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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.

Originally posted to Tom Taaffe on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 06:39 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Terrific history, Tom (5+ / 0-)
    and a reminder of why I find any racism in my fellow Irish-Americans to be especially galling.

    If you think you're too small to be effective, you've never been in the dark with a mosquito.

    by marykk on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 06:42:55 AM PST

    •  Thanks (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      DBunn, marykk, petral

      When Irish civil rights campaigner came to Boston, she derisively marked that she felt more comfortable in African-American Roxbury than Irish South Boston. And yes, I agree, Irish American racism inflames me as well. When I was a kid, my parents wouldn't let me spend a night with my Boston cousins because they didn't want their racism to influence me.

      •  Have you read Kevin Baker's (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Tom Taaffe

        Paradise Alley? It's fiction, but incredibly well researched and paints the picture of the earliest racism in Irish immigrants, going back to the N.Y. draft riots during the civil war.

        If you think you're too small to be effective, you've never been in the dark with a mosquito.

        by marykk on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 06:51:34 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I haven't (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          No I haven't, but thanks for the recommendation. My great-grand father spent his life documenting health conditions in the Irish ghettos in NY and my grandfather organized Irish immigrants against the No-Nothing movement, so I grew up with stories of those days and my parents made constant comparisons to the parallels between Irish, Indian and African American oppression. It was a good education. I'm very grateful for it.

          •  Family history (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Tom Taaffe

            can be the best education.  Here's a bit of mine.

            If you think you're too small to be effective, you've never been in the dark with a mosquito.

            by marykk on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 07:04:02 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  thanks for the story (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              Our ancestors ground us - if we remember them - and situate us in history. Those who know their personal and family histories often have a deeper appreciation of the role of the past in producing the present. Its a good inoculation against the historical amnesia that infects too many americans and makes them easy prey for those who seek to manipulate them.

              My Dublin-born mother made colcannon all the time. Thanks for the story.

      •  Benadette Devlin (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        An omission from the comment above, the Irish civil rights campaigner I was referring to was Bernadette Devlin (later Devlin-Mclauskey).

  •  Note that (0+ / 0-)

    you make no mention of the Birmingham pub bombings or other attacks launched on civilians on the UK mainland?

    Leaving bombs in trash cans in public thoroughfares where any man woman or child could be passing at the wrong time? Sick joke is they could just as easily have been Catholic as Protestant. - so heroic.

    The protestant paramilitary three letter acronyms were no better.

    Long story short, a piece about racism is great, a thinly disguised attempt to start an Catholic/Protestant battle here - not so much.

    Hero-worship is strongest where there is least regard for human freedom
    -Herbert Spencer

    by stevej on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 06:50:33 AM PST

    •  I don't think that's what the diarist was doing. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      paulitics, DBunn, Alec82

      Oversensitive much?

      If you think you're too small to be effective, you've never been in the dark with a mosquito.

      by marykk on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 06:53:23 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  You missed my point (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      wu ming, DBunn, marykk

      I have no interest in Catholic-Protestant battles. But that war was started by Protestant paramilitaries (UVF, to be exact), the Orange Order, the police and the Unionist establishment, to put down a non-violent civil rights movement. Seen across the long line of history, these forces were cultivated by the British to advance the supremacist cause of their empire. The birth of the modern IRA and a thirty year war that followed was the fruit of that violence. Agreed, a very long story made short, but the point was about where we put our emphasis on battling racism: that is, emphasizing symbolic and linguistic efforts rather than structural, systemic efforts. Ireland and Irish Americans were simply the example I used to prove my point.

      Yes, the Provos did a lot of bad things, but so did the British and for a very, very long time. This isn't said to excuse their behavior, but to explain it. Were this a more substantial essay, I would have traced the rise of white racism from the battles between settlers and natives in the hills of ulster to the shores of America. the KKK was founded by Anglo and Scots-Irish in America, using the same symbolism and religious arguments used to justify the domination of the 'British' over the 'Irish'.

      But that's a much longer story, indeed.

  •  Taig? (0+ / 0-)

    Isn't it "teague"?  From the Irisn name Tadg?

  •  you're close, here... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    DBunn, marykk, Tom Taaffe

    very close.  But you've got a few issues conflated, so let me see if I can quickly untangle them.  

