During Black History Month, I shared a nugget of information about Black History every day at the beginning of class. This month is Irish Heritage Month (Canada) and Bangladeshi History Month (Ontario), so I asked the students if they wanted more information nuggets. The 9th graders said no, but the 12th graders said “yes, some days” and I was happy to comply.
Yesterday, I shared the Minister’s statement about Irish Heritage. The students listened politely, then one young person raised her hand and said, “Honestly, after Black History month, just… why? Why do we need to celebrate Irish heritage when they are a dominant culture?” (Ok, that’s a paraphrase. She was both more eloquent & more delicate.)
I looked around the room. Heads were nodding. Irish culture hardly seems under-represented to this group. I stood in front of them, Irish, and didn’t have an answer. “Well,” I started, “I guess I’ll think out loud. Are you all comfortable interrupting if you disagree or if you have questions? Because I don’t have a researched answer for you. This is just me.” They agreed.
And down the rabbit hole we went. Why and when did Irish people emigrate to Canada? Sure, Irish people had been desperately poor and had experienced terrible discrimination, but how bad was it? Did they know that the Irish had not been considered white?
Wait. Hold up. The class was instantly interested. From there we found ourselves talking about race as a sociological construction and considering how we know who is and isn’t part of which race. “Are we still good?” I asked at one point, and a student replied immediately, “Oh yeah. Let’s keep talking.” So we did.
We looked at images of a biracial author and his biracial children, some of whom look more like one race or another. Who gets to decide who is which race? We talked about another author whom I had long perceived to be Black but who does not, in fact, identify as a person of color. Some students talked about their own race. We talked about a former student of mine who inherited genes from distant ancestors on both sides of her family and did not appear to be the same race as her parents. Our conclusion – or at least the one that I took away – was, “If you want to talk about how we define race, things get messy fast.”
Eventually we circled back to why we celebrate Irish Heritage Month. Maybe – maybe – we thought, if we can start to look at different parts of being white, if we can acknowledge different aspects of whiteness and stop pretending that white culture is a monolith, maybe we can make space for other races and cultures, too. Or maybe not, but it was the best we could come up with. There was a moment of quiet in the classroom, then we opened our books and read.
*Addendum – which comes from not having finished this slice last night. Today, I shared two different articles about the Irish and whiteness. One bluntly asserts that the idea that the Irish were ever considered not white is pure nonsense. The other disagrees. Officially, we looked at the use of quotation marks and how they affected the tone of each article, but our discussion ranged widely. So… we’re behind, but also kind of ahead. This is what comes of having interesting students.