Once Upon a Time, You Were Not White

Once upon a time in America; Italians, Jews, and Irish people were not considered White.  Yes, it’s surprising.  Some people who are classified as White may not consider themselves Caucasian.  Many people consider the concept of race to be an illusion, a construct to be defined and re-defined.  For example, you may consider yourself white until you find out that your great-great-grandfather was a Louisiana born Black Creole who passed for white in the north.

Last night I saw author  and Princeton professor Nell Irvin Painter was on “The Colbert Report” discussing her new book  “The History of White People” [Read some of it for free on Google Books].  She talked about how race is not permanent, how definitions of race are affected by education, class and sex, and the history of the definition of whiteness.  The interview was a lot of fun, but I [like Colbert] had no idea what the book was really about at the end of the segment.  Her interview with NPR provides A LOT more information.

Painter is the author of Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (1996) and several other scholarly works on the history of slavery and race relations in America, most recently Creating Black Americans (2006). Her latest selection examines the history of “whiteness” as a racial category and rhetorical weapon: who is considered to be “white,” who is not, what such distinctions mean, and how notions of whiteness have morphed over time in response to shifting demographics, aesthetic tastes, and political exigencies. After a brief look at how the ancients conceptualized the differences between European peoples, Painter focuses primarily on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There, the artistic idealization of beautiful white slaves from the Caucasus combined with German Romantic racial theories and lots of spurious science to construct an ideology of white superiority which, picked up by Ralph Waldo Emerson and other race-obsessed American intellectuals, quickly became an essential component of the nation’s uniquely racialized discourse about who could be considered an American. Presenting vivid psychological portraits of Emerson and dozens of other figures variously famous and obscure, and carefully mapping the links between them, Painter’s narrative succeeds as an engaging and sophisticated intellectual history, as well as an eloquent reminder of the fluidity (and perhaps futility) of racial categories. –Brendan Driscol, Booklist

Video – ColbertNation.com

Here is part of an awesome documentary that aired some years ago on PBS that deals in detail with the evolution of race


Filed under african american, black women, history, opinion, race, sex, slavery, video, white folks, youtube

2 Responses to Once Upon a Time, You Were Not White


    Growing up in the South I really don’t have to wonder too much how white was defined during my grandmother’s era because I don’t feel like too much has changed. Today, you have every ethnic group aside from blacks living in white neighborhoods in the South and that’s pretty much the line of divide. Don’t get me wrong there are some neighborhoods in which blacks have integrated with the whites. I promise you these are the “wanna be’s”. I say that because in the South we do have middle and upper class (segregated) black neighborhoods and baby the “blacks” want to live there too. For the most part blacks who want to assimilate are the ones who live in the “white” neighborhoods.
    Though white neighborhoods are “mixed” with “others”, people in the South don’t consider the “other” races as “white” so to speak. They just “accept” them into the fold (neigborhoods and organizations). So long as blacks stay out… pretty soon the “lily whites are moving out and leaving the “regular” white people there. The South stayed black and white for so long that was all you found living here (other races were afraid to come here because they saw how blacks were treated). It’s strange now having “mixed” races here… though I do remember in the 1971 there being “one” Hispanic boy in my classroom. Back then we didn’t call him Hispanic we called him “Spanish”. I’m sure he had other siblings at school. Perhaps they were the “only” family in school of another ethnic group. (And he liked black girls).
    Let me share what just happened to me last night. I got a phone call and they said “is this Ms. Arneader and I said yeah. Is Ms. Pepper there? I replied no, who is this?” And they apologized for the wrong number. Now that I think about it. I have a new number and only a few people know it. The person who called was a white female. She probably got my number from one of her white relatives and was trying to be funny. This white person who has my number is younger than myself (you know like silly rabbit tricks are for kids). White people are STILL white people and they never learn. RACISTS CRACKERS make me sick!

  2. Jenna

    I am a white female. Born and raised in New Orleans. My parents always told me, that if I dislike ANYBODY it better be because their personality sucks and not the color of their skin. I went to schools where the minority was caucasian, hispanic, and asian. I had an eclectic group of friends, and didn’t see any kind of separation between is because of our skin colors. My mother remarried the summer before I started high school, and we moved to Grand Bay, AL. Talk about a culture shock. My first week in school, there was a basketball player who called himself “Skeeter”. He had coffee colored skin and bright green eyes. I told him I thought his eyes were gorgeous, and he smiled and said thank you. Not moments later, two rednecks (the first I had ever seen) bumped me and called me a “nigger lover.” I went home and cried that day, because I truly could not associate anything I did with the hateful venom that was spit at me. The next day, I confronted them and was met with glares and stares. It was also my first encounter with the “Dixie Outfitters” shirts that boast the Rebel flag.

    I had never been fearful of another race or culture when living in New Orleans. When I moved to Alabama, I found that the hate was so strong that people would sometimes react violently if you talked to someone of a different race. Black people wouldn’t return my smiles or hello’s because of the slimy rednecks hovering always in the background. The same rednecks who blast rap music and steal slang from the magnificent culture I grew up loving. I don’t see an end to racism, and it feels like fighting a losing battle. I live in Mississippi now, and go to hair school with an even grouping of black and white people. We all connected with our faith in God, and have such a good time together, it reminds me of my old school friends from New Orleans.

    I know this won’t comfort you from the bullshit you put up with everyday simply from something as irrelevant as skin color. And I will never be able to understand how deeply it hurts you when someone fucks with you because of that. But I want you to know that I’m very sorry for people’s ignorance, and I pray for it all the time. God does not have just one son. We are all his children, and so you should love your fellow man as your sibling. So don’t get angry at that girl who fucked with you, pity her. Pity her ignorance and her closed mind and hateful thoughts. Pray for her forgiveness and stay true to the Lord.

    Much Love.

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