The author of “The History of White People” believes racial attitudes are starting to relax in the Obama era. Class differences, though, remain as problematic as ever.
Question: What has Obama’s election changed about race in the U.S., and what hasn’t it changed?
Nell Irvin Painter: Well here I can only act, speak as a citizen, not as an expert of any sort, and it seems to me that the election is more an outcome of changes that had been taking place since about the late ‘90s. For instance, when I started working on this book a century ago in 1999 very often I would get people saying, “Well are you writing it as a black person?” And at first you know I took this rather… I mean I’m a professional historian. I do my research. I have a PhD. What does my race have to do with it? So I would say I’m writing it as a historian. Or, what are my options? Or, I’m writing it as a white man. I never got the right answer. I mean I never had the right retort. Let’s put it that way. But people stopped asking me that. It became possible for people, for Americans to imagine that a person in my body might have access to knowledge. That I think was a change, so I think that American… And this is also subjective. I mean it’s all that is coming to me. I think that as I see it Americans are more able to talk about race or think about race as having other qualities besides skin color, and that there might be knowledge that is useful and that white people might have a race, so in the late twentieth century if you were white then you didn’t have race. You were an individual and I think now large numbers of white people understand themselves as individuals, but also as people who are raced. Now in terms of the possibility of electing a mixed race person or a person identified as black, I never thought that would occur in my lifetime, I was very surprised. And very pleased I would add. So I think that also reflects a shift in American values. Now could the black president be someone who had 100% native African-American background? This I don’t know. It seems to me that when it comes to terms of difference that people are often more comfortable getting an exotic, so the first woman to be Secretary of State was not born in the United States. Madeline Albright was an immigrant. So we will see if these changes hold on, but my sense is there has been a kind of unclenching when it comes to ideas about race in the United States because in part the racial identity and the class identity in terms of black equaling poor, that is opening up. So I think when middle-class people see other middle-class people who are just as middle-class, but who are not white of skin that kind of relaxes it a little bit. It doesn’t help those people who are poor.