Don't Pinch Me

There are some holidays celebrated in America that have always given me pause: Cinco De Mayo, Columbus Day, Groundhog's Day, to name just a few. My beef with these is always just "Why?" Why do we celebrate a Mexican military victory over the French by imbibing like crazy? Why do we nationally recognize one of the most arrogant and misguided explorers from the Age of Exploration? Why do we even pretend that a groundhog has any meteorological utility? The shit we celebrate in America can get me real fucked up sometimes, but there's no holiday that bugs me as much as St. Patrick's Day.

Let me back up and explain where I'm coming from. Critiquing St. Patrick's Day has always made me an outlier in nearly all social groups I've ever been part of where I've expressed this opinion. It's taken me until my late twenties to understand the reality that critiquing anything sacred to Whiteness will always make you a pariah in the eyes of American culture. But my dislike of St. Patrick's Day isn't something new from the last five or ten years. This goes back to childhood.

This goes back to growing up in spaces replete with White faces and surnames that were French, English, German, Polish, or Russian, only to suddenly discover come St. Patrick's Day that apparently almost everyone was Irish too—I wasn't one of those people. I was Black. I was an outsider. This goes back to grade school and either not wanting, or not remembering, to wear green on any given year's St. Patrick's Day, and subsequently getting pinched by kids for not conforming. Lest we judge only with our adult minds, let's not forget that even the smallest violences for children are major life moments—and a pinch is more than an inconvenience, it's a targeting.

This goes back to the feeling of being an outsider to the celebrations of shamrocks and pots of gold, overdone amounts of green everything, and confusing (now, problematic) depictions of Irishness, never getting the full picture of why this was supposed to matter to me. Why was I pressured to celebrate this? Why was I expected to be excited?

Did I really have a choice?

This also goes back to nearly every February of my life since middle school when I've had to field and defend against scrutiny about why Black History Month exists and why nobody else has a whole month dedicated to celebrating them. Why did it matter? Why did we deserve it?


America's "oldest sin" is slavery, and I trust that if you are literate enough to read this blog you also have had the privilege of being taught in school, at some point, all of what slavery entailed for African(-American)s. If you had a particularly good/honest schooling, or if you've been up to speed on the discourse on race for the last 150+ years, you also know that the events and nuances of the collective Black experience in America are not one-offs in the scrapbook of our nation's past, but watershed moments with ripples that rock us to this day. And by ripples I mean socioeconomic, legal, and cultural fissures that have fundamentally shaped where and how Black people belong in this country.

What about the Irish in America? There's a funny thing Americans do in thinking about different groups of people’s experiences coming to this country: we often think of tragedies as beginnings of their histories. For African(-American)s, that tragedy is the Middle Passage. For the Pilgrims, that tragedy was religious tension in England. For the Irish, that tragedy was The Great Famine. From this we get the stories of the Irish struggling to acclimate and be accepted into the great melting pot of U.S. society. If you've had good teachers, you know something about this as well. The catch is that beginnings frame further understanding, and too many people started with a mythology of the Irish experience in America that prevails to this day (see this Twitter thread for an excellent and detailed explanation of what I mean).

What is unfortunate, and historically inaccurate, is the idea that the Irish and African-Americans were in identical social circumstances in the United States upon arrival. There's a thoroughly debunked myth of "Irish slaves" that tries to equate the Irish as at one time on par with people of African descent who were deprived of life, liberty, and any pursuit of happiness vis-à-vis hereditary chattel slavery. This is simply not true.

Here's what is true: Whiteness is a social construction of Western/American origin designed intentionally to control who has access to capital, social status, and power (see "White Trash" by Nancy Isenberg for an exhaustive and brilliant explanation of this). At its roots, Whiteness is truly a new invention. It is a force that is impossible to dodge. Furthermore, the parameters of Whiteness and who was able to claim it were two things not always clear and consistent throughout history—case in point, the Irish. The initial condition of Irish immigrants was one that was quickly and strategically fought against until "Irish" could become synonymous with the broader definition of who counted as "White" in America. Historically speaking, nobody who wasn't Black wanted to be Black in America; Whiteness was the goal. As economic and class struggles grew and intensified over American history, more and more European ethnic groups were brought into the camp of Whiteness to fortify it against Blackness. Fastforward to 2018 and this resistance to a broader ethnic plurality in America has led to the world we live in today.

