I walked into my classroom in Bridgewater State College in southeastern Massachusetts and called my students a bunch of taigs. They stared blankly at me, wondering what I was talking about. I repeated the slur and asked them what I was talking about. Despite the fact that half the students were of Irish Catholic descent, no one knew what the word meant. When I explained that the word was a derogatory term for Irish Catholics, the students laughed.
Now in Northern Ireland, if you dared to call an Irish Catholic a ‘taig’, you’d better be ready to rumble. The word 'taig' incites exactly the same reaction – and serves the same purpose – as the odious ‘N’ word in America. Unless you are prepared for a fight, never, ever call a Northern Irish Catholic a taig. You will regret it.
But here was a group of Irish-Americans who not only didn’t react angrily to the word, they didn’t even know what the word meant. This slur, which is without question, the most emotionally and physically violent word in the Northern Irish lexicon, meant nothing to them.
Why? Please read on..........
For decades, the flashpoints between Catholic and Protestant communities were festooned with the slogan ‘yabba dabba doo, any taig will do.’ This tag stood as a dark warning that killing any Irish Catholic was legitimated by their neighbors. The group that coined the slogan – the Ulster Defence Association – were filled with the ranks of Northern Irish policemen, guided in the shadows by British intelligence and protected from prosecution by the British state. Some remain protected to this day.
Throughout the 30 year civil war known as the Troubles, British-backed Protestant paramilitaries would randomly hunt down Irish Catholics to protect the cause of British Protestant supremacy and deny Irish Catholics their civil, social and economic rights. This racist violence incited the Troubles, when Protestants -- backed by the police and politicians -- burned thousands of Irish Catholics out of their homes, in retaliation for the existence of the non-violent, Northern Irish civil rights movement (modeled on Martin Luther King's movement in America) and their demand for basic voting rights and equal opportunity.
These acts were reinforced by thousands of Protestant suppremacist, 'Loyalist' parades through Catholic neighborhoods every year, playing songs that celebrated the killing of Irish Catholics. These parades – known as the Loyalist marching season – continue to inflame intercommunity relations every year and jeopardize the emergent peace in that province.
Yes, the ending of formal hostilities in that region have dramatically reduced the likelihood that you will be killed, beaten or driven from your home because of your ethno-national-religious background is Irish Catholic. But the violence of that word and its meaning remains a scar in the minds of those who had to live with that racist violence for many generations. And at flashpoint intersections between communities - where poor Catholics and Protestant communities bump up against each other - that violence remains a social reality, no matter how many newspaper headlines herald 'peace in Ireland.' The word 'taig' has at least a 350 year old pedigree, so the ancestors of my Irish American students would doubtlessly have known this word and the violence it represents.
A decade after formal hostilities ended in Northern Ireland, calling an Irish Catholic a taig remains the most insulting and incendiary epithet you can use. So why would a classroom full of Irish Americans stare blankly at me – and then laugh when they learned its meaning – when I called them a bunch of taigs?
Because the violent legacy of anti-Irish discrimination in America has so completely disappeared from the lives of those students, that not only did the word lose its violence, it lost all meaning and had become forgotten. Nobody discriminates against Irish Catholics in the United States anymore. Indeed, Irish Catholics in Massachusetts are the second most economically dominant ethnic group in the Commonwealth, after Anglo-Americans and dominate the Commonwealth's political landscape.
The fact that these students no longer even recognized this word means that it is not the word itself that is hurtful, it is the violence it represents. When the violent oppression is gone, when even its memory fades and becomes forgotten, so do the words used to mark people for racist exclusion.
Racism is a game of power, a way to erase someone’s humanity and to mark them for exclusion, to bond people together in common cause against their neighbors. ‘Race,’as a biological category is a fiction, a violent fiction. For a century, anthropologists have pointed out that there is only one race – the human race – and that the subdivision of humanity into ‘racial groups’ is a strategy of power to divide the haves from the have nots, and to legitimate and normalize these divisions and oppressions.
Over the centuries, these socially constructed categories, reinforced and made vital though law, slavery, violence and lived experience, became mutually recognizable ethnic groups. As recently as the 1990's, scholars like Harvard psychologist, Charles Murray, backed by the American Enterprise Institute, continued to advance the argument that African Americans were intellectually inferior to whites and Asians. This odious research was used to legitimate the destruction of educational resources and investment in educating black students.
Dismantling racism has proven difficult, in part because we refuse to understand the depth of the problem. Racism, classism and gender discrimination are inter-articulated phenomena. At the root of the problem, all these forms of oppression are ways of dividing the haves from the have nots and legitimating those divisions. These categories pervade the social landscape, marking all of us triply, shaping, conditioning and positioning us in relationship to social and economic resources and to each other. Because they are so deeply inter-articulated, they produce contradictory circumstances they defy and undermine simplistic narratives of race, gender and class. These contradictory circumstances and cynically used ‘nondiscrimination’ strategies that ignore the structural, triparite character of oppression - and its socio-economic motivations - further confound the problem of social exclusion and reproduce the resentments necessary to sustain these categories, behaviors and beliefs through to subsequent generations.
So long as we address the symptoms of oppression rather than the fundamental, structural inequality that is the foundation upon which the wealth of this nation is produced and sustained, we will do nothing but mask the problem. Until we recognize that classism, racism, and gender discrimination are deeply inter-articulated phenomena that must be dismantled structurally and simultaneously, we will treat one oppression with another. Until we make the problem of structural social exclusion the central issue to address in this country; until we start rebuilding this country from the bottom up, instead of legitimating the consolidation of power and resources from the top down, this problem will fester and grow worse. Until we forthrightly confront and dismantle all the comforting lies and supremacist values that animate our being and our identities, we will do nothing more than reproduce and make worse these oppressions, even as we create new and more inventive means to mask this behavior to ourselves.
We may have an African-American President, but we also have millions of people living in concentrated ghettos who have been marked for permanent exclusion by their ‘social betters’. Being black is still a good way to get pulled over by the police, to be denied educational resources, to be denied a job and otherwise oppressed. Unemployment among young, African-American men in these urban ghettos can run as high as 70 to 80 percent, even in good economic times. And African American men are still more likely to go to jail rather than college. Whole neighborhoods are filled with people who are doomed before they are born, thanks to our manifest refusal to address these issues in a substantive, structural and systemically inclusive way. While those of us in polite society may not use the ‘N’ word, we continue to treat our fellow human beings in ways that reinforce the violence of that word. This is as true for liberals as it is for conservatives.
It is not words like taig or ‘N’ that hurt, it is the violence, oppression and erasure that they represent that give these words their awful power. When the violence and oppression are gone, not only will these words lose their power, they will be forgotten as the word ‘taig’ disappeared from the minds and memories of my Irish American students.
Only then, will Martin Luther King’s dream be realized in this country. We are a very, very long way from there.