a historical reflection on “reverse racism”

In college, I used to go drink Guinness at a nearby Irish pub, where traditional musicians played, and we clapped and danced and sang along –  songs about love, songs about drinking, songs about killing the English. Anti-English sentiment in this type of pub culture is usually a trope, not an emotional reality. It’s a way of keeping solidarity with oppressed people, connecting with history, maybe of catharsis. I’ve got English and Irish both mixed up in my heredity, and my English genes aren’t offended. What happened to the Irish, systematically, over hundreds of years, horrible, and if my ancestors did any of the oppressing, they were wrong, and I am not going to make excuses for them.

Hating people is, of course, also wrong, but when one has been the victim of ongoing historical oppression and violence, it’s an understandable reaction, and telling oppressed people to “stop that hating!” doesn’t work very well.

We have a certain cultural tolerance and even enjoyment of the anti-English trope, because we root for the underdog. Getting together in pubs singing racist songs about the Irish, on the other hand, would be seriously uncool. We expect the English to take with good humor the Irish trope, because we recognize that it’s not an equal power binary. When one group has, historically, been the oppressor, their victims’ animosity towards them is not simply a mirror image of their own racist prejudice. It is rooted in a longing for justice.

“But that all happened a long time ago!”

In a sense. yes. In comparison with the vast sweep of history, however, English oppression of the Irish was fairly recent, and its implications still reverberate today. These things have consequences. To be denied religious expression, to have no political voice, to be used as sexual objects and forced labor, to lose even your own language, to be subjected to the kind of poverty that leads to depression, violence, and domestic abuse, to have no hope of advancement: these have lasting effects, down through the ages. When the very opportunity to advance depends on imitating the speech, dress, religion, and habits of your oppressors, advancement might be seen as distasteful. The Irish nearly lost the use of their own language, not only because it was prohibited in the schools, but because families courting respectability felt that to speak the old language associated them with biased views of their race as squalid, impoverished, and uncouth. And so the old myths and heroes began to be overwritten by English stories and English characters. Those of us who value family and tradition should be especially sensitive to the damage done to people who have lost theirs.

This situation parallels race relations in America, and I have used the analogy because nearly everyone, except for a few genuinely anti-Irish racists, is sympathetic to their situation. No, it is not very pleasant to be the object of suspicion or hatred because of one’s whiteness – but it is not my place to lecture black people about their attitudes. There’s a reason why black power songs are acceptable, and white power songs are not: black power is about achieving equality, whereas white power is about maintaining a historical inequality.

As a Christian I am called to stand in solidarity with the oppressed. I also have an obligation to oppose violence, but, when I present (however inadvertently) the face of the oppressor, it is my place not to lecture, but to listen.


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