Thursday, April 17, 2008

argue that their ancestors had it bad too

When African Americans or others cite slavery as one of the root causes for current disparities in living conditions between black and whites, many whites bring up their own ancestors. "My Irish ancestors suffered too," they'll say. Or if they're among the few whites who know something about the history of whiteness, they'll say, "The Italians weren't considered white when they got here--the word 'black' was actually used for them too!"

What these white people are saying is that their people generally worked their way up to the level of other whites, so why can't the black community too?

This claim overlooks, of course, the fact that nearly all people who became white "emigrated," a word that means they came by choice. It also trivializes the brutal realities of the Middle Passage and of slavery in America.

Do the whites of today who play this ethnicity card compare the sufferings of their opportunity-seeking ancestors to those of kidnapped black ancestors because the collective white psyche is so repressive and forgetful?

Update: See Richard Jensen on the prevalence of an apparent myth among Irish Americans, that their ancestors commonly faced signs saying "Help Wanted--No Irish Need Apply!":

The Irish American community harbors a deeply held belief that it was the victim of systematic job discrimination in America, and that the discrimination was done publicly in highly humiliating fashion through signs that announced "Help Wanted: No Irish Need Apply." This "NINA" slogan could have been a metaphor for their troubles—akin to tales that America was a "golden mountain" or had "streets paved with gold." But the Irish insist that the signs really existed and prove the existence of widespread discrimination and prejudice.

The fact that Irish vividly "remember" NINA signs is a curious historical puzzle. There are no contemporary or retrospective accounts of a specific sign at a specific location. No particular business enterprise is named as a culprit. No historian, archivist, or museum curator has ever located one; no photograph or drawing exists. No other ethnic group complained about being singled out by comparable signs. Only Irish Catholics have reported seeing the sign in America—no Protestant, no Jew, no non-Irish Catholic has reported seeing one. This is especially strange since signs were primarily directed toward these others: the signs said that employment was available here and invited Yankees, French-Canadians, Italians and any other non-Irish to come inside and apply. The business literature, both published and unpublished, never mentions NINA or any policy remotely like it. The newspapers and magazines are silent. The courts are silent. There is no record of an angry youth tossing a brick through the window that held such a sign. Have we not discovered all of the signs of an urban legend?


  1. That one REALLY pisses me off. All the Irish or the Italians or any other Euro trash immigrants had to do was put on a suit drop the accent and assimilate. One generation down the road and they were 100% full blooded and fully accepted Americanos.
    That is one of the most insensitive, out-of-touch, ignorant and totally fucked up bullshit that comes out of white douchbag mouths.

  2. Yes, this one really takes the cake.

  3. white people aint struggled with shit


  4. Now just hold on there "anonymous."
    I planted four acres of hay seed two days ago and I've been struggling ever since. There's been blakc bird, wild turkeys, deer and all sorts of other critters trying to scavenge all that $300 worth of oats, orchard grass, blue grass and clover seed. I'vebeen sittin up on that damn hillside for the past 48 hrs with a shitgun trying to keep em out of my hayseed.
    Aint strugglin my ass!

  5., you're not reading very carefully. Ethnic, non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants of the 1800s did have to struggle if they wanted to become white--they had to literally work their ways into whiteness, through hard physical labor, and also by consciously dropping ethnic habits and traditions that marked them as non-white. It is also true, of course, that blacks had to work even harder, and that they weren't allowed to advance as far, because they never could become "white."

    Thanks for coming back after cooling off a bit, SH.

    Let's not get distracted here--the issue I meant to raise in this post isn't whether anyone suffered or not, or worked hard or not.

    Instead, the issue is the common white claim, upon hearing of the ongoing effects and impact of slavery on African Americans, that their formerly non-white, "ethnic" ancestors suffered too. This second claim usually arises as an effort to invalidate the first one.

    So what I'm asking in this post is, doesn't the white-ethnic ancestral claim trivialize the brutal and obviously more severe realities of the African American ancestral claim? And when the white ethnic claim is also a way of telling African Americans of today that they should therefore stop complaining and get to work, isn't that also a way of ignoring the ongoing effects--both negative ones for blacks and positive ones for whites--of centuries of slavery?

    I welcome your or anyone else's explanation of how my interpretation of the dynamic of these competing black and ethnic-white claims is, as you wrote, "insensitive, out-of-touch, ignorant and totally fucked up bullshit."

