What the Conversation Around Irish Slavery is Really About

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If you’re on social media, then you may see your “not racist” white friends and family posting memes or articles about Irish slavery or even slightly more recent “Irish need not apply” signs as some sort of argument that it wasn’t just Black people that went through hard times. Although historically, the Irish did have a bit of a rough start in America, in some places, what these memes are leaving out is that in 2016, there’s no trace of that history left in the average everyday life of people of Irish decent, not because they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, but because eventually they were just accepted into general whiteness. Which is important to note because when we talk about slavery, we’re not actually talking about the past, we’re talking about today.

When people speak of slavery in regards to Black people in America, we’re not saying that the literal issues such as having our children sold, being beaten by white people for not working fast enough, or hung for stepping out of line* is still happening but that the effects of these practices still affect Black people to this day.

We are not talking about the past in so much as we are talking about how the racial practices and attitudes that helped fuel that period have subtley shaped today’s culture. That the ideas that allowed White people to be ok with owning Black people played into why they were ok with segregation, Jim Crow, etc.

And that’s why Irish slavery as a response to Black slavery is a false equivalency, aside from the wealth of historically inaccurate information that is usually posted in regards to Irish slavery. There’s actually an excellent series on Medium that goes over many of these.

The people who post these memes want you, the viewer, to make the connection that “Irish people were slaves but they are not suffering now ergo, the slavery was not the problem, Black people are the problem.” What this counts on is not taking into account ANY of the other history that affects the positions of different groups in the country today.

There are other marginalized groups that have experienced a great deal of harm throughout America’s history but the reason they aren’t toted out as some proof that anyone can just “get over” the abuse of a past time is because they still suffer under the same racial issues of the past.

The Japanese were once looked down on to the point of being interred against their will in recent memory. George Takei talks about it all the time (bless him because it should be talked about) but they make poor examples of getting over a past wrong because they still suffer from racial prejudice.

An even better example are the Native Americans who have suffered through a whole host of abuse throughout the centuries but the reason why they aren’t pulled out as models for “getting over it” is because the effects of those atrocities still linger today. For every casino, there’s a wealth of people who live in poverty due to the conditions forced upon them by the government before they realized that they couldn’t treat people that way.

These groups aren’t posted about as a “secret history” (although we rarely speak of them) not because what happened to them wasn’t as horrible as what happened to Black people but because their stories do not fit the narrative that you can just get over racism, they don’t fit the narrative that the failings are in the group of people, not in the system that was created to keep them oppressed.

The Irish are picked for their stories not just because of their physical Whiteness but because their history matches up fairly closely to the narrative that anti-Blackness isn’t the problem, that racism isn’t an issue but Black people themselves are the problem. All while failing to acknowledge that at some point, the Irish were accepted into general whiteness in America which is a reality that very few other groups can claim.

Ultimately these memes aren’t about what happened in the past, they’re about what’s happening right now, today. Their goal is to draw attention and conversation away from uncomfortable topics by presenting half the information as if it is a complete testimony. They work because the majority of people accept things at face value. History is very complicated. A meme is meant to distract not tell the whole story.

*You could argue that all of those things are still happening in one shape or another and I would likely agree with you however, for the purposes of this blog, we mean that they are still happening as a direct result of ownership vs systematic racism. For example, this person literally sold my son to his neighbor as opposed to my son was given a very harsh sentence by a judge as part of a for profit prison complex that criminalizes Blackness.

Unconscious Bias: Why You Need to Be Aware

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When people in a position of privilege, ie cis, White, male for example say that they have been judged for their cis/White/maleness they are mainly speaking of the times that someone has verbally or otherwise acted in a very overt negative fashion because of their cis/White/maleness. Which is to say that they know why it happened. What they are not speaking of is the unconscious bias that marginalized groups deal with constantly. Probably because that bias generally works out in their favor.

Unconscious bias is a bias that people are unaware of and stems from the person’s background or the culture they live in. For example, if you were nipped by a dog when you were young, you may grow up to not like dogs very much even if you never think of that incident at all.

Similarly, the culture we live in supports an unconscious bias that is favorable privileged groups (white, cis, male, etc) while it supports a negative unconscious bias for marginalized groups (people of color, females, queer, etc).

Hiring managers aren’t, for the most part, sitting at desks thinking, “No darkies in my office!” any more than doctors are thinking, “Man, women are just hypochondriacs!” However, both of these groups still deal with their unconscious bias that lay the groundwork for them to look more favorably upon white applicants or to take a woman’s health complaints less seriously.

This is important because when we talk about the act of judgement to be equally as awful, we’re very much speaking about those “vocal” judgements which is to say, we’re really saying, don’t say mean things to other people (which is a good life lesson). This reaction doesn’t deal with those unconscious biases and once you take that into consideration, the scales tip firmly in one direction as far as awfulness goes.

Dealing with unconscious bias is really difficult because there is no hard evidence for the times that it happens. As a woman of color, I can never be sure that I didn’t get a job because there was a better applicant or if it was because I was too brown. No one is going to tell me that they didn’t hire me because of my race or gender (we have laws against that) but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t factor in to their ultimate choice.

