What the Conversation Around Irish Slavery is Really About

Irish Slaves

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.


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