Thursday, July 30, 2015

An Irish Catholic’s Look at White People—UPDATED

Jose Antonio Vargas with two unnamed men. (© 2015 MTV.)
At first, I was reluctant to watch the MTV documentary White People. I’d seen a trailer for it a couple of weeks before, which gave me the impression that a good portion of it was white college kids simply regurgitating the “privilege” narrative. Besides, it was an MTV project; whatever else you expect an MTV program to provoke, thought is not usually one of them.

It was better executed than I thought it would be. This was largely due to Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and filmmaker who did the interviews and asked the questions. Throughout the film, Vargas is charming, receptive, and avoids all appearance of being accusatory or condemnatory. Although he takes one occasion to change minds, for the most part he simply looks on and asks questions as young people struggle to break through the barriers to openly talk about racial perceptions.

That’s not to say the documentary is, shall we say, without its moments. A young man in a “privilege workshop” talks about “never having to represent your race to other people.” My first reaction on hearing that was: “You’re a kid. You’ll get your chance soon enough.”

One of my sharpest memories is of a discussion I had twenty years ago with a coworker and her fiancé about mixed couples. My coworker noted that black parents seemed to welcome such couples, while white parents didn’t, then turned to me and said, “Why are they like that, Tony?” The only thing I could tell her is that my previous girlfriend had had an opportunity to meet my dad and his wife, and that she had ducked out. I’d been called upon to explain white people, as if we were all of a piece.

Growing Up Irish Catholic

Vargas talks early on about white people living in a “bubble”. That’s to say, we predominantly live in all- or mostly-white neighborhoods, and have all- or mostly-white friends. But there are two sides to the bubble wall, and the wall isn’t impermeable.

Now, if you look at my genealogy straight on, the actual Irish content is pretty slim. My mother’s father, Frank Cronin, was half Irish and half Spanish; the Spanish half came from my great-grandmother, Justinana “Annie” Casados, who hailed from the pueblos of Jemez, New Mexico Territory. By contrast, my maternal grandmother, Berniece Loveland, was English, Scottish, Irish, and German, while my father’s people were exclusively English, Scottish, and “Scotch-Irish” (descendants of Scots who had briefly settled in Northern Ireland before migrating to America).[*]

As far as I know, though, my maternal aunts and uncles never took any affirmative-action advantage of their one-quarter Hispanic descent. They were Cronins; therefore, they were Irish. And since I spent most of my youth with my mother’s side of the family, I self-identified as Irish despite the overwhelming preponderance of English and Scottish blood.

To put it differently, I didn’t grow up “white” — I grew up Irish Catholic. More to the point, I grew up Irish Catholic at a time when people still publicly swapped mean-spirited ethnic jokes that encoded decades-old stereotypes: the drunken, combative Irishman, the dumb Pole, the dishonest Italian, the tight-fisted Scot, the lazy Mexican. To my knowledge, no one has yet suggested changing the Notre Dame mascot.

By the time I became “aware of my Irishness”, it had been a hundred years since Michael Cronin and Mary Maher had left Ireland for Nebraska. And yet, the Irish, the Poles, and the Italians were among the still-unmelted lumps of ethnic identity in the great melting pot. Moreover, we were Catholics in a nation where a significant hunk of the population registered (and still registers) antipathy or open hostility to the Church; the KKK had carried out attacks against our churches and our priests, with no sign of shock, dismay, or even acknowledgment from anyone else.

We had finally put one of our own, John F. Kennedy, into the White House (by a hairline majority); yet studies still showed that Catholic ethnics were the last whites to be hired and the first whites to be fired. We were graduating from college and becoming professionals in greater proportions than were white Protestants; yet in the public imagination we were still largely blue-collar workers. Or organized criminals. Or politicians — but I repeat myself.

Desegregation and De-Ethnicizing

I didn’t become “white” until I started attending a public high school in 1979. The narrative was changing: not only were ethnic jokes rapidly being ruled déclassé, there was an active effort to wipe out all distinctions between white ethnic groups, even as “reformers” within the Church were laboring to Protestantize the Mass. Contrary to the progressive narrative, our media and cultural factories brought more and more of the non-white experience inside our “white bubble”, while our history teachers focused more on the ugly parts of the “white” American story.

Suddenly, we Irish Catholics had been given a social promotion from an outcast group to an oppressor class. Henceforth, we would never be allowed to allude to a time when prospective employers put notices on their doors saying “No Irish need apply” [see Update below], or when we were referred to as the “white n****rs of the North”, or when groups known as “American Protective Associations” excluded our kind from moving into their neighborhoods. No matter how bad we’d had it, we’d still never had it as bad as had non-whites; therefore, we were “privileged”, just as were our WASP[†] classmates and coworkers. White People only acknowledges white ethnicity in the last segment, and gives only the vaguest hint that some white Americans were ever less privileged than others.

