NYT Op-Ed: Indian Boys' Assault Of Black Girls Proves That ‘Whiteness Evolves’

'The heritage or skin color of the boys suspected of the assault doesn’t matter'

Nell Irvin Painter / Youtube
October 28, 2019

A New York Times op-ed Saturday made the case that a hate crime carried out by Indian-American teens on African-American girls proved that "whiteness evolves" and includes people of color.

Police in Lawrence Township, N.J., arrested two 17-year-olds and charged them with several counts of harassment and bias intimidation after the pair allegedly urinated on a group of girls at a high school football game and called them the n-word. In a tweet, the police announced that both perpetrators were of "Indian descent."

In response, Princeton University professor emeritus of history Nell Irvin Painter penned a Times op-ed headlined, "A Racist Attack Shows How Whiteness Evolves."

"While it’s tempting to see the reported ethnicity of the boys suspected in the assault as complicating the story and raising questions about whether the assault should be thought of as racist, I look at it through a different lens," she wrote. "Instead of asking what the boys’ reported racial identity tells us about the nature of the attack, we should see the boys as enacting American whiteness through anti-black assault in a very traditional way."

The attack, Painter wrote, is evidence that "race is something we perform, not just something we are in our blood or in the color of our skin." Therefore, "In the New Jersey incident, the heritage or skin color of the boys suspected of the assault doesn’t matter. What matters is that they were participating in this pattern and thus enacting whiteness in a very traditional way."

The author of "The History of White People" continued to note that the definition of "white" has shifted across the centuries to become more expansive. "As tempting as it is to assume that races are boxes that people fit in once and for all, that kind of thinking is too simplistic, too lazy to help us understand American history and culture," Painter wrote.

"For a clue on how American racial identity is evolving, it may be less useful to look to clues like complexion, and more to the performance of identity," she said. "The performance here—flinging around the N-word, with the befoulment of urination—holds an answer. One potent way of being American, no matter where you or your parents are from, is enacting anti-blackness. And traditionally, acting out anti-blackness has meant acting white."