Immigrant Song

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The continued reckoning with anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism has tended to see beneficiaries of privilege and victims of prejudice as fixed classes throughout North American history. If you don’t meet the modern criteria of disadvantage, neither do your ancestors; if your ancestors were particularly mistreated by a racist majority, then so too have you been. Today many commentators characterize various economic or social sectors – everything from culinary trends to the comic book industry – as exclusive preserves of “whiteness” from their beginnings, as if their inherent purposes were, always and only, to operate as barriers to an out-group’s acceptance. Nothing that’s happened in the last four centuries, it seems, can be properly evaluated without an up-front disclaimer that it took place when one uniform set of oppressors dominated a uniform set of oppressees.

Yet this revisionism overlooks how many fields became entries to public life for peoples themselves denied access by most other avenues. The reason there are long traditions of Irish police, Jewish entertainers, Italian builders, Polish steelworkers and similarly ethnocentric occupations is because none of their practitioners were much welcomed anywhere within the WASP establishments of their eras. Those and other professions may now appear equally resistant to Black or Aboriginal advancement – or they may be subject to pious campaigns of shaming for their supposedly discriminatory pasts – but they initially developed to circumvent racism, not to extend it. To criticize the lack of diversity in law enforcement, show business, or the construction business is to overlook the extent to which such work once provided diverse communities with career options otherwise unavailable to them.

It’s also helpful to remember how the waves of immigration from Asia, Ireland, and eastern and southern Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries altered the demographic makeup of North America. Within a few decades, Indigenous people and descendants of African slaves went from being conspicuous populations of second- or third-class citizens to merely two more shades on a broad social spectrum. They were still deprived of many basic rights and freedoms, of course, but their relative numbers were such that the deprivation was not so obvious to the wider society – especially during an age of anti-Semitic university enrolment quotas, anti-Catholic prejudice against French Canadians, a litany of jokes at the expense of Irish, Poles, and Chinese, and Japanese, Italian, and Ukrainian internment camps during two World Wars. Unlike British rule over India or Hong Kong, the US and Canada were not colonial outposts where a small enclave of Anglos lorded it over a vast, homogenous underclass of local subjects. They were expanding nations of the New World, constantly being made and remade by a dynamic cross-section of global humanity.

While it’s beyond dispute that Blacks and Native people suffered huge human catastrophes from the time of Columbus onward, the current rhetoric of racial truth and justice inaccurately depicts a simple two-sided history rather than the complex, multidimensional reality of migration, settlement, and integration that’s lasted five hundred years. Our moralized, politicized color categories of 2021 did not obtain in 1889 or 1942. A deeper reckoning with the long legacy of intolerance will not just rewrite the narrative to support a retroactive hierarchy of eternal heroes and eternal villains: it should tell how just about everyone was, long ago or recently, left out, looked down on, and screwed over.

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