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How the Irish Became White
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How the Irish Became White

3.73  ·  Rating details ·  1,254 ratings  ·  112 reviews
Ignatiev traces the tattered history of Irish and African-American relations, revealing how the Irish used labor unions, the Catholic Church and the Democratic party to help gain and secure their newly found place in the White Republic. He uncovers the roots of conflict between Irish-Americans & African-Americans & draws a powerful connection between the embracing of white ...more
Paperback, 248 pages
Published August 23rd 1996 by Routledge (NYC/London) (first published 1995)
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Average rating 3.73  · 
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 ·  1,254 ratings  ·  112 reviews

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Sep 09, 2013 rated it liked it
This book should actually be called 'how the American Irish became white'. All the same, the current title is a very cute one. As Billy Connolly says somewhere of those of us of a Celtic disposition, we actually start off a pale blue colour and it takes us a couple of weeks in the sun to go white. This, of course, isn’t true, really. In fact, a couple of weeks in the sun and we become snakes, having shed multiple layers of skin.

It wasn’t at all clear that the Irish might ever really become white
Barry Pierce
A landmark work that seems to only grow in relevance. Ignatiev explains how the Catholic Irish in the late 18th/early 19th centuries fled persecution from the colonised, Protestant-ruled Ireland to find new, freer lives in America. The Irish however quickly found themselves at the very bottom of American society, a rung they shared with Black people. In order for the Irish to engrain themselves in American society, Ignatiev suggests that they had to learn to become just as, if not more, oppressi ...more
Apparently it was LBJ (and not Malcolm X like I assumed for some reason) who said "If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you."

This quote, I believe, is a concise description of what Ignatiev is explaining in How the Irish Became White. It's not so much about how Irish immigrants changed their ethnicity but rather how they learned about the
Aug 31, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfic
A frustrating read, as I feel like Ignatiev was too preoccupied with recounting historical details without actually, clearly framing them around/tying them back to the central concept, which is that the Irish leveraged a pro-slavery and anti-black attitude in order to demarcate themselves as a part of the white race in the 19th century United States. A few takeaways:
- Ireland was governed by oppressive Penal Laws throughout most of the eighteenth century and Catholics were regarded as subhuman.
Erik Graff
Mar 28, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: US citizens
Recommended to Erik by: no one
Shelves: history
When the Irish, particularly the rural Catholic Irish, began to flood the eastern cities of the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century their position in society was very low, the lowest, in fact, of any large immigrant population of the era. How was it, Ignatiev asks, that they assimilated into the nation? The answer this book gives is not an uplifting one, hinging as it does upon, generally, the manufacture and maintenance of in and out groups and upon, particularly, the ...more
Oct 29, 2011 rated it really liked it
One finely-written history that challenges a lot of assumptions one may have harbored about our common American past. It will definitely make you cast a jaundiced eye toward anyone who talks about how hard the Irish had it when they first came to America. It might actually make you wanna slap them silly. I don't recommend that, though. Just read the book and share the knowledge.
Oct 12, 2010 rated it it was amazing
One of the best works of history on race in America ever written. This book will reward the attentive reader with example after example of how the Irish altered their social position by acquiring "white privilege" long before the word was even known. It dovetails very nicely with the broader and equally brilliant Race: the Birth of An Idea in the West by Ivan Hannaford. Hannaford looks at the 30,000 foot level and the four century perspective. Ignatiev examines one nation, and the history of one ...more
I hold that if you want to read a book about modern America, you would be advised to read not one of the silly political tracts on the NYT bestseller list, but rather, this book focusing on the history of Irish American immigration, most particularly in Philadelphia in the years preceding the Civil War.

