If you are one of the many, MANY people celebrating St. Patrick’s today – either from genuine Irish pride or because you are using your great-grandmother’s potential 1/8 Gaelic heritage as an excuse to get wasted and party this weekend – you will be enjoying the festivities because of all the Irish who strove and broke laws and made lots of money and became ‘white’.
Don’t believe me that the Irish, who can be pale enough to glow in the dark, weren’t always considered white? Then you should read How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev:
Nowadays it is good to have Irish ancestry, but I promise you that wasn’t always the case. The Irish, who were being colonized, enslaved, starved, and abused by the English, were made to seem complicit in their own degradation by being portrayed as sub-human ape-like creatures fit only for being used by white masters. God knows they were too degenerate to fit into decent society!
The Irish immigrants to America in the 19th century noticed that the free black people in the North had a similar burden of dehumanization, and as the Irish began making money (legally and through various drugs/smuggling endeavors) they began to contrast themselves to black people in an effort to whiten themselves at the expense of their darker fellow men.
Ironically, Irish Catholics came to this country as an oppressed race yet quickly learned that to succeed they had to in turn oppress their closest social class competitors, free Northern blacks. Back home these “native Irish or papists” suffered something very similar to American slavery under English Penal Laws. Yet, despite their revolutionary roots as an oppressed group fighting for freedom and rights, and despite consistent pleas from the great Catholic emancipator, Daniel O’Connell, to support the abolitionists, the newly arrived Irish-Americans judged that the best way of gaining acceptance as good citizens and to counter the Nativist movement was to cooperate in the continued oppression of African Americans. Ironically, at the same time they were collaborating with the dominant culture to block abolition, they were garnering support from among Southern, slaveholding democrats for Repeal of the oppressive English Act of the Union back home. Some even convinced themselves that abolition was an English plot to weaken this country.
They would be neither the first nor the last group of immigrants to whiten themselves by using the battle cry of “we are not black”. In fact, a lot of racial oppression today still centers on poor whites trying to align themselves with upper-crust whites at the expense of black Americans.
So today, whenever you see a “Kiss me, I’m Irish” shirt or pin … remember that only a few generations ago that would have more legitimately read, “KICK me, I’m Irish … and thus deserve such treatment” and remember how flexible and blurred the lines of race and ethnicity are in the modern world.