Unthinkable: Are Irish people becoming ‘less black’?

Whiteness is as much frame of mind as skin colouring, says Linda Martín Alcoff

Jimmy Rabbitte: “Irish are the blacks of Europe” had a ring of truth in late 1980s

Jimmy Rabbitte: “Irish are the blacks of Europe” had a ring of truth in late 1980s

 

Jimmy Rabbitte’s proclamation in The Commitments that the “Irish are the blacks of Europe” had a ring of truth in the late 1980s when the Roddy Doyle novel was published. Can the same be said today in a changed socioeconomic landscape?

Irish folk in England are now better known as developers than bricklayers, while in Europe we’re top of the class, having helped to gang up on those supposedly irresponsible, sun-kissed Mediterraneans.

If you feel a little less black today, or a little more white, then, you may have good reason. As Linda Martín Alcoff, the New York-based philosopher and author of The Future of Whiteness, points out, “white” and “black” are fluid concepts and not necessarily tied to skin colour.

“Whiteness emerged in the colonial period,” she notes. “Before that there were Normans and Saxons and Irish, and various assorted people, but there weren’t whites as such.”

Colonialism in the traditional sense might have ended, but a white, European “vanguard” mindset continues to infiltrate economic, scientific and even environmental thinking, says Alcoff, who was speaking to Unthinkable on a visit to Dublin.

In order to tackle big problems such as borderless conflict and climate change, she argues, We need to come to understand what role whiteness plays in our own identities”.

In what way does whiteness influence our thinking? “Everywhere European colonialism happened – and it happened in Ireland too – there were certain ideas, concepts and categories that got sent out to the world. There was a ranking of peoples, and part of the idea of colonialism was that European peoples were the vanguard of the human race: scientifically, technologically, aesthetically, morally, philosophically, politically.

“The assumption was: ‘We have the best thinkers.We have the best religion in Christianity’. That idea of [the supremacy of] white societies is still embedded.

“The other way in which it still manifests itself is being uncovered by a lot of empirical studies by social psychologists who are looking at how white people think and talk and interact with others in unconscious ways. Implicit bias can make people pay more attention to others, or judge them to be more credible.

Podcast: Joe Humphreys discusses ideas from the Unthinkable philosophy column

“The way in which we interact with others, even if we are anti-racist, can be affected by these histories, so we need to be more conscious of that.”

How is whiteness approached in the US? “In the US there is a kind of hysteria about it now because of the demographic changes; whites are going to become a minority by 2042. You have white nationalists running around – like Donald Trump – talking about white, European identity in very old-fashioned ways.

“So the right wing loves to talk about whiteness, liberals are afraid to talk about it, and radicals have adopted this view for the abolition of whiteness – they want to eliminate it – and I argue against that because I don’t think it’s a realistic approach.

“We need to come to understand what role it plays in our own identities. It’s not everything, but it’s not nothing either. We need to spend some time understanding the history of places like the US where a lot of state policy favoured whites.

“In 1793 one of the first laws that was passed after the US was formed said you could immigrate to the US if you were free and white. So they institutionalised a certain privilege for white immigrants from the very beginning.

“Whiteness is a historical formation. You can talk about the Irish experience in very particular terms because they were coming in to the labour market at the lowest of the low. They weren’t included in the club of whiteness in the beginning, but have had a particular experience in colonial migration and the labour market because they were at least seen as European, and so were able to make the shift that I think is harder for African-Americans today or people from Latin America or Asia.”

Do colonised people think differently? “Every part of the world that was colonised has had to think at some point about their identity, and has not been able to buy into the universals of European thought so easily because they were excluded from those universals.

“So in Latin America, philosophy is not seen as just bodiless minds engaged in debates, but something that comes out of a particular place in time, because Latin American philosophers had to defend their ability to do philosophy, and the right to ask fundamental questions.”

What is the future of whiteness? “I am a philosopher, not a social scientist, so I certainly don’t feel capable of making predictions. But I do think that if we get a better grasp of what whiteness is as a historical formation, we can have a more realistic approach to our possible futures.

“The climate change crisis is connected here because there is an incredible hubris about the technological possibilities of overcoming nature’s restrictions on us that is very much connected to that European ‘vanguard of the human race’ model, rather than seeing that we need to work with others, and learn from others, to survive on the planet together.

“So in some ways I think the question of whiteness is really critical to the future.”

But one of the chief proponents of that technological approach is the US’s first black president, Barack Obama. Are you saying his thinking here could be ‘white’? “Sure, I think there is a certain perspective that all of us who were trained in European school systems and curricula adopt, and live in the West. In that sense, whiteness is not exclusive to white skin.”

philosophy@irishtimes.com Twitter @JoeHumphreys42

ASK A SAGE Question: What should Enda Kenny have told the COP21 climate change summit?

Jimmy Rabbitte (via Roddy Doyle, with a nod to James Brown) replies: “Say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud.”

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