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Diane Negra The Stakes of Whiteness (on Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White [New York: Routledge, 1995]) Near the conclusion of Hierarchical Structures and Social Value: The Creation ofBlack and Irish Identities in the United States, Richard Williams makes the following observation: In a sense, racial and ethnic attitudes have legitimated forms of power and domination by emphasizing pigmentation, religion, and culture, all of which can obscure the existence of the social structure that provides social value to its members. We see this in the process by which labor categories (class position and structural position), once transformed into racial and ethnic categories, have developed over the history of this society. (135) Noel Ignatiev's new book How the Irish Became White usefully continues the thread of Williams' argument by examining the transition madeby assimilatingIrish-Americans from victims ofcultural, religious and economic oppression in Ireland to oppressors themselves, or to a complicity with racial oppression in the United States. His study is valuable in reminding us of the ways in which the Irish transformed from a separate race in their own self-conception and under the terms of British colonial policy into an ethnic grouping within white America. The book's further usefulness lies in its presentation of a more complete account than we have yet seen of the advantages to be gained by the Irish in this process. Ignatiev convincingly documents the political and economic incentives for the Irish to assimilate into whiteness, recognizing that whiteness serves not so much as "a physical description but one term of a social relation which could not exist without its opposite" (112). In the context of the rising level of scholarly attention to whiteness and the emergence of an interdisciplinary body of work in critical race and ethnicity studies, this book makes a timely contribution to our understanding of the historicity of whiteness. As debates continue about the problem of identifying whiteness, and we consider more closely what it is we are evaluating about this somewhat ephemeral category, Ignatiev usefully underscores the point, that if nothing else, whiteness is privilege at the expense of other racial designations. The Irish present a unique case of the gradual acquisition of that privilege in the American context, and How the Irish Became White stresses the contingency of the construction of Irish whiteness in its historical specificity. Ignatiev's emphasis is on the relationship between whiteness and access to labor 110the minnesota review (and in turn, its economic, social and political rewards). The author's account is strengthened throughout by the richness of the evidence he has culled from a variety of archival sources, including newspaper articles , biographies, church records, and correspondence. In "Something In The Air," the book's first chapter, Ignatiev lays the foundation for his argument and enumerates the issues which will concern him throughout—namely, the conversion to whiteness of immigrants from a country with a long history of antislavery and strong ideological commitment to human freedoms, and the development of a widespreadIrish-Americananti-abolitionism. Theprincipal focushere is on the political setbacks suffered by the Liberator Darnel O'Connell, whose immense popularity among expatriate Irish faltered when he attempted to champion the cause of American slaves. In the sections that follow, closer consideration is given to this apparently anomalous phenomenon, as the author focuses our attention on Irish-American perceptions that abolitionism was a cause they could hardly afford to espouse in light of their own rather insecure status in the White Republic . In Chapter Two, "White Negroes and Smoked Irish," Ignatiev discusses the joint terms of oppression for Irish Catholics suffering under the Penal Laws and enslaved African-Americans. In briefly considering the economic coercion that led to the Irish mass migrations of the nineteenth century, he notes that the influx of "Famine Irish" in the mid-nineteenth century prompted efforts in the United States by the more settled Scotch-Irish to differentiate themselves from the newer arrivals. The separation of the Scotch-Irish from "the Irish" was, in effect , the formation of an ethnic line, one which replaced the race-based efforts of British colonial policy. Just as distinctions between Irish immigrants were still under formation, formal and firm divisionsbetween...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2157-4189
Print ISSN
0026-5667
Pages
pp. 109-114
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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