    1.  Your students don't get "taigg" because they are not inside that language group.  So, it's not a question of representation that they did not react, but of boundary.   What makes that complicated is that language boundaries in post-colonial global society are not mapped onto geography.
    1. It's not really the case to say that certain incendiary words and the feelings they evoke are separate--that the words represent or indicate a set of feelings and emotions (e.g., "it's not the word"). It actually is the word.  The emotion, violence--meaning--is not separate from the word. If you separate signifier and signified, as structuralist linguistics says you should, then you get into this problem.  But if your view of meaning is generative, you don't find yourself in that problem.
    1. The reason we have difficulty dealing with certain words is because the only way to fully eliminate the problems they cause is to ban them--which runs counter to some conceptions of democracy.   To deal with this dilemma in Europe, they enforce penalties for certain uses.  Here in the U.S., we use social and political dynamics to control them (e.g., shaming).  
    1. Meaning changes and in some cases dissipates over time.  So, many words that are problematic, may still be in use, but no longer resonate as they once did--or have contradictory resonances.  
    1. Ultimately, the terms by which we are able to prevent certain words from causing harm (e.g., social, psychological, etc.) will change as those words change. The issue is not can we come up with one set of preventative actions, but can we maintain our commitment to minimizing cruelty in society.  

    Anyway...that brings you past the structuralist linguistics problem of representation and (more or less) into contemporary debates.

    •  Thank you for the thoghtful reply (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Jeffrey Feldman, marykk

      While none of the students in my classes were Northern Irish facing the violent purposes of those words, they were nonetheless (at least) peripheral members of that ethno-social group. And in the greater Boston area, Irish nationalism and cultural affinity are quite strong. So they would be aware - at some level - of their own cultural history.

      I taught 3 classes of 50+ students each that day and around half of them claimed Irish descent. That no one knew the word was telling. I knew it from family stories growing up in NYC, though nobody ever called me that. But I also had a more counter-colonial home education, that linked Irish struggles with contemporary and historic African American and American Indian struggles. Boston Irish, unfortunately, have a long history of racist behavior toward African Americans, yet another sad example of how the oppressed become the oppressors.

      That racial epithet followed the Irish to the shores of America. If it is forgotten, it is because the violence that gave it life is more than 3 generations past.

      I would suggest that we emphasize the symbolic over the structural because changing the language of inequality - without addressing the structures -  allows the status quo power relations to remain in force, while the profitable dynamics of ever-widening inequality roll on without interuption.

      What we end up with is political correctness and superficial, photo-shop diversity. In doing so, we mask oppression and suppress systemic examination of its causes and effects, rather than address it. And by masking it, we deny its victims the right to complain, while the problems continue to grow worse.

      •  that all makes sense (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Tom Taaffe

        But my point is that you are thinking inside a problem set up by structuralist linguistics (e.g., the problem of separating subject/signifier and object/signified--created by de Saussure), whereas I am suggesting you step outside of that thinking into generative views of meaning (e.g.,P Bourdieu, R Wagner). The core conceit of a generative definition of the "symbol" is:  symbols do not stand for anything but themselves.  

        For your last point about "photo-shop" diversity, you might look at a 1997 essay by Stanley Fish called "Boutique Multiculturalism."  He takes on that idea.


        •  I'm not a structural linguist (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          My linguistic theoretical foundation is in dialogics and informed by post-structuralism and Marxism (at the more Gramscian end of things), not structural linguistics. The production of meaning and value is inextricably bound up in the processes of power production and expression. Meanings are generative as you say, encoding and recoding themselves in unpredictable ways, shifting and changing over time. When a word disappears - as 'taig' has in Irish-American memory - it is indicative of the disappearance of those relations of power that gave it meaning to begin with.

          I've read Stanley Fish's piece. I agree with his thesis, though I think my own experience and understanding of racism and its remediation is a bit more brutal.

  •  Pardon my ignorance, (0+ / 0-)

    but I didn't know Catholicism was a race. I learned that this was a religious horror begun by Bloody Mary and made worse by ERI and her successors.

    "My case is alter'd, I must work for my living." Moll Cut-Purse, The Roaring Girl - 1612, England's First Actress

    by theRoaringGirl on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 08:01:31 AM PST

    •  Markers of cultural difference (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      DBunn, marykk

      In the absence of physical differences between Irish and British people, religion became the marker of cultural difference. I'm simplifying a complex history here, but my point is about social exclusion and the way we address (or don't address) that problem.

      When Captain John Smith came to the shores of America - after serving in the colonial cause in Ireland - he justified his abuse of the Indians by comparing them to the Irish. If it was okay to kill and abuse the Irish, then such behavior was equally legitimate when dealing with the Indians.

      The KKK was founded by the Scots-Irish descendants of the Ulster Plantation. They used the same religious arguments and cultural symbols (like the burning cross) to justify their oppression. So the Orange Order in Northern Ireland is the ideological grandfather of the Ku Klux Klan.

      Modern American racism was born in the conflict between colonial England and the Irish. When it came to America it took on a more phenotypical tone. That is, the markers of cultural difference became skin color, not religion or geographic origin. Again I'm simplifying the history and genealogy of modern racism - and leaving out the critical components of anti-semitism and anti-muslimism - but since the US is the child of 'great britain', the Irish colonial encounter is relevant here.