Imagine that you're fucked. Your rent is a month behind, you're freaking out because your wife's period is two weeks late, your boss keeps refusing you raises, and at the same time, you are consta
Jan 27, 2008 rated it really liked it
Do you have any racially neurotic friends? sure you do. have you ever noticed that they often think they're being profound and incisive, but they're actually just speaking and thinking in broad generalities that hold no water when examined in any kind of detail? of course you have. have you ever wanted to crawl inside their minds and bitch slap that racial victim/guilt/fetishist part of them? who hasn't? well, now you can. just tell them to read this book, gain some perspective, and take it down ...more
Apr 18, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: race-racism
I think this book has really important ideas but is terribly written. The main takeaways are crucial, especially for white people's own understanding of their identity and privilege. I'd summarize the main lesson as: Whiteness is historically situated, contingent, and deeply connected if not inseparable from the claimants' willingness to uphold white supremacy through violence. It also does a good job discussing the developing whiteness of the Irish in the context of inter-class conflict and int ...more
Allison Ryan
Feb 26, 2015 rated it really liked it
How the Irish Became White provides a glimpse at the social evolution of the Irish in the years surrounding the Civil War, as they transitioned from an oppressed and unwelcome social class, to members of the white racial class.

The Irish in Ireland faced numerous troubles in the early 19th Century. They were impoverished farmers who were determined to break free from England’s tyranny. But once they finally emigrated to the United States, something unexpected happened; they were faced with a new
Jun 17, 2008 rated it did not like it
If you are Irish and want to feel even worse about yourself, or if you just plain don't like white people, I highly recommend this book. What started as an opportunity to make an interesting, educated, intelligent point on the history of race relations in America, quickly degraded into a tired, narrow-viewed blast against an ethnic group who would dare assimilate into their new land.

I am by no means defending some of the behavior of some Irish in America in the 1800s, however this book had the w
I only got to about page 60 in this weird, academic tome. I feel like I should understand what the author is trying to get across at this point, but I don't. It may come together later in the book, but I don't care enough to continue.
Sep 15, 2007 rated it really liked it
"It is a curious fact," wrote John Finch, an English Owenite who traveled the United States in 1843, "that the democratic party, and particularly the poorer class of Irish immigrants in America, are greater enemies to the negro population, and greater advocates for the continuance of negro slavery, than any portion of the population in the free States."

How did the Irish become White? By violently subjugating African Americans, according to this courageous book by Noel Ignatiev.

As a part-Irish Am
Jul 25, 2008 rated it really liked it
Ignatiev has gotten a lot of crap from people saying he paints the Irish as a bunch of racist assholes but I didn't see that in this history of the creation of the white race. I think that he covers a fair amount of ground, hitting on issues of race, class, and a small bit of gender (though not much).

While whiteness as a historical study might be a fading fad, this book is absolutely important for any socially conscious person. If you claim Irish ancestry, don't buy into the neg hype - to truly
Dec 19, 2016 rated it it was ok
A very disappointing book that never answers the question in the title. Instead it is a collection of essays mostly unrelated to each other and only vaguely related to the topic. The most is mostly rambling case studies and anecdotes, with a numbing listing of events with little narrative or explanation.

The focus is also far too narrow, for some reason focusing on Philadelphia around 1840s and 50s, which is only a fraction of the Irish experience. There is never any discussion about what being W
A well-written account of how Irish immigrants--- despised both in English-ruled Ireland and in Anglo-Saxon America as Catholic, uncivilised, and barely English-speaking ---became "white". Ignatiev looks to the all-too-human need of any oppressed group to find someone farther down the totem pole and to the way in which elites used race as a wedge to keep poor whites separate from and hostile to blacks both slave and free. A telling account of racial politics in the antebellum years.
Mar 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
Ignatiev is a master of whiteness studies. The development of different racial attitudes and identities between the Irish and Irish Americans is sad. Great read if you are wondering how certain groups became white, or if you thought that all people from Europe were always considered white in the US.
Oct 19, 2017 rated it liked it
Lots of good information to support an important premise but so poorly organized and edited that it becomes frustrating to read. Mainly covers the Irish and Black people during the nineteenth century in and around Philadelphia with many digressions and not much theoretical grounding to show how what happened in Philly was more universally the case. A sloppy book, full of important facts but not well enough contextualized to hold one's interest.

