How did I take you out of this "narrative"? And what's the narrative?

  18. macon: its cb's narraative of whites derailing and taking center stage, as evidenced by the "play the ethnicity card" thread.

    but i argue that i was in fact the original derailer taking center stage on that thread (to be only followed by Kvetchin' and lurp) without conceeding that I was in fact derailing, of course.

  19. Manju,

    I didn't realize that you're not white; I wasn't sure either way. Where on this blog did you identify yourself that way?

    Also, if CB knew that you're not white, perhaps you weren't included in the suggested post about "stuff white people do" because, you know, it would be a post about stuff white people do.

  20. "perhaps you weren't included in the suggested post about "stuff white people do" because, you know, it would be a post about stuff white people do."

    Well, perhaps we're seeing the limits--if not the contradictions--of this platform. swpd centers whites, while simultaneously complaining about the centering.

    In this particular case, the platform demands an erasure of a POC. I instigate a chain of events yet the very post proposed to complain about this instigation must exclude me.

    I guess this ties into David “Oso” Sasaki points. The paradigm of only speaking about the behaviour of whites, without any context of similar behaviour emaniting from the rest of humanity, is extremely limiting as an analytical tool.

  21. @manju. You wrote: Well, perhaps we're seeing the limits--if not the contradictions--of this platform. swpd centers whites, while simultaneously complaining about the centering.

    I don't see the contradiction. WP's behaviour (and the impact on POC) is the central subject of the discussion. But just because the posts are about sWpd but that doesn't mean that WP should dominate as participants in the discussion.

    also @ CB and macon. Maybe it's just one example of the SWPD described by CB but other SWPD in marked anti-racist discussions that I find very frustrating is pendantry/word mincing/logic-policing/finding-technicalities-so-as-to-invalidate. It often takes a lot of long comments to nitpick and then justify said nitpicking. I will say that I find this much more prevalent among WM but WW are by no means immune. I guess DFD would classify these behaviours here, here, and here. Maybe it doesn't need a post here though because CVT did a nice one over on Racialicious.

  22. Thanks for the suggestion and for the links, Karen L (and for the reply to Manju, with which I agree).

    I struggle with deciding whether and when to cut off those pickers of nits. I do when they've gone on for too long (or right away, if they're too far off topic), but I'm sure that sometimes I let them go on for too long. I'll keep an eye on that, and yes, it may well merit its own post.

  23. Thank you for this blog! Don't have time to read it all now but will soon. Keep up the good work.


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