Irish-Americans, Racism and the Pursuit of Whiteness

Kerry Band from the BronxToday 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.

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. Thank you for this detailed review of some largely forgotten history. To me it seems a bit heavy, though, on the oppression the Irish faced, and a bit light on the common tendency displayed by many Irish Americans today, that is, to forget that their ancestors were allowed to work their way into whiteness, and to “achieve” all the gain (and loss) that that entails, while others were not allowed to do that. I sometimes grow weary with hearing white Americans say, “Hey, I’m Irish, and we suffered too, but we made it, didn’t we, so why can’t they pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps?” And so on.

  2. siss

    Excellent article Jessie. It’s a great refresher to all of us who have forgotten their struggles!
    MACON: you pose a good point on IA’s ability to “work their way into whiteness”. Can you please elaborate?

  3. Way too many people claiming to be “Irish” in the US know very little about their actual heritage. Many “Irish”-Americans gleefully propagate stereotypes about the Irish.

    “Irish-Americans, Racism and the Pursuit of Whiteness”, along with macon d’s comment are an excellent reality check for the day.

  4. grainne O'Connell

    Thanks for that fab article Jessie. I have tried to engage other irish people born in ireland – i was born there and lived there for 20ish years – in debates about how present day ireland and its diaspora – such as irish americans – has become ‘white’. More often than not, I am faced with people who will not move beyond the argument that the irish were oppressed and therefore it is not ‘right’ to critique how irish-americans behaved towards non-white groups. I think it needs to be said that it is impossible to talk about the ‘irish’ as if ‘we/them’ are a coherent group; even glancing at recent northern irish history articulates this. But, to deny that irish-americans and the wider irish diaspora – including ireland – benefit from their whiteness is frankly ridiculous.

    RE: Ni neart go cur le cheile: Sea, but is it necessary to say that as gaelige? you’d make a stronger point if you spoke the language that nearly irish people claim as their ‘own’.


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