New York Times
The Hue Losing Its Purview
By ANAND GIRIDHARADAS
Published: March 11, 2011
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CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS — “Whiteness,” Nell Irvin Painter said the other day, “is not what it used to be.”
Dr. Painter is a black woman and a prominent scholar of whiteness. Last year, she published a much acclaimed book, “The History of White People,” which germinated in a whiteness studies class she taught at Princeton University in New Jersey. Beginning with Homer and ending with the Obamas, it is the story of the invention and defense of a pigmentary privilege.
But today, as Dr. Painter said, whiteness is not what it used to be.
The United States is in the middle of a culture war yet again, and the question of whiteness seems inseparable from it. At one level, the questions confronting the nation are more obviously about other things — deficits, wars, health care. But it does not take long to hear in the conversation a palpable anxiety in certain, overwhelmingly white quarters centered on an unspoken question: To whom does America really belong?
On Fox News, Glenn Beck regularly asks whether Barack Hussein Obama is pro-American. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People fires back with a report detailing what it calls “white nationalism.” Mike Huckabee, a Republican presidential contender, claims, then recants, that Mr. Obama grew up in Kenya and thus has an anti-colonial mentality. There are the birthers, with the progress they have made in convincing Americans that Mr. Obama was born outside the United States. (He was not.) There are those who believe everyone on the right to be racist, which is surely as specious as the president’s foreign birth.
I asked Dr. Painter what she made of what she called this “roiling cloud of passions,” and the notion that beneath it is a cultural anxiety on the part of a segment of white Americans.
She replied that the Tea Party and its penumbras, though racially very white, are ideologically diverse, with various interests. Some are deficit hawks; some are tough-on-terrorism types; some want to break up labor unions. But she sees in parts of the ferment the hallmarks of a “movement of resentment — resentment over loss of what seems to be the center of the world, or of country; loss over what may be perceived as traditional values; loss of a world that seemed to be in their hands.”
A moment later, she described it as “a loss of the meaning of whiteness,” of the feeling of “being at the center, being powerful, being beautiful, being important.”
It is this sense of loss that some read into the words of the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, John A. Boehner, when he told an interviewer last year, “They’re snuffing out the America that I grew up in.” He went on to speak about the political economy rather than culture. But the blogosphere erupted with analyses that made a very different interpretation.
It is true, of course, that Mr. Boehner’s America is being snuffed out. In the America of his youth, it was easier to be white, male and middling than it is today. The withering of American manufacturing has wreaked its havoc. Globalization has compelled Americans to compete with the best and brightest everywhere. The median wage has stagnated. Immigration has soared. Women and minorities have been admitted into places where white men never had to compete with them. Islamic fundamentalists have taken on the United States. China has graduated from Communist backwater to challenger for pre-eminence.
Part of the problem for Mr. Obama is that he embodies all of these changes in one man. He is black, but that is only the beginning of it. He is also married to a vigorous woman who used to make more money than he. He was globalized from childhood, with a foreign father and stepfather and a childhood spent partly outside the United States. His first name is Arabic-derived. He has relatives in China.
I asked Dr. Painter whether, as whiteness becomes less plainly advantageous, as it becomes better to be rich and black, for example, than poor and white, there will be more explicit calls for white pride and white solidarity. Because of America’s history, white Americans are essentially the only group not encouraged to create members-only clubs to celebrate their identity. After all, much of the country was a white members-only club until not long ago.
The problem, Dr. Painter said, and in this view she is not alone, is that white pride has been hijacked by extremists, so that there is no reasonable middle ground between feeling no pride at all and feeling superiority. “The really bad guys like the Aryan Nation and the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazis — those people commandeered white identity. So you can’t say, ‘I’m white and I’m proud.”’
In the life of Dr. Painter, color is not destiny. But her name? Upon retirement from Princeton, she followed the example of her mother, who after retiring took up a new vocation in writing books. Dr. Painter’s second act has been … to paint.
She took art classes at Princeton, then in New York, then spent three years getting an art degree from Rutgers University in New Jersey. She has since enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she is three months from graduating.
I asked her what painting had taught a lifelong scholar of race about color.
She recalled that, in an art class at Princeton, when asked to make a self-portrait, she struggled. She told her teacher, “I’m having a lot of trouble figuring out what color I actually am.”
Her teacher’s reply lingered in her ears: Neither she nor anyone else could be painted with a single color — and everything depended on the light. Color, it turns out, was a multifarious, complicated, ever-shifting thing. Which the historian in Dr. Painter, if not the painter, knew all along.