I Could Never Speak to a Person of Color’s Experience, Like No One Can Speak to a Cancer Patient’s Experience
I emphasized in my past Posts that I am not a person of color. So, I cannot speak from that perspective, or to their experiences. I relate it to the way no one can truly grasp having cancer without actually having gone through cancer.
Yes, others understand we’re sick. They understand that we’re tired. They understand that we’re battling for our lives, in most cases. Others can also empathize. Many of those close to someone with cancer also feel helpless wanting so badly to do something, anything to help. I cannot and am not diminishing the role of our caregivers/care partners. They go through so much as well!
However, as for those of us stricken with the disease, I guarantee every single cancer patient remembers distinctly the moment they were told the horrific words:
– “You have cancer” –
In my opinion, unless you’ve heard those words; unless you’ve immediately thought of death or decaying from rounds and rounds of surgeries, chemo, radiation, etc.; unless you know the feeling of not “just being tired” but instead the absolute, full-body fatigue that seemingly never goes away; unless you’ve sat in an oncologist’s clinic awaiting the results of your most recent scan, not knowing if your tumor has recurred or if you’ll get the “all clear”; unless you know the feeling and emotional turmoil that comes on when you realize you will never be the person you were the month, the week or day before hearing those 3 fateful words, “You have cancer”…
Then, you can never speak from our perspective, or to our experiences with cancer. Every cancer patient’s journey is unique and personal. Even if you’ve had brain cancer, your experience will still differ from mine. However, there is absolutely common ground and an immediate bond you feel meeting a fellow survivor. They just get it!
That is why I feel the need to premise my Posts by stating that since I am not a person of color, I cannot speak directly to their experiences. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to write about the Black Lives Matter Movement to ensure a dialogue continues.
There Was a Time in U.S. History When the Irish Were Treated As a Totally Separate Race
Had any of my ancestors come to America in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s because of the “Great Famine” that plagued the country from 1845-1849, they would have seen signs such as these.
A Very Brief Synopsis of the “Great Famine”
When the Irish fled their homeland in the late 19th century, they were legitimate refugees.
They were not just escaping the “Great Famine”, those 4 successive years in which the potato crops were plagued by “blight” (a disease caused by water mold, rotting the plants and thus, making anything that grew inedible). It is a historical truth that the potato was, and still remains the staple of Ireland’s diet.
Light Anecdote: My husband and I were married in Ireland. Our best friends, who are brother & sister who we grew up with, came over with their parents. Their family toured around the West of Ireland after the wedding. They still joke that they could not understand why they’d get 3 different forms of potato at every meal! “Chips”, or French fries as they’re better known; Mashed or baked potato; and, soup that included chopped potatoes. And NO, corned beef is NOT a traditional Irish meal! It is Irish-American!
Yet, it was not simply that the potato crops failed, destroying the mainstay of an Irish peasant’s diet. The British, who ruled the entire country at the time, made a systematic decision NOT to aide the Irish people.
In March 1849, the London News stated, “Great Britain cannot continue to throw her hard-won millions into the bottomless pit of Celtic pauperism.” Yes, the Crown’s “hard-won millions” made off the backs of Irish peasants, and the others they colonized! Ugh. I. Just. Can’t.
Charles E. Trevelyan, the British civil servant in charge of the Famine’s alleged “relief efforts” even stated, “The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated.” So, basically he believed the Famine was simply God’s bidding to punish the Irish people, further stating that the Famine was due to “Hibernian overpopulation”. Again, I. Just. Can’t.
British landlords purposely left the Irish sick and starved with truly nowhere to go. As the Famine plagued Ireland, the Irish were denied food they grew, harvested and prepared for the British. In fact, under armed guards convoys continued to export wheat, oats and barley to England. All the while, at least one million, Yes, one million Irish died of starvation, typhus, dysentery, tuberculosis, cholera and/or simply freezing to death in abandoned shacks or even along the roadside! Combining emigration and death, Ireland would ultimately lose just about 1/2 of its population because of the Famine.
