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The book How the Irish Became White documents Irish emigration before and
after the potato famine, or from about 1840 to the Civil War . Detailing how
Irish Catholics “came to this country as an oppressed race yet quickly learned
that to succeed they had to in turn oppress their closest social class
competitors, free Northern blacks,” the text reveals that who counts as white
changes depending on labor needs and profit motivations.

In the case of Irish immigrants, for a substantial period of time they were
defined as a non-white laboring class and performed the same work as blacks.
As Art MacDonald notes,

Irish and Africans Americans had lots in common and lots of contact during
this period; they lived side by side and shared work spaces. In the early years
of immigration the poor Irish and blacks were thrown together, very much
part of the same class competing for the same jobs. In the census of 1850, the
term mulatto appears for the first time due primarily to inter-marriage
between Irish and African Americans. The Irish were often referred to as
“Negroes turned inside out and Negroes as smoked Irish.” A famous quip of
the time attributed to a black man went something like this: “My master is a
great tyrant, he treats me like a common Irishman.” Free blacks and Irish
were viewed by the Nativists as related, somehow similar, performing the
same tasks in society. It was felt that if amalgamation between the races was to
happen, it would happen between Irish and blacks. But, ultimately, the Irish
made the decision to embrace whiteness, thus becoming part of the system
which dominated and oppressed blacks. Although it contradicted their
experience back home, it meant freedom here since blackness meant slavery.

While I think the claim that the Irish chose to embrace whiteness is a bit
simplistic, MacDonald’s argument here touches on a key historical factor: that
one’s racial categorization is intricately linked to one’s labor. When one is
excluded from the category of whiteness, it is often due to economics and
labor. In early colonial times, the terms ‘free’ or ‘Christian’ were more often
used to designate the so-called elite. However, due to the history of Tobacco
farming, bonded labor, and the preponderance of African as well as Irish and
other light skinned European bond laborers, the term ‘white’ began to replace
the terms ‘free’ and ‘Christian’ in legislation. For example, in 1790, the Federal
Government reserved citizen rights to “free white persons.” This decree had
wide-ranging implications, the most prominent of which was a battle over who
counted as white.

economic success and acceptance in white society.S. The term “wop. was originally an acronym for the phrase “without papers. Italians and Greeks As The Black Commentator documents.” a once common ethnic slur against Italians.” Italians – and Irish too – were considered loyal to a foreign power in Rome.” Condemned as “papists. but were labeled “dark” or “dark/white. Jews.In the 1800s. In the early years of the US. Due to this legacy. edited by Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno. The recent collection of essays Are Italians White?: How Race Is Made in America. a wave of Irish Catholic immigration (and the subsequent competition for jobs) led to phrases such as “Irish Niggers. discrimination. whiteness was associated with Protestantism due to the fact that the immigrants to the 13 colonies were mainly Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Catholics. reveals much of this forgotten history of the Italian immigrant experience in the U.S. religious belief played a large part in who counted as white. exclusion and violence. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (when the largest numbers of Italian immigrants came to the U. In “How White People Became White.” referring to Italians’ supposed immigration status.) were not even considered white. But most of the Italian American community left their darker immigrant brethren behind when they gained political clout. including the infamous 1891 lynching of 11 Italians by a mob in a New Orleans jail. Many Italians arriving in the U. exploitation and scapegoating that other immigrants faced. The essays reveal that in general Italians gained white identity and the accompanying privileges only by assimilating certain white cultural and political beliefs. In the Jim Crow South. There is also a long history of Italian Americans committed to interracial unity and inclusiveness.S. there were many cases of Italians lynched by mobs or the Klan. Italian immigrants were susceptible to the same violence.” As with Italian Catholics. and Muslims have variously not been considered ‘white’ due to their supposedly ‘non-white’ religious beliefs. Italian immigrants to this country suffered a long history of discrimination.” James Barrett and David Roediger document how both Greeks and Italians were characterized as non-white and .

