Learning From Nell Painter, Antiracist Educator

Posted on July 21, 2020


I wonder how it happened, and I’m disappointed, too, that I didn’t know about the work of historian, Nell Irvin Painter until a few days ago. Upon reflection, I think, she MUST be a scholar whose work informs other antiracist educators whose work I know, right? But I don’t remember her name…

Since I’ve read Ibram X. Kendi’s work, I google, “Influence of Nell Painter on Ibram Kendi,” and I’m surprised to discover that Painter appears in the same episode as Kendi in “Seeing White: Made In America” –a podcast series that served as the central text for an antiracist artist collaborative I joined a couple of years ago. Whew! I have heard of her, but I did not remember her name. I certainly will, now! She is an elder and leader in antiracist education. I’m certain her work has informed many of the scholars who have been my teachers.

I discovered Nell Painter because of a recommendation by the Youtube algorithm, my friend, “Al,” when viewing other antiracist content. I clicked on the title, The History of White People: Can A Black Scholar Write About White People?, where Painter argues, “two things I know now: first, black scholars can write about anybody as long as they do their scholarly homework, and anybody can write about anybody as long as they do their scholarly homework. Second, things change, and the ways we think about race or even think of race as a useful category also changes.”

I enjoyed that talk and looked for more content by her. I found a number of videos on Youtube that I look forward to viewing. Like Kendi, Painter examines the history of racial categories in the USA, their relationship to the Census, the changes in definitions that have occurred over time, and how this history affects our lives now.

I also found this article from 27 June 2020, “White identity in America is ideology, not biology. The history of ‘whiteness’ proves it,” where Painter, reflecting on the current situation, writes, “Demands arise now for cultural change, for education that imparts the history of white supremacy in America and the history of Black Americans as citizens and creators. Please don’t think those two are the same thing. Black history, on the one hand, and anti-Black injustice, on the other, are two distinct histories, even though African American history includes the devastating toll of anti-Black atrocity.

Right on, Nell. Thank you for all you’ve done as a scholar, historian, and educator.

I’m glad I’ve become conscious of Painter’s work now (better late and all that…), and I look forward to exploring more of her articles, books, and other content in future. Now that I know her name, I’m certain that I will see it in other antiracist texts I encounter as I continue my studies in antiracist education and Black history. I look forward to it.

Related Titles Recently Discovered

Making all Black Lives Matter – Barbara Ransby

So You Want to Talk about Race – Ijeoma Oluo

Just Mercy – Bryan Stevenson

The Color of Law – Richard Rothstein

The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics – George Lipsitz

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lisa eddy is a writer, researcher, educator, advocate,  musician, and gardener.

On Twitter: @lisa_eddy

On email: lisagay.eddy1@gmail.com