“No Irish Need Apply” and Racism Against the Irish In America
During the Famine, it’s estimated that around 2 million Irish sought refuge in America. Interestingly, some of the ships the Irish took over to the States were converted cargo ships, previously used to transport slaves from Africa.
If they even survived the 3,000 mile cross-Atlantic voyage, upon arrival in the U.S. the Irish were not welcomed kindly! The “No Irish Need Apply” (known as NINA) ads in newspapers, signs posted in windows and bigoted cartoons in magazines were based upon racism and bias that the Irish were ALL:
- “Baby makers” or worse “Breeders” who couldn’t support all the children they had
- Violent – a group who did not abide by the alleged “Rule of Law” that existed in the States at the time
- Illiterate and uneducated
- Well, many were but that was due to the established British system that kept them that way; nothing was more threatening to a British landowner than an educated Irishman, who saw the systematic impoverishment of his fellow men & women, and tried to stand-up against it
- If you were an Irishman (that includes men and women alike) who needed to yield “X” amount of crops for your British landlord, and/or pay rent for the land your family lived on, plus feed your own family on top of that, there was little to no time for schooling!
- Well, again, many were very ill. They left their beautiful homeland of rolling, green hills and fresh air, which had be stricken by a devastating famine. They were starving and if they weren’t sick before, they likely became sick during the voyage to America! Known as “steerage passengers”, the Irish peasants were crammed into the lower decks or cargo areas of the ships crossing the Atlantic on a 4-week journey that provided little to no sanitation, fresh food, fresh air or the slightest bit of privacy. Thus, disease ran rampant amongst the passengers. (If this history interests you in any way, I highly suggest Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea, which details the voyage of a ship in the winter of 1847 from Ireland to New York)
- The only housing available to most Irish immigrants in America were in the port cities of New York and Boston, where again they crammed into immigrant tenements. They had to suffer through poor living conditions, a limited public health system and of course, rampant disease.
- Lazy, or “cheap labor taking working-class Americans jobs”
- Catholic, thus not in-line with the Protestant majority in the U.S. and “incompatible with basic American values”
The Irish were seen as less than human, and certainly not “white” by the Protestant establishment
See the article in this link for references stated above and a further discussion of the Irish in the 19th Century: https://www.history.com/news/when-america-despised-the-irish-the-19th-centurys-refugee-crisis
The above depicts cartoons in prominent publications of the Irish in America. As the middle cartoon states “The Most Recently Discovered Wild Beast”, you get a very good idea of how the Irish were seen. The December 9, 1876 issue of Harper’s Weekly depicted an Irishman on a scale with a Black man, shown below. The idea was that “Blacks were a curse on the South” and equally, the “Irish were a curse on the North”.
This image and several above are from a Blog Post you can read here: http://bottlesboozeandbackstories.blogspot.com/2010/03/man-wanted-no-irish-need-apply.html
Interestingly, the author who is of Irish descent, states in his Post:
At the age of 96 my Grandmother subscribed to Ebony magazine and strongly espoused the civil rights movement for African-Americans. When I asked her why, she said she remembered well the time when “No Irish need apply’.Blog “MemoriesandMiscellany”, by Jack Sullivan
The Protestant establishment creates a Movement against the Irish
Naturally, as history has taught us, an entire movement joined together against the “scourge” of the Irish Catholics threatening “true American values”. A group known as the “Know Nothings”(accurately named) arose. Again, naturally, violence erupted between the groups.
Interestingly, the violence turned deadly in all places none other than Louisville, Kentucky in August 1855. It seems Louisville is quite a hotbed for racism and violence. Rest in Peace, Breonna Taylor.