A second look at “Ho
Dec 26, 2007 rated it liked it
History is best written if it retells the story of the past to explain how we all got to where we are now. Noel Ignatiev's, "How the Irish Became White", is one of those books where the present is illuminated by the past. He attempts to explain how Irish Americans embraced the privileges of their "whiteness" in the United States over against the plight of their African-American urban neighbors and against the cause of the abolitionists, in order to cast off the scorn of their oppressed existence ...more
Mar 17, 2018 rated it it was ok
I had to give up on this book for a second time, which was a bummer. The subject is very interesting and I really wanted to get through to the conclusion but the writing is just so - dry, dense, not as punchy as the title would suggest (which is a bit whatever the print equivalent of "click-baity" is, I admit.) Maybe I'm just out of practice reading more "historical" as it were, histories, and I did have a few 'a-ha' moments in the first three chapters I got through, but trying to get through al ...more
James Tracy
Jan 13, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: radical-history
I think this is one of Noel's best pieces of writings. He is always challenging, insightful and incisive. This book, fully loaded with a tight historical narrative, avoids some of the pitfalls that other works in the White Studies canon fall into. That is that the antidote to WSP is simple individual choices, moments of "treason". At this point, almost any treason to the existing order is welcome, but I prefer the organized political type.

The book will go along way towards connecting Irish-Ameri
Jul 29, 2010 rated it really liked it
Ignatiev's goal and he succeeds and i hope far more scholars join him is to 'dig under the walls of' Ethnic Studies, Black Studies and labor history. he's vicious and correct in his critique of the new labor history; in short if a bunch more books were written like this one and read, we'd have a stronger labor movement that would have to start by recalibrating the entire category of "who" and "what""labor" is. This along with Roediger, provides the key to appreciating the best of the 90s fad of ...more
Aug 18, 2009 rated it it was ok
SO BORING. This is such an interesting subject, but the writing is so dry that it reads more like the worst text book you've ever had. You can still manage to get something out of it, but it certainly isn't easy.
Paul Cato
Jan 17, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Perhaps knowing Ignatiev's son influenced my opinions, nevertheless I was quite impressed by this book. Most insightful were his thoughts on the concept of race in general featured in the afterward
Nov 18, 2012 rated it did not like it
Spectacular topic. Well researched. One of the worst written academic books I have read. (And I've read a lot.) Totally disappointing.
Jan 27, 2019 rated it liked it
As a Brit looking to apply for Irish citizenship, the meaning of Irishness has been weighing on my mind in recent months. My first unfortunate encounter with Irish identity came when I was 11 or 12 years old and my mum told me that I had not been bestowed her Irish surname because she was afraid that it would lead to me being bullied at school. It has only been in the last couple of decades that the Irish have become fully accepted within British culture.

In the United States the story was very
Jan 15, 2018 rated it really liked it
During the potato famine large numbers of unskilled, poor Irish started arriving in America. There they were treated like $**t. They found themselves facing American "nativists" who wanted these immigrants to return to their country of origin and leave the US to true Americans; competition from free African American laborers for jobs; and extreme poverty.

These Irish had a choice - join the fight against slavery (like many Irish still home in Ireland urged them to do) uniting with slaves to forge
Jack McGinn
alright full disclosure i read this a few years ago and didn't get through all of it, so this is based on the first two thirds. I think it's totally persuasive, forensic (a bit turgid at times - a lot of letters between the O'Connellites and the pro-slavery US Irish, where maybe more could have been devoted to the dialogues between the American Irish and the abolitionists), and basically a major contribution to the history of whiteness. Seems to explain a lot about Irish America today (and, by e ...more
Dec 21, 2018 rated it liked it
Good research. Thought provoking. Just a theory, however. On the face of it, considering their history, you wouldn't think any of the Irish would countenance, much less be actively involved in, slavery. The Irish are a complicated people.
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Noel Ignatiev was an American history professor who earned his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1995. As part of a group of social scientists and geneticists that views race distinctions and race itself as a social construct, he is best known for his call to abolish the "white race" (meaning "white privilege and race identity") while being the co-founder of the New Abolitionist Society and co-editor of the j ...more

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