Race Isn’t the Result of Being Lucky or Unlucky
The history of Irish-Americans shows again that race is yucky.
Let me define yucky: repugnant. Now let me define lucky: happening by chance. With those definitions, I rarely call something lucky that’s yucky. So, when people say they “just happen to be” a particular race, I gag a little. I know what people mean, but the evasiveness makes me say, “yuck.”
Race is a product of force, not fate. We don’t get race from a coin toss or the lotto. It’s not predicated on, or predicted by, a gene pool; it just comes from being cruel. Race is a form and function of colonization.
Some scholars believe America’s project of race and racism — as forms of social control — have their outlines between the English and the Irish as Protestants and Catholics.
The record shows that the colonizers already had the templates, the vocabulary, and the justifications in use for their abuse of Native People, Black People, People of Color, and European immigrants to include the Irish.
Two books that elaborate on those theories are The Invention of the White Race by Theodore Allen, and How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev.
But no matter what the Irish experienced under British rule in Ireland — or in the United States — it didn’t engender empathy or lead them to join in solidarity with Black People or People of Color.
Irish-Americans didn’t connect the dots of oppression to resist them; they connected the dots of oppression to assist them. Irish-Americans staunchly supported America’s racialized slavery. With the Irish in America, the oppressed also became the oppressor, and the victim also became the victimizer.
As laborers in major cities, Irish-Americans refused to work with Black laborers, and they started bloody and deadly riots. Altogether, it made Irish-Americans whiter.
It’s also no coincidence Irish-Americans were the primary performers in blackface to assert and affirm their whiteness.
Then later, large numbers of Irish-Americans became police officers and government workers. They gave each other jobs with guns, power, and prestige which helped to redeem, esteem, and further bleach their whiteness. Today, fire and police departments in most major cities still have “emerald societies.”
That’s all in the past. So, why does it matter now?
The history of Irish-Americans undercuts every argument that says, “To change, people need to experience and understand the oppression people face.”
That argument is precious to people, but it’s specious of people. Irish-Americans had firsthand experience; they had history. They had proximity. They knew better, but they didn’t do better.
The Irish becoming whiter in America was a deliberate process of policies, sanctioned skin privilege, positions of power, cronyism, nepotism, assimilation, willful forgetfulness, intermarriages, deadly force, and anti-Blackness.
In a word — it was racism.
It all shows again that race comes from racism, and it shows again that race isn’t incidental; it’s intentional. With race, it’s not lucky or unlucky; it’s yucky and fugly.
The problem with race isn’t just its means; it’s also its meanings. The Irish becoming whiter in America wasn’t only outrageous because it was messy and murderous. Race itself is outrageous.
When Congress passed its Naturalization Act on March 26, 1790, it defined citizenship as “free white persons of good character.”
That’s a problem America is still grappling with 200+ years later. The obvious problem with that law was its lack of terms. So later, America added more terms. But another problem with that law was the terms.
Terms can determine conditions. Today, America has altered conditions, but America still uses the same or similar terms — with the same or similar effects. How’s that working out?
The base word and the basis of racism is still race. Race is the root and fruit of racism. I’m here to gather the roots and to stop the strange fruit. I’m snatching and trashing the roots and the branches. I’m trying to change the terms and the conditions.
James Baldwin said Europeans weren’t ‘white’ before they invaded these shores. Look, and don’t blink because Baldwin was bold enough to say, “There are no white people.”
Baldwin’s point is still sharp, and it still matters in theory and in practice. His words still echo in new immigrants who say they didn’t know they had a race until they arrived. So then, race is a response to racism. Experts called it ‘racial-identity development.’
Those observations by Baldwin and others are indictments against racism and race. Race is a system too. At what point are we going to say race is racism? Not today I assume. But the refusal to interrogate and indict race is one reason racism stays in place.
There’s also a reason it’s far easier to condemn racism than race. People still want a form of racial purity, but racial purity is still a pure lie. There’s no purity in race, and you can’t purify the putrid concept of race.
That’s why I won’t pretty up race. I own my race in America, as a long and ever-growing receipt, because America owes me.
Race, as a political identity and a bad ideology, can only, and always, rightfully mean — holistic reparations and redoing every system in society.
As always, people should celebrate their hues, their histories, their ancestors, their ancestries, their ethnicities, and their cultures — because none of that is race. Race is a recent invention of racism; its coming is our undoing, and its going will be our rising.
Once more for the skim folk — the forecast and formation of race is always yucky. The whole climate has to change with new names. Avoidance, blindness, denial, luck, and even umbrellas won’t help. Justice will, if we will.