Solving this problem takes a lot of active thought. It forces people to look at why they’re making choices, acting in certain ways towards people etc. in order to be sure that they aren’t fueled by these biases. People will shout that they don’t hold biases but the thing is, the person may not be racist/sexist/homophobic but the culture that we all live in very much is and we are all influenced by it.

Defeating it means confronting it. If you come from a privileged group, it means questioning not only how you handle others but how you have been handled. It means questioning how you’ve benefited from these biases and how you may have caused harm with your own. Ignoring it will not make it go away because chances are, you’re not even aware of it.

You’re Not Oppressed, You’re Just Having A Bad Time

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Bad things can happen to anyone and it’s not OK. No one wants to be hurt, belittled, or insulted. It doesn’t feel good. However, if a bad thing happens to you and you happen to come from a privileged group, that doesn’t mean that you are oppressed. It just means that something bad happened to you.

Privilege in a social justice context does not mean that bad things don’t happen to you. It doesn’t mean that you will never feel sad or hurt or that someone will never act in violence against you. It just means that if/when these things happen it is not because of oppression. It’s because you had very bad luck.

It’s hard for people to understand that. When we engage in conversations regarding the ways oppression affects marginalized groups in specifically, for example, violence against female bodies, the privileged group feels left out and that their needs aren’t being met.

On the one hand they’re right because that particular discussion ISN’T about them but more importantly even if a man has experienced violence at the hands of a woman (which is a problem) that does not make it a cultural norm.

If you are skinny and can’t find clothes in a store that isn’t because skinny people have it just as bad as fat people.

If someone makes fun of you for being white that doesn’t mean you are a victim of racism.

Just because you are having a bad time does not mean you are a victim of systematic oppression.

Similarly, just because you are a member of the oppressed group and are having a good time at life it doesn’t mean that oppression isn’t real. If you are black and have never been called a nigger, it doesn’t mean racism is over.

If you are a woman who has never been paid less than a man that doesn’t mean sexism isn’t real.

If you’re fat and your wardrobe is awesome that doesn’t mean fat shaming isn’t real.

It just means that that person is having a good time. Their success does not mean that the greater group is no longer oppressed any more than a privileged person’s struggle mean that that group is suddenly oppressed.

On a micro, person to person level, we all have problems. Everyone has problems. But on a macro level, on a society level, these things play out differently. When we talk about privilege and oppression we’re talking about the macro level and how it effects our micro interactions.

So if you’re in an privileged group, the next time you see someone who is speaking from a place of marginalization and your reaction is to tell a story about something similar that happened to you, stop. Think about your experience. Before you open your mouth, question whether or not most people in your station, be it thin, male, white, educated, etc has had a similar experience.

If the answer is no, then you are not oppressed. You are just having a bad time. Don’t take up space with your story. Sit down, listen, and support.

Racism as Taught in School Isn’t Enough

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In elementary school we’re all taught about racism. Usually sometime in January to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day and then again this month (February) because it’s Black History Month. After a few coloring pages and factoids are imparted, schools are pretty silent of the discussions of race and racism until you discuss Civil Rights in middle and high school. These courses are all have one thing in common, they rooted in teaching the belief that white people used to think they were better than People of Color (PoC) but now most White people know that was wrong. And that’s the entirety of what most White people know about racism. So it’s really no surprise that they don’t understand how subtle racism is because all they’ve been taught is the extreme.

People are aware that their uncle who uses racial slurs is a racist but they ignore their aunt who clutches her purse when they see a black man walk by. Or don’t understand why making fun of ethnic names is problematic. Or why dressing up like a Geisha is an issue. They don’t HATE anyone so they can’t be racist.

But, what schools DON’T teach until college is that racism is more than hate. Just because you’re not a card carrying member of the KKK or even if you dated a black girl once that doesn’t mean that you aren’t racist, or more accurately, hold some racist ideologies.

Racism, as it’s practiced in the day to day lives of most people isn’t malicious. It’s not burning crosses. It’s thinking that telling a black person they’re articulate is a compliment not realizing that there’s an entire history as to why you think that’s a trait worth complementing when a PoC has it but NOT when a White person does.

Racism as practiced for most people’s lives is systematic. It’s the left over issues from the Jim Crow error that have created multiple socioeconomic issues for people of color. It’s cracking jokes about Asian people who run corner stores. It’s the fact that Redskins is STILL a football team’s name.

It’s not about hate. It’s about long standing beliefs that have become ingrained in our culture so much that they’re hardly noticeable but they still have huge impacts on how we deal with people and what beliefs we have about them.

That’s what needs to be taught in school. Yes, it’s important to understand that hating someone based on their skin color is wrong but it’s also really important to understand how our culture has racism worked into its foundation so that we can move past that.

Children need to be taught this so that when they are adults they understand how racism works and can recognize it in themselves instead of ignoring it or dismissing it as being oversensitive.

Education is deeply lacking in this area and it’s time that it’s overhauled to represent how racism works in today’s world. We don’t have Whites Only bathrooms and water fountains anymore but that doesn’t mean that Whites Only spaces don’t still exist. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t still influenced in subtle ways by the racism that is built into our culture.

Racism isn’t just hate but because we don’t teach people that, because they go their whole lives believing that IS, they have a hard time seeing it for what it really is when they are presented with it as adults.