My research into understanding why I've been having the discussions of race that I have is...
October 2, 2015
My research into understanding why I”ve been having the discussions of race that I have is ongoing. But I”m actually really and truly beginning to understand where the divergence in views and perspectives is coming from. Especially now that I”ve found scholarship that articulates the same understanding of race that I”ve been working with.
The tension and difference is basically expressed in this paragraph:
the Catholic Irish were perceived as uncivilised and degenerate because within the proliferating racial hierarchies, Celts had been posited as a less-developed white ‘race’, particularly relative to the Anglo-Saxon. This did not necessarily mean that they were black. Indeed they enjoyed the opportunity to become citizens, move without restrictions, and exercise rights unhindered. Yet they were not considered white, if that meant able for the responsibilities encumbent upon members of the American democracy. The point of difference between Irish and Americans on which pro-Protestant American nativist discourse concentrated was religion.1
In some ways, the perspective of race I hold and that of the people who challenge me are really talking past each other, as they focus on different aspects.
In this particular book, the writer says this in an earlier chapter:
The first thing to realise is that the ‘inbetween people’ thesis does not claim that Irish, Italian and other European immigrants were really ‘black’, but that they were literally ‘denigrated’, likened to black Americans (in terms of civilisation and social status), and they temporarily occupied the lowest positions on the economic and social ladder. So the point is not to suggest that immigrants were not phenotypically white… but that ideologically and culturally they were indeed considered different and lesser ‘white races’. The corollaries of this categorisation were not a set of life chances equivalent to those of Blacks, Native Americans or Hispanics.2
Basically, there are two ways of viewing race being expressed here, two kinds of research methodologies as well, all of which results in some very different conclusions.
The protagonists in this debate prioritise different arenas as the source of their claims. On one side, Barrett and Roediger see the cultural domain as the one in which perceptions of ‘inbetweenness’ are made explicit, while Arnesen and Guglielmo pragmatically see the legal domain as predominant. Whatever people said or did, argue the latter, in law all white people were white.3
I”m in the latter camp and most of the people who”ve disagreed with me are in the former camp.
Seeing this, I”m pretty sure that I”ll never get through to the ‘the irish become white” crowd because we fundamentally disagree on the terms of debate. They think that social stigma is equivalent to the way that race was institutionalized in legal and political contexts. I refuse this assertion.
In part because for all that we constantly note that racism/oppression is institutional apparently people think that non-institutional acts of discrimination are the same thing as institutionalized oppression.
For my part, I think that the legal and political (in terms of the actual structure of government and its policies) are the decisive boundary between who is and who isn”t white.
I also tend to think that the US tends to matter, in terms of policy and law, for understanding race in a global context because the US is the first state to be explicitely and formally constructed on white supremacy. Yes, white supremacy was founded and built in Europe, but european nations/states existed before white supremacy and its institutionalization wasn”t quite as firm and fast as with the US.
What the US did was take a bunch of European ideas about white supremacy and statehood and use them as the very foundation for the entire settler state. Essentially, the creation of the US crystalized and solidified a lot of white supremacist ideology into formal and real institutions.
Why do I think that policy, state, and laws are the deciding factor between who is and isn”t white?
Look at one of the quotes above, again:
Irish, Italian and other European immigrants were really ‘black’, but that they were literally ‘denigrated’, likened to black Americans (in terms of civilisation and social status), and they temporarily occupied the lowest positions on the economic and social ladder. 4
I look at this sentence and it doesn”t fucking compute, “they temporarily occupied the lowest positiosn on the economic and social ladder”.
Compared to WHO???? Jesus. Fuck. The amount of cognitive dissonance it takes to write and assert shit like this.
Obviously, the comparison is that the were lowest on the economic and social ladder compared to other white people. But they still had access to all of the institutional privileges granted to all white people:
Catholic Irish were always salvageable for whiteness in a way that black, Mexican, Asian and Native Americans were not (Garner 2003). This is because legally they were definitely white, in as far as they could become naturalised citizens, and were not treated as imports. 5
So. Obviously, the Irish (and other ethnic whites) where above any poc in terms of economic and social standing. And they had these privileges. Unlike any actual non-white person. Who occupied the lowest rung of the ladder and did not have access to these institutional privileges.
It isn”t that I think that the law, policy, or state is a ‘privileged” discourse, its that the shit experienced by ethnic whites is not defining nor unique to them. People of colour in the US had to deal with all the same (often worse) without having any access to the institutional priveges.
But a lot of people, apparently, think that race can be defined by any and every thing. Such that, sure, this kind of religious-ethnic discrimination is the same kind of racism experienced by poc. And so we have the myth that the Irish (et al) where not white and through whatever historical and social processes ‘became” white.
This also, to me, is a perspective that really REALLY privileges that of the oppressor class. Because looking at this as a not-white person who wouldn”t have been allowed to be naturalized (amongst other institutionalized oppressions), how am I supposed to tell the difference between the whites and the not-white whites? They all look the same from my vantage point.
And this gets back to a point I”ve been articulating on twitter. Who benefits from this… myth that race can be any and every thing? Who benefits when we assert that there is, in any way, some commonality between what whites did to other whites and what they did to the rest of us? Why do you think that this particular viewpoint has become the dominant one in academia? Who benefits from the idea that whiteness is ‘unstable” and mutable?
In brief, the only answer I have is: white ppl benefit from this.
And I can see many ways that people of colour are harmed by this dominant academic narrative of race.