  6. I think the reason white people bring this up is because of the history of shame brought upon by the history of slavery. I do think it invalidates the first argument as you mentioned. It could also be because they want to add in some sympathy for themselves. "Oh, your ancestors were slaves, mine were indentured servants, man that was tough, huh?" Obviously, the two outcomes of slavery and indentured servitude resulted in two different things. African-Americans are still "black", Irish, Italians, east Europeans (among others) indentured servants are now "white".
    My question to pose is: which is the new "race" or ethnicity that will transform, like from Irish to white, Italian to white. I say in another 50-100 years, Mexicans will be the new "White". But that's just me. At the same time, the transformation from an ethnic minority to"white" might take longer since this country seems to want to embrace "acceptance" of all cultures, so really, who knows.
    p.s. dropping an accent, and putting on a suit, basically throwing your back on your culture and ethnicity, is not an easy thing to do, in my humble opinion. I think it would have been a tough choice, and seriously, how easy is it to drop an accent? Accents are like markers, you have it and you are an "other" and it's not that hard to erase. No matter if you've been in this country 40 or 50 years, longer than you've been in your homeland, your accent will always make you an "other". IMO, again.

  7. Hell yes throwing off an accent and a culture is tough. Lot's of my friend's parents had accents when I was growing up and they were all doing quite well.
    As for the Irish in thee mid 19th century. . . they were one generation away from full acceptance.

    Macon, I didn't have to cool down. I never have to cool down. In fact, I NEVER FUCKING COOL DOWN!

  8. It is true that other minority and immigrant groups have managed to attain admission into American society in ways that blacks did and have not, but you're taking this a little too far.

    I have never claimed that my ancestors -- Italians and Irish, as it happens -- suffered more than blacks kidnapped from Africa, but to suggest that their experiences were therefore not important or that they should not be mentioned in the same conversation offends me terribly. It's not about forgetting slavery. It's about remembering everything.

  9. Dan, thanks for spelling that out, and I especially like your last two sentences. History should be remembered because it has so much impact on the present.

    I think it's unfortunate, though, that when white Americans do remember their own history, what they almost always remember is the history of their former ethnicity, rather than the history of their own whiteness.

    I'd especially like to address, though, your being offended by the idea that the suffering and struggles of your Italian and Irish ancestors should not be brought up when African Americans want to discuss the past and present significance of slavery. The common white insistence on injecting ourselves into a conversation that is important, and that is about something else, is something that people of color often find annoying, at best.

    For one thing, while the African American community in general is still recovering from the legacy of slavery and the white supremacy that justified it, white people have basically done the opposite. But instead of dealing with the topic at hand--ongoing racial oppression--a lot of white people want to make sure that they get acknowledged in the conversation too. Annoyingly enough, what they usually want recognition for in a conversation that is about the present is not the benefits that their ancestors and they themselves have reaped from white supremacy, but rather the sufferings of their ethnic ancestors before they became white.

    Can you see how, while that's an important conversation to have, it's a different conversation?

    And if you want to stress the importance of remembering your own group, why not stress the coming about of your own whiteness instead, since that's actually the part of your own history that parallels the legacy of slavery, by having significance in the present?

  10. Oh, I'm not Dan, sorry.

    "I think it's unfortunate, though, that when white Americans do remember their own history, what they almost always remember is the history of their former ethnicity, rather than the history of their own whiteness."

    "why not stress the coming about of your own whiteness instead"

    This is because I don't think of myself as having whiteness. I don't identify or feel cultural kinship with other people on the basis of their being white the way I do with their being Irish or Italian. "White" is a label that other people give me, not one that I give myself.

    Some people who are labelled as black on their census forms feel similarly. I've met a few Jamaicans who didn't like being called black.

    As for injecting histories into the conversation, I guess it depends on what the conversation is about. If the subject is slavery, then perhaps a "Some people had it bad too but slavery was worse" is appropriate so long as it doesn't dominate the discussion, but if the subject is ancestors' experiences, or even ancestors' experiences particularly relating to acceptance in the American mainstream, then yes, it's perfectly relevant.

  11. At the risk of sounding like a devil's advocate, I'd be fascinated by Macon D's opinion on this: Do you think that, because many people with dark skin colour have slavery in their ancestry, I (as a pale-skinned person of very mixed ethnic origin) should treat all darker-skinned American people as the descendants of slaves?

