When the struggle for racial justice took center stage with 2020’s George Floyd Rebellion, some latched onto the idea that the Black freedom struggle was misguided or downright harmful. One pernicious narrative claims that support of Black Lives Matter or demand for reparations is problematic because, though African people were enslaved, the Irish were slaves first. An “Irish Lives Matter” meme was even circulated to attack Black Lives Matter protesters (Al Jazeera). Though the “Irish were slaves first” story is almost exclusively promoted to attack the struggle for racial justice, it is worth analyzing because it touches on a true history of Irish colonial oppression. Unpacking the full story illuminates both the complex history of whiteness and the possibilities and pitfalls when constructing true solidarity.
Let’s get this out of the way first: the notion that the Irish were slaves in the same way as Black people in the United States were enslaved is simply false. “The Irish slave myth is not supported by historical evidence,” says Brown University’s Matthew Reilly. Irish laborers brought to the Thirteen Colonies were “socially and legally distinct” from the tens of millions of enslaved Africans abducted through the transatlantic slave trade. Irish historian Liam Hogan says the idea that Irish people were enslaved in a way equivalent to or worse than African peoples is an “ahistorical… fantasy,” calling the claim “neo-Nazi propaganda [that] is false equivalency on an outrageous scale.” For one thing, some Irish immigrants “owned” enslaved African people themselves (Al Jazeera).
• Unlearn the ahistorical notion that Irish people were enslaved like African people were and oppose attempts to use historical anti-Irish discrimination to derail conversations about anti-Blackness today.
• Learn how to talk about whiteness. For white people: consider how you were taught about your family’s history. Were past hardships described as a reason to build solidarity with people of color? If not, why? How have you been taught to practice “loyalty to whiteness” in your worldview, social circles, employment, and daily life? What would acting differently look like? How would your life be different if whiteness no longer operated as a social institution?
It’s also true that the British government forcibly sent thousands of people from the colony of Ireland to the Americas as indentured servants. Through the 19th century, Irish people continued to immigrate to the United States, facing political disenfranchisement and being forced to work the worst jobs. The 1798 Alien Acts made Irish immigrants easier to deport and prevented Irish people from voting. In the 1840s, an entire national political party was formed to oppose Irish Catholic immigration. Irish people were depicted in popular media as “subhuman,” inherently violent, drunken, and lazy. In other words, Irish people were depicted as a separate, inferior race—a “missing link” between Anglo-American white people and “savage” Africans (The Root). Today, Irish Americans are universally considered not a distinct race but rather a nationality of white people. So what happened?
Most of what we know about the history of Irish Americans and whiteness comes from Noel Ignatiev, who spent 20 years working in a steel mill as a labor organizer before attending Harvard and writing a dissertation that would become the influential book How the Irish Became White. “I wanted to understand how the Irish, coming from conditions about as bad as could be imagined and thrown into low positions when they arrived,” Ignatiev wrote, “came to side with the oppressor rather than with the oppressed” (New Yorker).
Exploited and oppressed Irish and Black people might have posed a common threat to political and economic elites. Some Irish Americans tried to connect the situation of Black and Irish people in the United States to the colonial oppression of Ireland. But Irish Americans in general, Ignatiev found, “earned” admission to the white race by suppressing Black revolt and joining emerging police departments, a key institution of U.S. white supremacy. This means that, far from being a biological reality, whiteness is a social construct that admits different categories of people at different times (Daily History, Psychology Today). It protects the ruling class by dividing those who would benefit from a fundamental transformation of society, offering one group privileges and protection so long as they repress the rest. Treason to whiteness, Ignatiev would say, is loyalty to humanity (The Root, New Yorker, Harvard Magazine).
There’s a long history of prejudice, bigotry, and exploitation against many peoples within the United States. This includes people once depicted as racially inferior but now considered white, such as Irish people and Eastern and Southern Europeans. Their histories can be framed in one of two ways. They can be used as a cudgel against people of color struggling in the present day, derailing attempts to overthrow contemporary oppression by using history as a cheap rhetorical device. These groups have been offered “admittance” to whiteness in order for them to do just that. Alternatively, those histories can inspire individuals to make common cause with currently oppressed and exploited peoples, understanding whiteness and white privileges are deployed only to prevent the transformation of society for the benefit of us all.
• Some try to derail support for Black Lives Matter by saying that Irish people were enslaved first.
• This is false, though Irish people did suffer from colonization, forced migration, and discrimination.
• Because of the ideology of whiteness, these histories are distorted and weaponized against people of color today.