In 1979, the busses integrated the schools and the teachers integrated the classrooms; however, the students re-segregated themselves in the halls between classes and in the cafeteria. Maybe there was some hostility; in my school, there was much more mild curiosity and an understood agreement not to talk about racial issues — a studied pretense that nothing was awkward about our being thrown together in a massive social engineering effort.

In time, we found that, while there was an elephant in the room, he left plenty of space for us in which to gambol and cavort. We were too busy finding things in common to dwell too much on our differences; that’s how friendships and relationships are formed. We began to humanize each other. The racial issues were a barrier only to the extent that we let them divide us.

What Are We Talking About?

By no means is my experience representative of white people of my generation. Which is precisely my point: white people are stereotyped, too.

Guess what? We’re not all richer than non-whites; we don’t all have better access to education; we don’t all come from intact, non-dysfunctional, two-parent homes; we’re not all more than one or two relationships away from someone in jail. And some of us have faced forms of discrimination and bigotry not defined by skin color. Stop looking at the statistics and start looking at us as individuals, with individual deviations from the mean.

It’s not only white people who live within racial and ethnic bubbles; blacks, Hispanics and Asians have their own racial and cultural bubbles as well. When one young Asian man says, early in the documentary, “White people don’t know what it’s like to be stereotyped,” he’s not being consciously hypocritical; rather, he’s speaking from within his own bubble, a bubble which has insulated him from any direct knowledge of the white experience. Stop perpetuating the myth that we’re all cosseted, pampered and oblivious, and recognize your stereotypes for what they are.

MTV wants us to have a conversation about racial issues with our families. But that’s not the conversation we should be having … especially if the only discernible goal of the conversation is to reinforce unflattering stereotypes of white people, or to keep us feeling blamed and shamed for the mess our ancestors stuck us with. We should be talking to each other. If the conversation’s not directed toward discerning and correcting the socioeconomic problems which reinforce the inequities, or towards breaking through the bubble walls to really get to know one another, then it’s just pointless ideological blather. Let’s stop talking about racial problems and do something about them. Together.

A real conversation has two sides; it’s a dialogue, not a monologue with which the other party is socially required to agree. For all its positives, White People seems less interested in finding out what it means to be a white American in the 21st century than it is in wondering whether white people will ever stop being cosseted, pampered, and oblivious to other races. White People doesn’t really get white people.


UPDATE: July 31, 2015
Patrick Young, Esq., a blogger for Long Island Wins, has an interesting and pertinant tale to tell: In 2002, a University of Illinois professor, Richard Jensen, published an article (an abridged version of which can be found here) in the peer-reviewed (!) Oxford Journal of Social History which claimed that the “No Irish need apply” signs were an urban legend.

When Jensen’s original article appeared ... I was active on the Urban Legends Message Board (snopes) where it was an object of much discussion. Even with the more limited data bases of the time I came up with two ads that said Irish would not be accepted for employment. However, in later years Jensen’s Thesis became part of the wallpaper of discussion, with a lot of academics just accepting that the signs had never existed.

Well, that settles that, right? Just recently, though, the same journal published a paper, “No Irish Need Deny: Evidence for the Historicity of NINA Restrictions in Advertisements and Signs”, by Rebecca A. Fried, a teenager who attends the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC. “No Irish Need Deny” thoroughly demolishes what has become known as the “Jensen Thesis”, finding “numerous instances of ads in major American newspapers and small-town journals advertising for workers with the prohibition ‘No Irish Need Apply.’”

When Young brought up the article to his girlfriend, Michele Ascione, about Fried’s work, Ascione did a quick search on the archives of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle at the Brooklyn Public Library. The search, covering the range from 1840 to 1956, turned up scores of matches of the search term “no irish need apply” for just that one newspaper.

Jensen made a couple of attempts to sneer Fried’s work to death. Fried responded politely, charmingly, and with devastating rebuttals. Her final reply includes this beautifully worded challenge:

You began this conversation by stating that the article “did not claim to find a single window sign anywhere in the USA.” I think we now agree at least that this is not correct. Many are specifically listed. And of course the ultimate question here is simply whether NINA signs were sufficiently prevalent to account for the strong historical memory of them in the Irish-American community. ... I think the ordinary inference finding lots of signs and lots more newspaper advertisements drawn from sources that are demonstrably far from complete is that they look more or less as one would expect if the NINA phenomenon was real and sometimes pervasive. After such a showing, I do think that the burden should fall on you to show that mass delusion rather than ordinary memory should be invoked to account for this memory.

The question then becomes whether Jensen’s original paper was simply negligently researched or whether it was historical revisionism — a deliberate, agenda-driven attempt to deny anti-Irish and anti-Catholic bigotry, in order to keep us firmly homogenized and “privileged”. Given his preference for describing the historical facts as a “delusion”, I’d say the latter answer is more likely.


[*] At least as far as I’ve been able to determine. My father’s branch of the Laynes has only been definitively traced back to tidewater Virginia in the late 17th century.
[†] You don’t know what “WASP” stands for? White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.