Jenee Desmond-Harris, Slate, August 9, 2021
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Good morning, and welcome to the chat. Tell me all the bad news!
Q. Accidental racist: I’m a third-generation American. All four of my grandparents were born in Ireland and moved here as young kids. According to my parents, when my great-grandparents moved here, they moved to an area with little to no Irish community and had to assimilate pretty quickly. They changed their names to something more American, cooked only American foods, etc. Obviously, nowadays, Irish last names are very common in the U.S.
When I was growing up, I really didn’t know anything about Irish American culture because my grandparents didn’t like to talk about it much. Now I’m an adult and I live in a very heavily populated Irish American area. About a year ago I started to get more interested in the culture and wanted to research it a bit more. This basically consisted of me reading a few books about the history of Irish Americans, making a few new recipes, and learning about the origins of my family’s original names.
I didn’t really think it was a big deal until I mentioned it in passing to my group of friends. To my surprise, my POC friends got upset, saying that Irish Americans have no culture and that it was just a dog whistle to become interested in Irish history. I would never, ever suggest that Irish Americans had it worse than Black Americans or anything like that; I was simply trying to learn about my ancestry.
My first thought was to write them off, but now I’m worried that I am somehow signaling racism. Am I doing something wrong?
A: Not at all. If you ask me, reading history books and making a little corned beef and cabbage sounds like the ideal way to get excited about your heritage. We’d be so much better off if more white people chose this route instead of, say, waving a Confederate flag, railing against the 1619 Project, or trying to ban “critical race theory” from being taught in schools. It sounds to me like either something’s missing from this story or there was a big misunderstanding that might be cleared up by another talk about what you’re doing and why. If these people are truly mad at you for researching your family’s history, you may need new friends.