You Can't be Irish and White at the Same Time


I just read the first chapter of Noel Ignatiev's "How the Irish Became White."

Ignatiev is a staunch opponent of white supremacy, a longtime labor activist, and editor of the Race Traitor magazine. I have some criticisms of Race Traitor's politics, which I may post later. Nevertheless, I am inspired by Ignatiev's insistence that the people who grew up as white need to reject white identity, become race traitors, and side with people of color to fight white supremacy.

Ignatiev points out that the idea of the white race is a social construction created to oppress people of color through slavery and colonialism. It also divides and conquers the working class and allows rich white folks to smash and co-opt anti-capitalist rebellions. White workers are given a deal: if they side with their white bosses against workers of color then they will receive higher wages, better living conditions, and less state terror from the cops, vigilantes, and prisons. They get real benefits, not just illusions of grandeur. But these benefits are far from straightforward "privileges." They are a poison bait that the white rulers use to buy off white workers and keep them in their place. White workers don't end up rich, they just end up less poor than people of color. As Ignatiev puts it, embracing whiteness means they "hug the chains of their own oppression" (see more here). For this reason, Iganteiv encourages white workers to commit treason against the white race and to identify instead as working class militants.

Sometimes I hear people say that this is impossible because white supremacy and racism more broadly have been with us for ever, they are part of the evil side of human nature, etc. A lot of Christians I've talked to end up coming to all sorts of sick conclusions from this. I heard a white Unitarian Universalist tell me once that it is impossible to overthrow white supremacy so what she was trying to do instead was "work on her privilege" by "recognizing her inner racist" and "atoneing for it." Atoneing for it won't do shit as long as the officers of white supremacy continue to smash the faces of people of color into the pavement. White Christians should leave their whiteness in the confessional and come out into the streets to actually do something about it.

What I've been emphasizing in my history classes recently is that white supremacy CAN be overthrown since it is only about 500 years old - it began with the European colonization of the new world. Before that time you only had a bunch of Viking, Anglos, Saxons, and Celts running around Europe killing each other - no unified white race bent on, let alone capable of, world domination. Hell, African states had larger armies AND larger libraries than any Europeans did back then, and it was Asians, not Europeans who invented gunpowder, the printing press, and the other technologies European elites would eventually use to conquer and subjugate people of color. So if White Supremacy has only been around for 500 years, that means it can be ended.

What's more, a lot of people who consider themselves white today were not white 10 generations ago. The Irish were called the Blacks of Europe. They faced racism in Europe from a vicious British colonial occupation and were treated little better than slaves there. They were forced to work on British ships and on Caribbean plantations, where they participated in slave rebellions alongside African slaves (for a good account of this, check out The Many Headed Hydra: Slaves, Sailors, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic). In the early 1800s, many people speculated that Irish and Black folks might actually amalgamate into one "race" because they intermarried and shared a common culture of the oppressed.

However, this didn't last. The escaped slave and abolitionist militant Frederick Douglas said, "the Irish who, at home, readily sympathize with the oppressed everywhere, are instantly taught when they step upon our soil to hate and despise the Negro... Sir, the Irish-American will one day find out his mistake." As the abolitionist paper The Liberator put it, " Passage to the United States seems to produce the same effect upon the exile of Erin as the eating of the forbidden fruit did upon Adam and Eve. In the morning, they were pure, loving, and innocent; in the evening guilty." (The Liberator argued that this sin could be atoned for not by feeling guilty but by rising up against the slave system. John Brown would put this into practice.)

So how did the Irish become white? Ignatiev's book argues that when faced with racist anti-immigrant mobs, vicious bosses, and the grind of urban ward politics, Irish workers followed demagogue politicians into coalitions with the white supremacist ruling class, beating down Black folks in order to gain acceptance in the American system.

Ignatiev narrates how the Irish anti-colonial leader Daniel O'Connell, known as the Liberator, addressed the Irish-American community, demanding that they side with the Abolitionists in the struggle against slavery: "Over the broad Atlantic I pour forth my voice, saying, Come out of such a land, you Irishmen; or, if you remain, and dare countenance the system of slavery that is supported there, we will recognize you as Irishmen no longer." He was trying to link the struggle for Irish independence from Britain to the cause of abolition. At first, the Abolitionists in the U.S. were able to rally Irish- American workers through such appeals. But eventually the Catholic newspapers, opportunistic Irish-American politicians, and slaveholders who opportunistically took up the cause of Irish independence managed to separate the Abolitionist and the Irish anti-Colonial causes.

They often did this by advocating a strategy of assimilation, saying O'Connell as a foreigner had no right to interfere in American domestic politics. They were trying to make their community the "model minority", a group that would pledge its loyalty to the U.S. and play the role of the "good Irish" even if it had to renounce the "bad Irish" abroad. As Ignatiev puts it, "The columnist Thomas Brady went on to cite, as a horrible example of the sort of person he was referring to, a speaker at an antislavery convention reporting favorably on the degree of racial amalgamation he had observed in Mexico, the West Indies, and Central America. 'Irishmen', asked Mr. Brady, 'what think you of that? Are you prepared to amalgamate with the negro, or rather are you not prepared to execrate any wretch, no matter what his own taste may be, who would insult you by such a recommendation?'".

So the Irish chose to be white at the expense of solidarity with American Blacks. As one southern Irish-American organization put it, "as the alternative has been presented to us by Mr. O'Connell, as we must choose between Ireland and South Carolina, we say South Carolina forever!"

Those of us who are not happy with the outcome of this choice should try and recover the tradition of Irish anti-whiteness and multiracial solidarity. In Belfast today there are still murals celebrating the Palestinian intifada. The Irish hip hop artist Marxman raps about his solidarity with all people from Asia to Africa to the Middle East who were also oppressed by British colonialism (he incorporates some dope Irish fiddle into his beats too). These folks are the real Fighting Irish! Maybe through these kinds of links, the struggles of Catholic workers in Northern Ireland against Protestant death squads and Anglo occupation soldiers can contribute to the global traditions of liberation theology.