Let me get back to what this has to do with my beef with St. Patrick's Day. What I’m saying is that it has little to do with Irish people themslves. I enjoy learning about and experiencing all the cultures of the world, from all ethnicities and geographies—I love watching and experiencing expressions of culture and heritage, noticing both similarities and differences between groups. This includes the Irish, their dancing, their music, their art, and literature. As far as I'm concerned, Irishness is awesome; representational imbalances in American culture are less awesome however.

My beef lies in the celebratory status, privileges, and excesses of White culture as compared to the derision shown toward Black culture in America, with St. Patrick's Day being particularly emblematic. What I’m saying is that this holiday functions as a reminder that only some are granted access to the privileges of Whiteness, while others are forever kept out.

For Irishness to be eventually welcomed into Whiteness over time, while simultaneously retaining status as a sort of minority group that experienced oppressions, is a difficult thing to reconcile as someone tied to Black history in America—a history always kept out of Whiteness, ususally violently. It's difficult to listen to people talk about made-up hardships of Irish "slaves" in the 19th century when people of color (citizens and Dreamers alike) of the 21st century continue to face brutality at the hands of the State and ridicule from the mouths of the public that is dozens of generations old. It's difficult (as a kid) to be pinched by people who can also pinch real documents of their ancestry, when "ancestry" for me is a trace of gossamer stretched into history's haziest corners. It's difficult to watch Black athletes have their careers ruined for kneeling in peaceful protest of injustices, and then be expected to partake in celebrations of (or at the very least go along with) how great "White" people are. It's difficult to watch law after law be proposed with anti-Blackness written all over it, only to repeatedly see the dangers of Whiteness downplayed again and again.

St. Patrick's Day is not a day when White people endure outside questioning about why they matter, why they are special, why they get this holiday all to themselves. On the other side of things, Black people are constantly needing to justify even existing and mattering—this goes for hardened racism and micro-aggressions alike, at any time of the year, whether it's MLK Jr. Day, Black History Month, Juneteenth, or Black Panther Day.

And yes, this has a lot to do with how St. Patrick's Day is celebrated at large. Don't get me wrong, I drink and I've been present for St. Patrick's Day parties where the expectation is to drink and drink and drink—and I've done that too. I believe people should be allowed to enjoy themselves. I also believe too much privilege can lead people to misunderstand what is pleasure for you and pain for others. St. Patrick's Day gives White people license to behave in ways Black people would be, and are, rebuked for in any other occasion.

To me, St. Patrick's Day also represents shortcomings. It represents failures to celebrate real and significant Irish culture. Our commercialization of it fails to celebrate accurately the contributions of Irish people and their descendants to our country. It fails, too, to recognize the plurality that exists in Irish life and experiences. The frame of this holiday has slipped far into something unhealthy for the Irish and non-Irish alike.

I'd be remiss in not saying that there isn't envy I feel too. I always find myself wanting to enjoy St. Patrick's Day, but taking part in it feels either appropriative or just reinforces the divide in cultural acceptance. If I'm sour on St. Patrick's Day it isn't for love of being a grinch, but rather the inability to escape my square-peg-ness in the round hole that is the holiday, this perspective I can't keep from backing up and taking.

Both the bark and the bite of Whiteness and its supremacy are realities that permit St. Patrick's day to be what it is, while keeping someone like Colin Kaepernick unfairly unemployed, or MLK Jr.'s birthday from initially being recognized in all 50 U.S. states, or cities like Chicago and Baltimore as perennial scapegoats to legitimate concerns about police violence against POC. Both the howl and the tooth of the dog have been weaponized to keep Blacks in "their place," even as other initial outsiders to Whiteness were embraced into the pack. The howl says "celebrate us" while the bite reminds us of our own pain.

I'm not against Irish people. I'm not against people celebrating St. Patrick's Day—in fact I appreciate the people in my life who take their Irish heritage seriously, for whom it is a true and living culture of theirs. What I'm saying is that March 17th is always a complicated day for me. What I'm saying is that heritage is more than shamrocks and green beer, and that taste is bittered by histories we'd rather not always acknowledge or unpack. We all have a right to enjoy ourselves and where we come from, and I'm not against that. What I am against is even the smallest acts of violence that are reminders of the bite of White supremacy, unleashed even in the small space between thumb and index finger.

Don't pinch me.

Cameron BarnettComment