Irish-Americans, Racism, and the Pursuit of Whiteness

From the archive (originally posted 03-17-2009): Today in New York City and throughout the U.S.,  Irish-Americans will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Irish heritage(Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: ktylerconk). What few will acknowledge in this day of celebration is the way in which the Irish in American deployed whiteness in order to deflect the racism they encountered in the U.S.

Kerry Band from the Bronx

Like many immigrant groups in the United States, the Irish were characterized as racial Others when they first arrived in the first half of the 19th century.  The Irish had suffered profound injustice in the U.K. at the hands of the British, widely seen as “white negroes.” The potato famine that created starvation conditions that cost the lives of millions of Irish and forced the out-migration of millions of surviving ones, was less a natural disaster and more a complex set of social conditions created by British landowners (much like Hurricane Katrina).   Forced to flee from their native Ireland and the oppressive British landowners, many Irish came to the U.S.

Once in the U.S., the Irish were 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” hides 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 (much like the recent New York Post cartoon).  For example, in 1867 American cartoonist Thomas Nast drew “The Day We Celebrate” a cartoon depicting the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day as violent, drunken apes.  And, in 1899, Harper’s Weekly featrued a drawing of three men’s 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.   While there were moments of solidarity between Irish and African Americans, this was short lived.

Over the course of the 19th and early 20th century, Irish Americans managed to a great extent to enter and become part of the dominant white culture.  In an attempt to secure the prosperity and social position that their white skin had not guaranteed them in Europe,  Irish immigrants lobbied for white racial status in America.  Although Irish people’s pale skin color and European roots suggested evidence of their white racial pedigree, the discrimination that immigrants experienced on the job (although the extent of the “No Irish Need Apply” discrimination is disputed), the simian caricatures they saw of themselves in the newspapers, meant that “whiteness” was a status that would be achieved, not ascribed.

For some time now, Irish-Americans have been thoroughly regarded as “white.” Evidence of this assimilation into whiteness is presented by Mary C. Waters (Harvard) in a recent AJPH article,  in which she writes that “the once-rigid lines that divided European-origin groups from one another have increasingly blurred.” Waters goes on to predict that the changes that European immigrants ahve experienced are “becoming more likely for groups we now define as ‘racial.'”   While I certainly agree that the boundaries of whiteness are malleable – it is a racial category that expands and contracts based on historical, cultural and social conditions – I don’t know if it is malleable enough to include all the groups we now define as ‘racial’ Others.

As people rush to embrace even fictive Irish heritage and encourage strangers to “Kiss Me I’m Irish” today, take just a moment to reflect on the history of racism and the pursuit of whiteness wrapped up in this holiday.


  1. marandaNJ

    Thanks for posting this. It’s too true,unfortunately. I know that the Polish people and Italians in America had a terrible time with being accepted into the mainstream also. My grandmother was Polish and I always cringed when I heard children I grew up with tell ‘Pollack’ jokes.
    I may have mentioned before that I grew up in the south. I’m not claiming the south is the sole culprit of racism in America. I will say that because the south was a mainly agrarian culture before and after the Civil War, and far behind the north in the industrial revolution, southerners previously had a tendency to be more homogeneous than northerners.
    In other words, they lived in small rural communities where they seldom saw anyone they hadn’t known for 80 years. Immigrants Did Not exactly flock to the southern states. Maybe because they heard on the grapevine that they were even more unwelcome in the south than in the north in the US. When immigrant groups came to the US, they tended to live in little neighborhoods or ghettos together for very needed psychological support. In the 1800’s and first half of the 1900’s the WASP was seen as unjust and cruel by many European immigrants. And every single one of those terms were necessary for full acceptance in American mainstream: 1. white 2.anglo-saxon [this specifically meant from northern Europe even though the Irish are an exception to this] and 3. Protestant. When John Kennedy was elected president in 1960 it was a Big Milestone that ‘one of those Catholics’ was actually elected to be president. Newspapers wrote volumes about it.
    Anyway, the point is, I have definitely noticed how the villified groups have changed over time. The longer an ethnic group stays in America, the more accepted they are by the mainstream. And America chooses New Immigrants to demean and degrade.
    My grandmother lived in upstate New York. My family moved to the south when I was six. Even at that age, I noticed more of a closed society in the south than in the north. That’s why my being Catholic was such a sore thumb in the Bible Belt [what an ironic name for such intolerant people].
    I remember just 10 years ago going to dinner with another couple. The woman was of Italian descent. Her date was old money south. Well, the discussion got around to families of origin. And I distinctly remember her date saying,’Yeah, but you’re Still white anglo-saxon.’ This was the First Time I had ever heard Italians refered to as Anglo-Saxon. So, what can we conclude ladies and gents? That the Italians have finally made it to this anglo-saxon status now? Previously, no southern European was allowed in the anglo-saxon box. Neither were people from Slavic countries.
    Who still remains in the ‘them’ box now? The African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos from what I personally can observe. The Asians have gained status by their academic achievements, and are not as demeaned as they were once. Plus, if you are of Spanish descent and from South America, you are not as villified as if you are from South American-Native American descent.
    So, yes, the labeling of which race you belong to itself is fluid! And it’s a social construct and not based on actual overt physical features.