    And as a follow-up, I'd like to know how you stand on the increasingly prevalent understanding that we are all far more mixed-racial origin than could possibly guessed by skin colour?

    I'm not "just askin'"

  12. Your a retarded Racist. Whites never had it bad? Oh lord, tell that to over 50,000 Christians who were enslaved, raped and beaten by Moroccan Pirates. Tell that to the millions of victims of the Irish potato famine. Tell that to everyone who has suffered in continental wars, because of non-white profiteers like the Rothschilds.

    You need a beating, Macon D. But I will suffice with your ass being deported back to Mexico/India/China/Israel or wherever your ancestors came from. Ungreatful bitch

  13. Anonymous, your comment actually proves the point of the post, which is that white people "argue that their ancestors had it bad too."

    It looks like "your" obviously not listening. The post doesn't say that the descendants of some white folks did not suffer. It's about WHEN a lot of white people bring up the fact that some did--when black people want to discuss the ongoing relevance of THEIR history of slavery. The suffering of some ethnic European immigrants is irrelevant to THAT discussion, because those immigrants' descendants now enjoy white privilege, while blacks don't.

    I would say more, but I doubt you'll be back.

    Great blog here, by the by.

  14. Macon,

    thanks for these topics, which are very interesting as well as this serves as a good forum to exchange ideas, talk over the issues and probably a place vent and that is something I don't want this forum to turn into.

    Going to the topic of blog entry. What I find disturbing is I would be informed by Irish Americans, Italian Americans, or any other white ethnic group on how "they also had bad too."

    Though, its true that these white ethnics had it bad, however, they worked very hard from the time they arrived at Ellis Island or any point of entry via Immigration to avoid any alliance with black people.

    In general, many learned the N word, learned to avoid living in the same community with blacks, and often times worked very hard to make themselves with no associations or relations to the black race. In fact, many of these white ethnics groups or those who "argue that their ancesters had it bad too" went out of their way to kill and outright discriminate against black people.

    Interesting side note to this dilemna is that certain white ethnic groups nearly experience what black americans had to deal with. In fact, many italians in the South were killed by the Klan. Irish Americans were barred from certain sections of society. In turn, these white ethnic groups didn't turn their anger at the white majority, they turned against the black race.

    I see this situation still taking place today. It saddens me when I hear about the racial conflict between Hispanics and black people or within other non-white miniorities.

    I would to know Macon if you can speak on this matter about white ethnics.

  15. Well LLDR, "white ethics" is a huge topic, I think this post does speak to it. I agree with all that you've said about it here too. Is there anything in particular about it that you'd like me to address?

    I do think having an "ethnic option," instead of the baggage of a fixed racial affiliation, is another form of white privilege.

  16. Macon,

    I guess what i am saying is that if you could possibly speak of the situation of white ethnics like Irish-Americans, Jewish -Americans to even Italian americans in the sense of how they had it bad too, to the point where now they are part of the white majority all of sudden. I understand that this can be a difficult thing to do, considering that these groups, in my opinion have managed to work had to be part of the white world. In addition, if you can speak of how other non-whites contribute to whiteness in general. Strange request? Still I am enjoying this forum.

  17. LLDR, I'm glad you're enjoying this forum. Those are such broad topics, thuogh, that I don't think I have room to address them here in this comments thread. I will consider, though, how I might put together new posts on those topics, so thank you for the suggestions.

  18. Greeks were slaves for over 400 years and we don't complain about it. And when we came to America, it was by choice. But we were still attacked and threatened by KKK members. You know what we did about it? Stood up for ourselves and TOOK what we wanted while being ridiculed the entire time. We got guns and protected ourselves. Everyone goes through hardships, but if you want to be successful monetarily, you don't have to ENJOY the process. I come from a village where there was LITERALLY not enough food for everyone and people either died or moved because of it. My parents came here with no more than 500 dollars each and made it to middle class. My mom is a hair stylist and my dad is a machinist. No high school education for either of them and they worked from the time they were 16. My mom had her own business by 20. Stop being lazy and blaming shit on your past. This site is bullshit. Even though there are some good points, it doesn't help anyone to complain about this stuff. This site is more racist than the people that are being made fun of for their racist tendencies. And say whatever you want about Greeks, but remember that we discriminate against all non-greeks equally (more so towards white americans with no culture actually).

    βλαμενοι ξενοι. αντε φα τα.


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