stuff white people do: play the ethnicity card

Posted By on July 17, 2015

Happy St. Patrick's Day. I guess. . .

I'd like to be more celebratory today and somehow honor Irish immigration to my country, but what can I say? I don't have Irish blood, for one thing. And more to the point of this blog -- I can't overlook how the U.S. descendants of Irish people, who often put on and take off being "Irish" like a hat or raincoat, tend to forget what it really means for their ancestors to have traded in their Irish-ness for whiteness. Yes, Irish immigrants used to be oppressed, but their descendants have basically joined the ranks of the oppressors, and thereby gained white privilege, and those benefits still come at the expense of the racially oppressed.

It is true that, as sociologist Jessie Daniels writes,

Once in the U.S., the Irish were [subjected] to negative stereotyping that was very similar to that of enslaved Africans and African Americans. The comic Irishman happy, lazy, stupid, with a gift for music and dance was a stock character in American theater. Drunkenness and criminality were major themes of Irish stereotypes, and the term "paddy wagon" has its etymological roots in the racist term paddy, a shortening of the name Patrick, which was used to refer to the Irish. However, this is also a gendered image and refers to Irish men, specifically. The masculine imagery of paddy hid the existence of Irish women, but did not protect Irish women from racism as they were often more exposed to such racism through domestic jobs. Women typically played a key role in maintaining Catholic adherence, which resonates closely with Irishness and difference. The model minority (if you will) stereotype of Irish-American women is of a Bridget, recognized for her hard work and contribution to Irish upward class mobility.

Simian, or ape-like caricature of the Irish immigrant was also a common one among the mainstream news publications of the day. . . For example, in 1867 American cartoonist Thomas Nast drew "The Day We Celebrate" a cartoon depicting the Irish on St. Patricks Day as violent, drunken apes. And, in 1899, Harpers Weekly featured a drawing of three mens heads in profile: Irish, Anglo-Teutonic and Negro, in order to illustrate the similarity between the Irish and the Negro (and, the supposed superiority of the Anglo-Teutonic). In northern states, blacks and Irish immigrants were forced into overlapping often integrated slum neighborhoods. Although leaders of the Irish liberation struggle (in Ireland) saw slavery as an evil, their Irish-American cousins largely aligned with the slaveholders.

And, following the end of slavery, the Irish and African Americans were forced to compete for the same low-wage, low-status jobs. So, the white negroes of the U.K. came to the United States and, though not enslaved, faced a status almost as low as that of recently-freed blacks.

So yeah, I get that. And I don't mean to downplay or disregard what amounts to racist (and religious) oppression that people from Ireland once faced, nor the hard work that helped Irish immigrants to step up into the ranks of white Americans.

However, I sometimes encounter citizens of the U.S. who claim to be "Irish" instead of white, when anyone looking at them would clearly see them as "white" instead of "Irish." I mean, just how many generations does this sort of "Kiss me, I'm Irish! Don't worry, I'm not white!" card last?

White people still routinely complain about people of color who supposedly "play the race card," but they rarely blame other whites for playing what amounts to the ethnicity card. That card is routinely used to dismiss discussions of today's racism -- "Yeah yeah yeah, my ancestors had it bad too! They were the 'blacks' of Europe, and they even got called black in the U.S.!" And that kind of talk usually leads to this kind of talk: "If my people could do it, why can't they too?" Never mind that those Irish who were called "black" and other slurs didn't have to stay black, and thus didn't have to struggle with all that black and other non-white Americans still have to face.

Do you encounter white people who make these kinds of selective, derailing appeals to the sufferings and hard work of their ancestors?

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stuff white people do: play the ethnicity card

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