But the Irish are racist, aren’t they? (internet commenter, 2016)
I don’t mean to be racist, but the Poles are the racist f**kers on the planet. (idiot who won’t be named, 2000)
Recently, I came across the first sentence above, somewhere deep in the comments section of an article I’ve long since forgotten about. I was surprised, as I didn’t consider myself to be racist, nor did the majority of my compatriots seem to be. Reading on, things were cleared up a little.
I came to realise that the person was referring to a belief that Irish-Americans are racist. Which let me off the hook, but then I remembered that the article was about an Irish actor, as in, from Ireland, so the person was not only indulging in wild generalisations, but also conflating being Irish-American with being Irish. There was a whole heap of confusion going on.
I did a little research into where this stereotype came from. What many people now are unaware of is that up to the end of the 19th century, racial discourse was based not on colour but on temperament. Saxons were considered sober, intelligent, and beautiful; Celts ugly, stupid and drunk. Distinctions were made between various “white races,” with groups such as Irish, Jews, Italians, and Greeks considered inferior to others. Over time though, these distinctions became somewhat less important. Partly, this is because some immigrants realised they could emphasise their whiteness and contrast themselves with African-Americans. Doubtless some Irish immigrants did this, and joined in with racism against African-Americans to curry favour with the white majority in the United States. And some people recently have trotted out the old “the Irish were indentured servants but you don’t hear them complain” line to try to quell any complaints about discrimination against African-Americans. And while some Irish people were slaves in the Caribbean, some were also slaveowners, and nowhere as many Irish people as Africans were made to work against their will. And recently, the Celtic Cross has come to be used as a symbol of white nationalism. But to extrapolate from that that all current Irish-Americans are racist seemed quite ludicrous.
As did the idea that all Irish people are therefore racist. I began to understand this a little when I thought about how Americans, understandably, refer to their heritage. If two Americans, one of Irish descent, and one of Italian descent, are talking together, they’re likely to say, I’m Irish, and I’m Italian. The -American part is assumed, so it’s not necessary. But on an international scale, e.g. on the internet, referring to someone as Irish or Italian is a little trickier, as people will assume they’re from Ireland or Italy. But, on an American website, with mostly Americans speaking together in English, it’s going to happen that people will refer to Irish-Americans as Irish.
Some Irish people get a bit annoyed by Irish-Americans referring to themselves as Irish, as though they’re not really Irish. Personally I don’t mind it. I understand why they don’t always go for the fully Irish-American, plus they’re just being interested in their heritage. But using Irish to mean Irish-American does mean that some people assume that both identities are identical, and the stereotypes that they have of Irish-Americans therefore apply to Irish people. Not that being Irish-American means not being really Irish, but it is a necessarily different culture, mixing elements of Irish and American identity. And the stereotypes of Irish-Americans being racist is based on the immigrant experience in the United States, and its intersection with the African-American experience. And while in recent decades Ireland has become much more multicultural, and the definition of Irishness has become more inclusive, the specific history which led to the stereotype of Irish-Americans being racist doesn’t apply to Irish people in Ireland. But it’s worrying that people first of all make generalisations about entire ethnic groups, and then disregard the specific contexts which lead to those generalisations.
So I recommend knowing your audience whenever you speak or write, to a reasonable extent, especially when you’re talking about race, ethnicity, or nationality. These matters are always so complex, that a little care is necessary. And if you ever feel like indulging in a sentence beginning along the lines of, I’m not racist, but all those….are racist, brush up on the definition of irony.
For more on older conceptions of race: