Last week, in the aftermath of the Rachel Dolezal revelations and the Charleston massacre—the trivial and tragic, a very American dialectic—the historian Nell Irvin Painter, professor emerita at Princeton University and author of a great many great books, wrote an essay in The New York Times, “What is Whiteness?” In it, Painter defined “whiteness” as an existential choice: “Whiteness,” Painter writes, “is on a toggle switch between ‘bland nothingness’ and ‘racist hatred.’”
To back up that point, Painter runs through the social history of the emergence of whiteness, by now a familiar story (among academics if not the broader public): “By the 1940s anthropologists announced that they had a new classification: white, Asian and black were the only real races. Each was unitary—no sub-races existed within each group.” And though this typology considers whites a race, the very “vagueness” of that identity meant they didn’t “have to shoulder the burden of race in America, which, at the least, is utterly exhausting.” But a “neutral racial identity is blandly uninteresting.” And so, Painter writes, “in the 1970s, long after they had been accepted as “white,” Italians, Irish, Greeks, Jews and others proclaimed themselves “ethnic” Americans in order to forge a positive identity, at a time of ‘black is beautiful.’ But this ethnic self-discovery did not alter the fact that whiteness continued to be defined, as before, primarily by what it isn’t: blackness.”
Painter generously argues that Dolezal, for whatever reason, came to believe that “the choice to devote one’s life to fighting racism meant choosing black or white, Negroid or Caucasoid. Black was clearly more captivating than a whiteness characterized by hate.” To be “white,” was to embrace either a “blank identity” or a “malevolent one,” writes Painter, and, faced with equally unacceptable options—nothingness or racist—Dolezal “opted out of whiteness altogether.” (Though not quite.)
To me, Painter’s essay called to mind another great American meditation on color and meaning, a chapter from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, “The Whiteness of the Whale.” That chapter didn’t so much present whiteness as an existential choice, though the relationship between race and being was always on Melville’s mind.