  2. Will

    It was a shame they went through the racism here and in Europe. Yet, when it’s all said and done, Irish Americans have the same privileges as anyone with pale skin has. Still, this is something that needs to be exposed especially on a day such as St. Patrick’s Day as the stereotypes of Irish people persist, and much of the celebration is reduced to wearing green and parties.

  3. Barry

    Interesting article. I’m Irish living in Ireland and have often been struck over the years by how racist Irish-Americans are towards other groups, particularly Blacks and Hispanics. And I’m talking about 1st generation immigrants from Ireland. Pretty ironic when you have immigrants considering themselves superior to people who’ve been in the country for generations. It’s also ironic that most of those Irish who arrived in America in the 1950’s and 1960’s were very poorly educated and yet still seem to think themselves better than Blacks and other groups. Oh sure, they worked hard and all the rest of it but it never seems to occur to them that maybe they were lucky to get those jobs in the first place and that maybe other groups may have faced more prejudice than them in getting work.

    Anyway, just thought I’d comment on this article. Because as far as I can tell, racism against Irish-Americans is a thing of the past while racism emanating from Irish-Americans is unfortunately still present today.

    • patrickonb

      What a load of poppycock! How do you think you can just make a blanket statement like that, and not have anyone come along and say something about it? I’m Irish, the Irish side of my family was brought here as slaves, and I know a lot of Irish people! It’s a very rare thing to have ever heard anything racist come out of any Irish mouths that I know! Would you like to backup your statement, that Irish people are largely racist towards Africans? You can’t just come along, and say that most Irish people are racist, and think you’re going to get away with it!

      My mother and father raised me, that if people proved themselves to be honest and decent, than I should be open, and accepting to them. Whether you like it or not, this also included people “of color”! If that’s racist, then you and I are operating under a different dictionary and understanding of racism.

      I’m in my 50’s, and I can even remember racism towards me as an Irish boy, when growing up. No, it wasn’t nearly anything like African people had to deal with, but to say there wasn’t or still isn’t any racism towards Irish, is absolute BS! Australians are still showing racism towards the Irish today, along with many others.

      There are a lot of things being called racism today, that doesn’t even come close to being racism! It would be more appropriate to call it prejudice. In fact, the new trend today, is to call “white people” racist, and only “white people” can be racist. This is absolute nonsense, but it is leading this country, and others like it, down a very bad path. And you, with your “blanket” statement about Irish people being racist, is not helping this situation at all, not to mention, a flat-out lie. Judging by your writing, I would even guess that you are not even Irish yourself!

      So, your comment is a load of poppycock, and is meaningless! You have nothing to backup your statement, and it reeks all the way around as propaganda! There is a lot of racism today, and it’s coming from both black & white, and every color in-between. If you claim not to see it, then you’re running around with tape over your eyes and ears!

    • maya

      Completely agree with you, Barry.
      As a person of colour, I’ve not experienced any racism while living in Dublin for a year but I experience racism regularly in the US from Irish-Americans (in many different settings, with different groups of people and situations) and also in Australia. This is in school and work and in bars. I’m always shocked considering their ancestor’s background of immigration and oppression. My family have been here for 8 generations but a first-generation Irish immigrant told me to go back to where I came from this year, and this was accepted by his group as normal. When you stand up to them or resist – you will get the response you got from patrickonb on this thread:
      “What a load of poppycock!”
      “Irish aren’t racist”
      “It’s not even racism, it’s a joke”
      “You’re just propaganda”
      “Show me the proof” – even right after they say something racist
      Patrickonb replied to your comment to say you’re not even Irish. This is very common of Irish behaviour outside of Ireland – they’ve been newly given “white” status and so they feel perfectly ok collaborating with their oppressors, instead of standing with us. It’s actually embarrassing to see. We would stand with you. Black people gave homes to the Irish in Boston when they were not allowed to rent. The second that Irish were given some jobs, they turned on Black people. Imagine a world where we could stand together, where people could accept what they have done and what impact their behaviour has, instead of being racist and denying it. Thanks for calling it out.


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