Let’s talk Whiteness: ‘Minnesota Nice’ and prejudice explored at race forum

A group discussion at YWCA’s “It’s Time to Act” forum. Credit: Rachel Palmo/YWCA Minneapolis
Courtesy of Rachel Palmo/YWCA Minneapolis

A trope still good for a bit of a face-palming laugh is a look through most African American studies programs — they tend to be lined with White faculty.

Dr. Nell Irvin Painter gave the irony a laugh, her plume of pristinely white curly hair bouncing up and drooping to reach her light blue glasses. Painter had just finished her presentation on systemic racism as part of the YWCA Minneapolis’ series of forums on race within the vast Westminster Presbyterian Church nestled just north of Minneapolis’ business district.

The historian and author of the 2010 book The History of White People is a New Jersey native, Harvard graduate, Princeton history professor, and visual artist. She is also a Black scholar who is fascinated with Whites.

You ask White people, ‘Why are White people called Caucasian? They haven’t the faintest idea.

Painter has dedicated herself to compiling detailed records from scientists and thinkers defining and redefining White identity, how pure Whiteness shifted over the years, how conceptions of racial hierarchy are ingrained in American culture and produce tangible consequences along racial lines.

“I’m focusing on White identity because it is so under-studied,” Painter told the large crowd resembling atypical Minneapolis scene of mostly Whites with a few people of color sprinkled about.

Regardless of race, few historians, or people in general, are concerned with the history of White people. “You ask White people, ‘Why are White people called Caucasian?’” said Painter. “They haven’t the faintest idea.”

When she first published her book and went on tour to discuss White history, people would consistently first ask about Blacks. “Americans really like talking about Black people,” said Painter.

She said that without fail someone who read her book would come to a tour stop holding her large white book with the words “White History” in big letters on it, and still the first question would not be about Whites. “Tell me about Black people,” said Painter, acting out how quickly Americans shy away from Whiteness and “this avoidance of talking about White people.”

Painter made it clear she would only be talking about White identity. What is considered White has changed over the years. White people have become an afterthought, the default, neutral human who represents and is entitled to everything that is good, while everyone else is left to scavenge for scraps.

Her book on the matter was published before the last large shift in Whiteness: the election of President Donald Trump. After 2016, said Painter, White Americans were marked as White.

Dr. Nell Irvin Painter.
Credit: Rachel Palmo/YWCA Minneapolis Dr. Nell Irvin Painter. Credit: Rachel Palmo/YWCA Minneapolis

White America is a large, general group, and Painter’s book takes care to draw a line from one shift in Whiteness to the next. At the onset of the 20th century, Whiteness was far more splintered than now. A Saxon with ancestors from England gleefully looked down on an American of Mediterranean European descent.

Soon, everything melted into the Caucasian catchall. “There were no more Eastern Hebrews, northern Italians and southern Italians, or Celts or Jews,” said Painter. “Just one big White race and everybody’s the same.”

There was still intra-White snobbiness, though, said Painter. Mid-19th century thought, she said, still lingers today — superior, outdoorsy, reliable, efficient White people were “christened Nordic,” and lesser Whites are the southern and eastern Europeans that stay inside.

Painter, who went to art school at the ripe age of 64, also displayed an art piece that spread over a series of slides during her presentation. The slides, she said, are a conversation between two people. Going back and forth is a person oblivious to racial tension recoiling in horror at the election of Trump, and Painter herself assuring the anonymous interlocutor that the ugliness of Trump’s rhetoric and actions are nothing new in America.

“I say yes, this is America. Look South. Look West,” says Painter’s character in the piece.

“Do you see a racial identity in these pieces?” Painter asked the crowd. “Okay, let’s take a vote.” Overwhelmingly the audience raised their hands to say they ascribed a race to each character.

The post-Trump piece was about how White people are more recognizably marked in a post-Trump America. Painter wouldn’t disclose why she thinks that is — she wanted to leave it to her audience to discuss further.

Her presentation was followed by group discussions. Audience members filed out of the sanctuary to sit around tables and talk about their thoughts on White people and race in America.

Their conversations ranged from how deep White identity runs and White culture’s attempt to reckon with aspects of Whiteness most don’t recognize, to how these often invisible qualities jump out and operate in such disparate moments as the 2016 election, Painter’s art piece, police brutality, and the receptionist at an office treating a Black visitor like trash.

Let's Talk Race forum
Courtesy of YWCA Minneapolis Robin Hickman (left) and other attendees. Credit: Rachel Palmo/YWCA Minneapolis

When considering the Midwest and Minnesota Niceness, Painter told the MSR that passive prejudice, which often goes unspoken and is hardly ever confronted or even given a name like White history, “is America.

“The awful thing is that you never know. That’s what makes you tired — just being armored for what might come. And if it doesn’t come, it takes awhile. And you are thinking, ‘Is it gonna come now?’ Yeah, it’s really exhausting,” said Painter.

When it comes to the history of White people and America, we should all be doing some heavy lifting. We should all, said Painter, see slavery and genocide, not as Black or Native history, but as a collective American history we all need to better familiarize ourselves with.

The historian’s suggestions for all dutiful citizens: “First, learn U.S. history — thoroughly.”

The YWCA Minneapolis “It’s Time to Act” series will host three more forums on race throughout 2019. Up next: White Fragility: Unpacking Privilege with Dr. Robin DiAngelo will take place Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, from 6:00 – 8:30 pm. at Westminster Presbyterian Church, located at 1200 Marquette Ave. in Minneapolis. For more information, visit ywcampls.org.

Related story: Mpls YWCA: It’s time to discuss ‘White fragility’ 

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