the dark ones. Historical moments eventually led to the creation of democracy. Italians were referred to as the “Chinese of Europe” while Greeks were called “half niggers. They are not the Venetians or Florentines.” Asking “Why. About culture and history. Jews are not white. a designation that is still fluctuates today – to many. This point seems obvious. They come in large and dirty numbers to Ellis Island. well. but its obviousness is refuted when people link race to skin color. in some states does it take just one black ancestor out of 32 to make a person legally black. and violence due to this designation. Jews being defined as not white was largely related to religious belief. but. yet those 31 white ancestors are not enough to make the person white. class. the ancestors of the deMedicis. when required to give social identity presentations in which they introduce themselves in relation to race. Ferber notes. those are Europeans. gender. they are mistakenly assuming that their white skin makes them white.” Ferber documents the changing designation of Jews as non-white or white. For example. This is not about race. white skin does not necessarily mean one will be defined by social institutions and practices as white. Jews are considered white. And then it is about race. often say things such as “well obviously I am white” to define their race. Jewish As Abby L. Here. the Michaelangelos and daVincis. etc. Too many of them really. Ferber discusses how her research into Jewish identity and white supremacy causes her to move “between two worlds: one where I was white.suffered discrimination. another where I was the non-white seed of Satan. as they often do today. Italians. rich enough. my students. Rather. Italians in the U. as I hope the above discussion reveals. are the southerners. Not all the way white. This is about class. No. For more on the construction of whiteness in relation to Italians and Greeks.” As with Catholics. oppression. However. religious .S. “What White Supremacists Taught a Jewish Scholar About Identity.” As Susan Raffo writes. they are something different.”The history of the Jewish experience demonstrates precisely what scholars mean when they say race is a social construction. or intellectual enough to understand Faulkner. to white supremacists. the ignorant peasants who carry statues of the Virgin Mary through their neighborhoods and faint with religious passion.” In her article. see here. Certainly not white enough.” Ferber shows that racial designation is unstable and “always tied to power.

or partially included in the white club depending on religious belief. For example. this has led to a bifurcated system of only two choices – white and non-white.” What the term POC confers is the fact that historically. For more on the construction of whiteness and Jewishness. wealth. Europeans have been excluded. Historically. Such depictions are often . economic status. the Beacons Rebellion of 1673 made it apparent that defining laborers as either ‘Black’ or ‘White’ created a divided group of laborers that fought amongst themselves rather than against the system. see here.” While US history quite clearly excluded Asians. Indigenous Peoples. Eastern Europeans. This is why the term “people of color” makes sense even though it is sometimes argued that “white is a color too. political affiliation. legal protection. This divide and conquer tactic is still prevalent today and helps to keep the system of white privilege in place. and how far ‘west’ or ‘north’ one is from are more likely to confer whiteness.” Designating certain people as white. economic climate. Whiteness in Popular Culture and the Media Popular culture teaches us a great deal about who counts as white. as Other. or try to ‘become white’ in order to attain the social and institutional privileges associated with whiteness. included. and privilege. (It is also bound up with sex/gender wherein white women have often been in the ‘not quite white’ category) The construction of whiteness also links to the long historical practice to “divide and conquer. citizenship. Eastern European Massive immigration and subsequent competition over jobs accompanied by widespread poverty resulted in many Europeans being defined as “not quite white. etc. wealth.’ (And. etc. even when they do the same work and suffer the same levels of poverty has been deployed as a strategy to quell rebellion. it should not be replaced with the phrase “professional victims of color”!!!) For whites.belief. no. being not ‘colored’ has translated into power. or as ‘colored. This is not to say that all whites have power and wealth. as it was when Tobacco workers were on the brink of revolt in the 1600s. Legacies of the ‘not quite white’ are readily apparent in film and television depictions of Italians. and African Americans from the white category. white people have been defined over and above those who are defined as not-white. and Irish as criminals. labor skills. For those whose skin color has allowed them to ‘assimilate into whiteness’ the choice has often been either remain ‘not-white’ and suffer the consequences. but that whiteness is intricately bound up with who deserves to have power.

As a WOWP. This is why. beautiful trait that will confer power and wealth. the position that is. However. if you ask me. in a sense. the human race. Popular culture also indicates that whiteness is a desirable.used to argue against racist representations with claims that white people are negatively stereotyped by the media too.’ The media also works to ‘naturalize’ race as a category by acting as if one’s racial designation will translate into certain ways of talking. This has been particularly apparent in the run up to the election with obsessive focus on Obama’s race. popular culture continues to perpetuate the message that lighter is better and that those who are not white will be more beautiful/successful/powerful if they ‘whitify. if you take a gander at all the shows and films out there.” as “Caucasian. Share this: . As the recent Feria ad with a whitified Beyonce reveals. but a WOWP. you will notice that the most positive roles often go to those of Anglo-Saxon Protestant descent. Why is McCain’s race not an issue? Well. because whiteness is the unmarked category. the category of privilege. I am thus not a white woman. acting. outside of race. it is so imperative that those of us who are socially constructed as white own up to our privilege and refer to ourselves not as “just white.” as “obviously white. I am dedicated to eradicating white privilege and making it apparent that race is yet another fiction that works to divide our one race. It is imperative that those of us who are POWPs acknowledge our privilege so that we can dismantle them. voting etc.” but as persons of white privilege.