Referred to as “Bloody Monday”, armed Know-Nothings guarded polling stations on election day. Street fights also broke out when German and Irish Catholics’ homes were ransacked and torched. More than 100 businesses, private homes and tenements were vandalized, looted and/or burned. While historians estimate the death toll at 19-22, the Catholic immigrants believe well over 100 were killed, including entire families consumed in the fires.
Not surprisingly, no one was prosecuted in connection with the violence and murders.
In summary, the experiences of the first Irish immigrants in the U.S. mirror many experiences of the Black community in this country. Obviously, there are major distinctions. Nonetheless, the photo above, which was posted outside a B&B speaks volumes: “No Irish. No Blacks. No Dogs.”
Why are Irish people now accepted as “white” while the Black community continues to suffer and remain so stigmatized? I simply don’t have the answer.
So, if you call yourself “Irish-American”, wave the Irish flag around and get disgustingly drunk “celebrating” St. Patrick’s Day, yet hold racist, bigoted views on Black people or any minority – open up a textbook and “learn yourself something”.
Even Though I Am White, I Am Part of the Marginalized Community
While I cannot speak from the perspective of a person of color, I can speak from the perspective of a white person living in the U.S. who is female, disabled and an immigrant.
You may not see it at first glance, but I too am part of the marginalized community.
Did I grow up and currently live in a very affluent area? Yes. Did I receive an excellent education? Yes. Did I have opportunities and advantages many people are not afforded in this country? Yes.
However, have I been discriminated against? Yes. Have I been treated differently than the “average Joe”, whoever that may be, or whatever that person may look like these days? Yes. In fact, while I will not go into detail, I am currently awaiting a settlement in a disability discrimination case I brought against a certain entity, its owners and employees.
Yet, has my life ever been threatened because of the color of my skin? No. Have I ever been harassed, intimidated or assaulted because of the color of my skin? No. Have I ever been frightened walking down the street in a particular area, having to be cognizant of every move I make or else I’d be considered “suspicious” because of the color of my skin? No. If I had a child, would I have to sit he or she down to talk about how they’d have to engage with a police officer because of the color of our skin? No.
So, even though I am a woman who is disabled and an immigrant, I’m not perceived as a “threat”. Although, I DO have a cane and I’m ready to use it if anyone comes at me wrong! Don’t be fooled by my petite size. As my husband jokes, “If someone tried to assault you, once you unleashed that Irish temper they’d run for the hills.”
I am not seen as a minority even though I was not born in this country because the color of my skin wouldn’t make some crazed, white supremacist immediately scream, “Get out of my country! You don’t belong here!” while brandishing his big, bad machine gun. (Um, compensating for something, guy?)
However, where I was born in N. Ireland, there would DEFINITELY be areas I would NOT be welcome, still to this day.
As A White Person, Should I Be “Color Blind” to a Person’s Race?
As a white chick with a hyper-sensitive personality, I feel so helpless and so hurt by what I’ve read and can actually stomach watching in regards to people of color being treated as less than human at the hands of police. Admittedly, I have not and cannot bring myself to watch the George Floyd or Elijah McLain videos. I would honestly go into a seizure because they would cause me to cry so hard. I cry enough simply reading about what transpired.
It is eerily frightening because literally as I was writing this, my doorbell rang. No one comes to our door unannounced. Ever. Our front desk calls to permit any visitor into our building. I have a service dog, who is a rescue and extremely protective of me. I could only open the door slightly so she wouldn’t run out. Well, who was standing there, outside my door? A police officer! My heart dropped.
In the matter of a few seconds, all these thoughts flew through my head:
- What did he want?
- Why was he at my door?
- Why didn’t the front desk call to say the police were coming to the door?
- Is the government monitoring my social media and this blog (well, probably, but anyway…) and alerted the local police?
- I’m not doing anything illegal, am I?
- Of course I’m not doing anything illegal! So why is he here?
