On White Ethnics and Anti-Racism

One of the missing pieces of our current conversation about race is the situation regarding White ethnics (i.e., White but not WASPs or Scotch-Irish). It’s something that doesn’t get the attention it should – and not just because I’m Irish Catholic myself. White ethnics have our own historical ethnic trauma.

Unfortunately, far too many of us simply hide behind that trauma and ignore the rest of the conversation, which is terribly unfair to the folks who have suffered and are still suffering far worse than we ever did. However, if we choose instead to use our trauma to be more empathetic, we can help address the institutional racism that still haunts our republic.

Whenever someone refers to White as “a social construct,” every White ethnic should bob their heads in agreement. None were considered White Americans from the get-go (my own people, Irish-Americans, were out of the club until 1900, roughly). We all have memories (themselves or ancestors) of discrimination. Ask an Irish-American what “No Irish Need Apply” means. Ask them about the potato famine. Ask them what 26 and 6 equal – and do not expect “32.”

To use historical examples: I keep alive the memory of the potato famine and Britain’s callous reaction to it. I remind people of NINA. I try to pass down the memories of the vicious anti-Catholicism and racism of the Know-Nothings. I remember my parents talking about how much JFK meant to them, and what his assassination did to them.

It would be foolish and idiotic of me to turn around and declare that slavery and Jim Crow were “in the past” even if we weren’t seeing James Donald Mitchell Crow III stalk the land.

In other words, when someone of color complains about how White America is treating them, we should not – we must not – try to profess our innocence and insist our hands our clean. Instead, we should remember how it felt (or how our older relatives told us it felt) not to be White, and recognize that we didn’t end those injustices; we merely avoided or escaped them.

After all, if the advantages of being White in America were so minimal, why did we spend decades trying to get into the club? The answer should obvious. For just an example, there’s FDA policy from 1934 to 1968, for which we were White enough to reap the rewards.

So why do many White ethnics react to this conversation with defensiveness and anger? I’ll admit that we have our own anti-other history: the 1863 draft riots, use of police power to harass other ethnic groups (which hasn’t exactly stopped), etc. I think there’s more to it, though – namely, “woke” WASPs attempting to dominate the conversation and (however unintentionally) to erase us.

From my observations, “woke” WASPs tend to try to speak for all current Whites in their admission of guilt – without acknowledging many of us were on the outside looking in when they set things up. This is very unhelpful to Americans of color; when they speak of racial injustice, it’s from a place of pain and betrayal. From WASPs, however, it’s from a place of power and privilege – and White ethnics notice it. Far too often, any discussion of race in America anger White ethnics not because of the honest anguish from Americans of color, but rather the power play of WASPs trying to pretend they can and should speak for the rest of us. This leads to us and our traumas being erased from the conversation.

But white ethnics need not respond with Trump-like defensiveness and rage (reminder: Trump was our first and only German-American president). Joe Biden, himself Irish Catholic, has clearly managed to transcend the frustration within White circles to recognize the key factors: first, that America was founded on the ideal of equality, and second, that those who founded it couldn’t and didn’t firewall their white supremacy from the founding. He understands how we Irish-Americans were racial victims in America, but instead of hiding behind it, he’s learning from it, and trying to reverse the damage done (and still being done) to all of those who were and are treated worse than we ever were.

We would be wise to follow his lead.

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