St. Patrick’s Day and the Changing Boundaries of Whiteness

Today in New York City and throughout the U.S., Irish-Americans will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Irish heritage.  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

(Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: ktylerconk)

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.

From the archive (originally posted 03-17-2009)


  1. cordoba blue

    This is so true and really quite fascinating, especially in terms of how Americans view themselves. Even 50 years ago, people from southern Europe were considered of a different “race” than northern Europeans. This also held true for people from eastern Europe. Only “pure” anglo-saxons (remember that old word?) were considered the top of the racial hierarchy.
    I remember reading a novel written in the 1800’s about the main English character describing an Italian woman. He said that her behavior was “characteristic of her race”. So Italians were a different race from English people?
    Today, for example, individuals from Spain are considered part of the European-American norm. Note Penelope Cruz’ total acceptance and everyone being so charmed by her “cute accent” etc. Yet she is Hispanic, just like Mexicans. Yet Mexicans, specifically Mexicans, are who America means when they discuss “those Hispanics”.
    Italians, Greeks, Poles have all been assimilated into the term “real American.” Nobody blinks when somebody presents with a Polish name difficult to pronounce. Yet, just 50 years ago, if you were “Polish” that meant people assigned you a whole set of personal characteristics that were usually insulting. Same circumstance for Italians and Greeks and Spanish people.
    Today the outliers are still African-Americans, Hispanics from Mexico, Native Americans (although that seems to be abating from my observations) and sometimes Jewish people (although that seems to be abating also). Appears, on the surface, that the later the arrivals, the more flack they take. However, Native Americans were here for 10,000 years and black people were here for 350 years.
    Also, awhile ago, people would boast (talk about the older white racial frame!) that their relatives came over on the Mayflower. Remember that Joe? What a farce that was. They’d actually do “research” to prove this. Some idiots must have made a hell of a lot of money printing bogus lineage research to prove the ancestors of the Smithsons or Hobblers or Cobblers or Quackenbushes came over directly on the Number One Cruise Liner called the Mayflower. Actually the Princess Line of cruise ships were patterned after the Mayflower! True. If you were a real big shot you got to eat dinner at the Captain’s table and then drinks on the Lido Deck. This would be amusing if it weren’t so disgusting!

  2. Joe

    Very good points. There is still a lot of genealogical research aimed at linking white people of all backgrounds to the “founding” era and as early as possible. And there is the important distinction many so-called “Scotch-Irish” make (in the past and present) so they are not tied to the negative stereotypes of the “Catholic Irish”… My grandfather did that. We in the South were always “Scotch-Irish,” not just Irish.

    However, this is substantially myth. The early Scotch-Irish ancestors who migrated to the US in the 18th century were often Catholic Irish (and often with no Scotch ancestry) who were forced to covert to Protestantism at some earlier point by the English oppressors, but that is lost in much US memory of the earlier eras that attempts to get as close to the Anglo-Saxon-Protestant category.

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