Thursday, May 20, 2010

Aimless Reading: The H's, Part 10 (Tom Hayden)

Hayden, Tom
Irish On The Inside
In Search of the Soul
of Irish America


Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books.

Not sure what possessed me to acquire this. I grew up in an Irish Catholic household and went to a mostly Irish Catholic High School and a mostly Irish Catholic university–which is to say, by the time I read this book, I was well nigh sick of all things kelly green.

I think what interested me was that Hayden–yeah, Tom Hayden the 60's radical and former husband of Jayne Fonda–was proposing that Irish Americans had allowed themselves to be assimilated into the generic racial category of "white ethnic" in America and in the process lost touch with their radical political origins. Much of it discusses his own awakening to Irish radicalism out of a kind of post-ethnic sleep. He had, until a visit to Northern Ireland in the 70's or 80s, been only marginally aware of his Irish roots.

I had the opposite experience–I was raised all Irish and we more or less ignored the WASP side of the family. Not that I wanted to awaken into that, mind you, but it was interesting to discover its existence. Anyhow, as I have recounted before, this lead to a whole period of reading about Irish history and politics that lasted probably a year or so. I think I even wrote a review of this in Artvoice, which is probably lost now, as I don't think it is online.

from Irish on the Inside

"White, non-Hispanic." That was my designation on the year 2000 United States census form. Angrily, I penciled over the box (and one marked "other") and wrote in: "Irish, born in the UNited States, American citizen." I don't know if my form was counted or cast into a reject file. But I didn't want my census label to be "white, non-Hispanic" and I shuddered at the thought that the identity of the Irish could be whited out, so to speak, by checking this bureaucratic box. While some historians were writing about "how the Irish became white," I wanted more white people to become Irish, and non-white people, were welcome to Irishness, too.

Or whatever hyphenated description that best identifies the hybrid blend of culture, race, and history that says who we are. "White ethnic" won't do, and nor will "Anglo." WASPSs, of course, are never called "ethnics" because their tradition is still considered the foundation of core values. They remain the standard by which the assimilation of the rest of us is judged. To be "white ethnic" provides illusory self-esteem and privileges that flow from whiteness, but remains a lesser category of identity below WASP predominance.

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