For me, St. Patrick’s Day has always been about one thing: self-preservation. My first St. Paddy’s “celebration” (if it can be called that) came in kindergarten when my mother sent me to school without remembering to dress me in green, and without any warning that there would be legions of little bastards (formerly known as my classmates) waiting to pinch me for this oversight. Like most five-year-olds, I knew little more about the world than what my parents had taught me; and as a black kid with a Baptist for a mother, I knew even less about things like pagans and saints and Irish Catholics. I think I got pinched exactly twice before knocking one of my tormentors onto his ass and saying whatever the kindergarten equivalent of “Fuck this holiday forever” was. I learned my lesson though, and every year I begrudgingly pull out something green, just in case (even though anyone who pinched me nowadays would probably pull back a nub).
My traumatic initiation into the holiday aside, there are plenty of other reasons I could have learned to hate it. Like the fact that the cheap, obnoxious way we celebrate it in this country has almost nothing to do with Ireland and Irish identity, and that I can’t stand the bro culture takeover of every city with even the most negligible Irish community. For me, it’s just easier to slap on a little token green and grumble quietly to myself until March 18th comes along.
At least until this year. Last week, some friends were excitedly discussing their St. Patrick’s Days, past and future, and I couldn’t seem to swallow my unease like I usually do. Maybe it’s because I was finally able to articulate the one thing that bugs me the most of all about this day. It’s the one day of the year I am most aware of my race, and all told, it’s really not a great day to be black in America.
First of all, there’s the issue of physical safety. Over at True/Slant last St. Patrick’s Day, Elie Mystal dedicated his post to “a brother [he] passed on the street this morning. A green-clad man said, ‘Happy Saint Patrick’s Day,’ to which the brother responded, ‘Yeah, you know, just trying to not get beat up.’” Mystal continues with a discussion of the historical tensions between blacks and the Irish in Boston, and how black people’s mistreatment at the hands of the heavily-Irish police force can make hearing stories about “the glory of the Five Points” as traumatic as hearing about “the heroic deeds of the Confederate captain” in your family. His primary concern, however, is not any past conflict between the two groups. It all goes back to trying not to get beat up:
I’m sure I don’t have to tell many black men this, but when a girl says, “Kiss me, I’m Irish,” she’s not talking to you, bro. I made that mistake once (SPD”“1999), and I’m still shocked I got out of that bar alive. The Boston bar I was in became so silent you’d think I’d raped a hockey team full of red heads with one stroke. One time, my then-girlfriend (now wife) said she wanted to go to South Boston to see the parade. All of our white friends looked at her as if she had just said she planned to sever an artery to see how long it took to bleed out. They left it to me to politely say, “Baby, I don’t think your plan maximizes our long term survivability.”
Physical safety aside, this is a holiday that encourages large groups of white people to get together and celebrate a particular brand of whiteness which I find to be at best exclusionary and uncomfortable. Absolute best-case scenario? It’s like being in a bar with a bunch of people who are speaking a foreign language, none of whom get why you can’t understand what they’re saying and why you’re not having a good time. They can be nice and smile at you and send you drinks, but can you ever hope to participate in the conversation enough to have a good time? I don’t know about the rest of y’all, but that would get old fast enough for me to cut my losses and go home.
On my more paranoid (and less patient) days, I can’t help but wonder if St. Patrick’s Day is such a phenomenon because it allows white people a conveniently covert way to overtly celebrate whiteness without being called racists. In fact, celebrating “Irishness” in America might even be a way to show you’re one of those white people who is “down with the struggle.” White guilt has become such a burden to some that, as a defense mechanism, people will look for any way in which they have suffered to distance themselves from the privileged establishment, using any “otherness” at their disposal so they can ostensibly join the ranks of the downtrodden and throw stones at Rich Straight White Male Oppressor straw men. And I’m not the only one who’s taken it there. Last year on St. Patrick’s Eve, Matthew Schmitz wrote a short piece on his similar problems with the day:
It would be a little weird, not to say unseemly, 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. And so, because the Irish were actually the subjects of discrimination and oppression, Irishness has become the go-to white ethnicity.
Schmitz, who is half-Irish himself, goes on to say that while there are plenty of valid reasons to celebrate the holiday, it’s interesting that the form it takes in this country gives “the privileged a chance to dress up in the drag of historical oppression.”
Talk all you might about how the Irish have suffered, in 2011 in the United States, why do some people continue to claim the institutional oppression that their ancestors suffered as their own, when it has in no measurable way trickled down to them? Stuff White People Like says it better than I could hope to:
If you find yourself talking with a white person who tells you about how their great grandfather was oppressed by both the English and the Americans, it is strongly recommended that you lend a sympathetic ear and shake your head in disbelief. It is never considered acceptable to say, “But you’re white now, so what’s the problem?”
Well? What’s the problem?