      Since there is no such thing as 'race' as a biological fact, those differences that we define as 'racial' are simply cultural markers of difference that make it easy for us to define and divide the haves from the have nots.

  •  was taig ever used as an american anti-irish slur (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    DBunn, marykk

    it is true that old slanders like mick don't carry the same bite anymore because the power relations that used to exist have moved on, but i would be surprised if the anglo american tormentors of irish catholics in years past would have used a gaelic term to insult them.

    surf putah, your friendly neighborhood central valley samizdat

    by wu ming on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 08:03:47 AM PST

    •  most definitely (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      wu ming, DBunn, marykk

      The heart of anti-irish racism in the US was the carry-over of the fight between the Irish on side and the English and Scots-Irish on the other. Taig was most definitely used as a slur to define early Irish-Americans.

      •  when did the word fall out of use? (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        anti-irish and anti-catholic prejudice has been around until relatively recently, but i've never heard of the word before now.

        surf putah, your friendly neighborhood central valley samizdat

        by wu ming on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 08:34:34 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  It was supplanted........ (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          wu ming, DBunn, marykk

          It was supplanted by epithets like 'paddy' and 'mick' by the end of the 19th century. While anti-catholic prejudice still survives in the margins of Protestant fundamentalism, both anti-Irish and anti-Catholic bigotry as a socio-economic force largely disappeared by the end of WWII. The enfranchisement of ethnic Europeans into the working middle class - a legacy of the post-war labor-business partnership - mostly put 'paid' to those forms of racism. (Some may argue that anti-catholicism should properly be defined as sectarianism, but when they link with ethnic identities, they take on more racialized forms. In those moments, religion is the marker of cultural difference, rather than skin color.)

          •  My personal favorite (0+ / 0-)


            If you think you're too small to be effective, you've never been in the dark with a mosquito.

            by marykk on Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 09:48:36 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

          •  "Supplanted" (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            Adding a couple of thoughts to this interesting discussion...

            1. If "taig" was supplanted by mick, paddy, etc by the end of the 19th century-- well before the tailing off of anti-Irish discrimination on these fair shores-- doesn't that argue against (or at least, fail to support) your thesis in this diary, that the word loses its force once the sentiment behind it fades away? In the particular case of "taig", it looks more like the word itself simply drifted out of the popular vocabulary, while other words emerged to do the same devil's work.
            1. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was considerable effort put forth by intellectual elites in the US and England to define the Irish as racially distinct from and inferior to Anglo-Saxons. From our modern perspective, this now appears so foolish as to be almost comical, but I expect no one was laughing then. Such efforts fell into disrepute following the Nazi horror.
            1. Persuasive narratives have been presented, I forget by whom, concerning the expanding definition of "whiteness" in this country over the last century or so. Irish, Italians, Greeks, Jews, etc have gradually been accepted into the fold. Apparently, the boundary point at which differences of culture or appearance are considered to be significant can and does move.
            1. I blame the Finns. Them, and the Dutch, with their tulip obsession and those stupid wooden shoes. (just kidding)

            Nice diary, and a good discussion thread!

            •  taigs, paddies and the like (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              DBunn, marykk

              The word 'taig' may have faded before anti-Irish racism in America exhausted itself, but even better known slurs like 'paddy' and 'mick' have lost their bite. They survive more as jocular bonding terms among Irish - social reminders of their commonly shared, oppressed past - than as vital epithets.

              The point of my story was that its the structural conditions that give racism its life, not the mean words we use to describe each other. We've chosen the easy and superficial path toward addressing this problem, through political correctness and shallow, tokenistic notions of 'diversity'.

              In the end, I'm not really talking about the Irish at all, I'm talking about racism in America. I just used the Irish experience to show that the problem isn't about the words we use, its the structural conditions of oppression that give slurs like taig their meaning and power.

              As for the arguments around how the Irish, Jews or Italians 'became white', there's a whole literature around that. I know the Irish end of that lit the best. I recommend Theodore Allen's two-part treatise "inventing the White Race", which traces the development of modern American-style racism from Ireland to America. Noel Ignatiev wrote a book called "How the Irish Became White" which is good (though I prefer Allen's work) and Karen Brodkin wrote a book called 'how the jews became white.'

              But there's a whole literature on the subject. Some of its a bit reifying, it presumes a homogenized 'white' subject, but others - like Allen, Michelle Fine, to name two - recognize that cultural categories of 'whiteness' are shifting, conditional and rife with their own hierarchies, even within a group of people that define themselves as 'white'. The most obvious example are those poor white folks we refer to as 'white trash' or 'trailer trash'. I would argue that these are racist epithets, intended to subordinate the poor below more privileged members of the so-called 'white race'.    

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