Plumb Lines

March 17, 2009

St. Patty’s & the Myth of White Suffering

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 1:42 pm

gone-with-the-wind_lWhen Margaret Mitchell set out in Gone With the Wind to create a narrative of white suffering and triumph, she chose an Irish protagonist with green eyes and a green dress. These visible markers reflected the heritage of her father, Gerald O’Hara, a proud Irishman who named his plantation ‘Tara’ after the ancient seat of the high kings of Ireland. Needless to say, this is an odd ethnic background for a family meant to represent the overwhelmingly Protestant and Anglo Reconstruction- era South. It was also almost certainly deliberate.  In order to tell a narrative of white suffering that would not seem laughable beside the injustices visited on enslaved blacks, Mitchell had to turn to the one group of whites that had been oppressed: the Irish. Thirty-million books, a Pulitzer Prize, and an iconic film later, a white southern lady had replaced Uncle Tom as the great American symbol of injustice suffered.

One of the reasons that St. Pat’s came to be so widely celebrated was that the real history of Irish suffering has become a myth of white suffering. It would be unseemly, even triumphalist, for Americans of English or German descent to parade in the street celebrating their ethnic heritage. To do so would be like dancing in the end zone of colonial history. Cultural parades, from Cinco de Mayo to Gay Pride, usually celebrate triumph despite hardship and long odds. The Irish have gone from outcasts to icons in part so that many of the same white Americans whose ancestors persecuted the Irish can adopt a narrative of ethnic suffering. Being half Irish myself, I think there are many good reasons to celebrate St. Patty’s, not least Ireland’s impressive religious and literary heritage. But I have to wonder if there isn’t a problem with a holiday that lets those who have been most often on history’s winning side pretend to be its losers.

Matthew Schmitz


1 Comment »

  1. An old friend asks why the Jews, rather than the Irish, aren’t seen as the typical suffering whites. I think there are a variety of reasons, including the fact that Jews were seen as too dissimilar religiously and culturally from WASPs, while the Irish were viewed as somewhat less distant and repugnant. Another is that the understanding of Jews as a suffering people was not nearly so strong before the Holocaust as it is now. Instead, Jews were often seen as villains who conspired to fleece the people of the land. Whatever negative stereotypes were associated with the Irish, secret and invidious power was usually not one of them.

    Comment by Matthew Schmitz — March 18, 2009 @ 1:44 pm

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