Irish Immigrants Becoming ‘White’

The concept of ‘becoming white’ is an intriguing one. The idea is that Irish immigrants in America were able to gain access to certain privileges and rights by distancing themselves from their Irish heritage and assimilating into the dominant culture. Clearly, America began to reject its thinking that Whiteness was exclusively a person whose family left England to escape religious persecution. Hence, it became more open to allowing other people to be ‘one of them.’ I think there is a very important message in this process: in the American sense, White is European, and Black is African. In other words, the idea of Whiteness is applicable to any individual that has European descent, regardless of ethnicity, language, or culture. Considering that this was even a possibility, I believe the integration of Irish people into the White community reiterates the idea that Europeans are superior to Africans or African descendants. Additionally, I think allowing Irish people to become white was a way to undermine the growing population of Black people in the 19th century in the United States to ensure that their political power was reduced, essentially emphasizing the belief that there is ‘strength in numbers.’ This allowed white Americans to maintain power and privilege over non-white people by creating a hierarchical system. In other words, although there was the inclusion of Irish people into higher society, this cemented that Black people would continue to be at the bottom of the social pyramid. Thus, allowing Irish immigrants to ‘become white’ had the effect of marginalizing and oppressing Black people, while simultaneously maintaining existing power structures.

One Reply to “Irish Immigrants Becoming ‘White’”

  1. I think it would be interesting to compare and contrast the experience of different groups of immigrants when it came to their “becoming white”. We briefly discussed in class how Italian immigrants had a harder time “becoming white” since they had darker skin than other European immigrants. I wonder: at what level of dark skin tone were immigrants not able to “become white”? Were there other distinguishing features of each ethnic group that prevented them from “becoming white”? Another interesting thing to research would be the economic status of people in the modern day whose immigrant ancestors assimilated to the culture versus those who stuck together in ethnic communities or retained their ethnic identity to a greater extent.

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