For most of my life, the question of my heritage was pretty simple: I’m the descendant of Irish and German immigrants. It was more of a trivia fact than something that had any bearing on my life. As a kid my friends and I, all white, would sometimes talk about our heritage: Polish, Russian, English, Welsh, Irish, Scottish, Italian. We were blissfully unaware of how much privilege we were swimming in, that our heritage could be a fun fact on our “Getting to Know You” assignments on the first day of primary school. Growing up in the suburbs of Midwestern America afforded us an even larger privilege of never having to ask why that was.
I was first confronted with reality in college. I was at a retreat where played a game that was explained to us as a race from one end of the grassy field to the other. “Before we begin, we need to make sure everyone is in their proper starting place,” they said. They told us to listen to statements as they were read aloud and step forward or backward according to instructions.
“If you’ve never had to worry about police stopping you on the street because of the color of your skin, step forward.”
“If you were not born in the US and were not a citizen when you first came here, step backward.”
When the game ended, there were a few of us who were just a couple steps from the finish line and while some were several steps behind the starting line. Being a kid who grew up in a middle-class white family, I was pretty close to the finish line myself, just behind a few white men who had grown up in much wealthier families than my own. I looked behind, and saw some of my friends who were almost at the very opposite end of the field. I experienced a heavy sinking feeling as my heart dropped to my feet, and a fiery rage because it didn’t seem fair that they should have to live through things that I was protected from just by being white and relatively wealthy.
People often talk about what it looks like to finally have that “Aha!” moment. But my journey to discover the truth about my whiteness and what that meant was far from over. I got curious about my Irish ancestors and on the recommendation of a very patient friend, I read the book How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev. According to Ignatiev, in the 1820s, the Irish immigrant community was almost unanimously abolitionist. Letters from home in Ireland applauded the organizing efforts of Irish abolitionists living the US and supported the fight through donations.
But things changed. A few Irish immigrants who wavered on their abolitionist stance took notice of the white praise and the approval of the white American, and began catering their position on slavery accordingly. It was clear early on that Irish complicity with slavery meant better treatment from white America. Letters from home in Ireland were urgently demanding answers. They reminded relatives and friends in America how the British treated them. They insisted that a pro-slavery stance was antithetical to who the Irish were as a people. Over many years and many bloody acts of racial violence, the Irish proved they could be just as cruel as any white American. The Irish language newspapers slowly disappeared and the letters from home in Ireland were no longer from home.
Some people have ancestors who sacrificed everything to give their children and their children’s children a better future. My ancestors sacrificed other people’s ancestors in a blood-drenched war to ensure that their children and their children’s children could blend in with all the other whites. My ancestors insisted that my life was worth more than others. If I am to truly reject that legacy of sacrificing others for my sake, then I must offer up my life to be discarded just as black lives like Sandra Bland or Atatiana Jefferson were by brutal white supremacist system. I must betray the very notion that white lives matter more. I must be a race traitor.
What does it look like to be a race traitor? I take inspiration from activists who shut down Chicago Pride in protest of the continued move towards a bland white, cisgender, corporate, and gentrified event. The white people encircled the speakers, creating a human chain that would force police to arrest them in order to get to black and brown organizers using the megaphone. In Nashville, neighbors created a human barrier to prevent Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from detaining a father and son. And of course, there’s always punching white supremacists in the face.