Admittedly, he was extremely polite and was simply trying to determine which apartment’s terrace had an umbrella that reportedly looked like it was going to fall into the street. Nevertheless, the immediate dread that coursed through my veins at seeing a policeman outside my door threw me into such a panic, I had a minor seizure 10 minutes later.
I believe I got just a hint of what a person of color goes through every time they encounter a police officer.
So, I thought to myself all day, can I do better? And if so, how?
It’s soooo cliche, I know I know, but I have dear friends of all creeds and colors. Yet, I can’t think of a time where I spoke in detail with any friends of color about their experience living in this country as a minority.
I have several Muslim friends, who I did speak with following 911 and other more recent incidents about the racism against Muslims. I have a friend who is Asian, but was adopted as a very young child by an Italian family. We’ve talked about what she jokingly terms being “Fasian” (Fake Asian). There’s a huge Latino population where I live. So, I have Cuban, Columbian, Ecuadorian, etc., friends. We’ve merely talked about how I apparently raise my voice when I try to speak Spanish. My black friends were just my friends. I never thought twice about their skin color. So, we never discussed it.
I don’t know if it’s because I’ve traveled so extensively and met people from so many varied cultures, or my upbringing, in which I learned to simply see an individual as a person and to only judge them by their character-not by their color or religion. So, I suppose I was “color blind”, or tried to be because that’s what I thought was proper.
I now understand that being “color blind” also makes me blind to a person of color’s experiences.
In law school one of my favorite professors was a Black man, Shavar Jeffries, Esq. He went to Duke undergrad and then Columbia University School of Law. Further, he was the recipient of multiple scholarships and the Managing Editor of the Columbia Human Rights Law Review. For those unfamiliar with the wondrous world of law school, being the Managing Editor of a Law Review is reserved for only the brightest, most distinguished students.
SIDE NOTE: I was not a very distinguished law school student… I excelled in the classes I enjoyed, but courses like Tax, Corporations and such-if I even showed up to class I never understood a thing. It may as well have been taught in Chinese, and TRUST-my grades reflected this loud and clear. If you looked at my transcript, you’d see immediately if I either A.) Liked the subject, or B.) Liked the Professor.
Back to the point: Professor Jeffries was so intimidatingly intelligent, I felt meek sitting there in his class. I grew up with a father who dropped his genius-level IQ into any conversation. He had me doing MENSA puzzles as a kid. Thus, I had not come across many teachers who I profoundly respected so much that I was hesitant to voice my opinions lest he/she think less of me.
Professor Jeffries, now this was a man on a level I really had never encountered. I was in the Honor’s Program throughout undergrad on essentially a full-ride scholarship. I also received a scholarship to law school. So of course, I had extremely bright professors, yet no one like Jeffries!
The class Professor Jeffries taught was an elective on civil rights. I had huge dreams of being a civil rights attorney, working for the ACLU, arguing Constitutional Law before esteemed justices. Yeah, didn’t happen! Anyway, I was so excited for this class.
Then we had our first class. If my jaw remained dropped the entire length of class I would not be surprised. I literally walked out with two friends, who were also very intelligent men, kind of shell-shocked. I said, “I don’t know if I should drop this class because that professor is waaay too smart. He’s going to fail me and my GPA is going to plummet!” Nevertheless, I remained enrolled.
THIS IS THE REAL POINT
As I was contemplating the idea of being “color blind” I suddenly flashed back to that civil rights class with Professor Jeffries. Frankly, I don’t recall what court case we were discussing, but I believe it related to Jim Crow laws.
Hopefully if you’re reading this lengthy Post, you know that Jim Crow laws mandated racial segregation in all public facilities in the South. In fact, in 1896 the United States Supreme Court upheld those laws in the infamous case of Plessy vs. Ferguson. That case established the “separate but equal” legal doctrine. Regardless of what actual case we were discussing, it had to do with racial inequality.
While I will never be able to express the idea as eloquently as my brilliant professor, he essentially argued that we cannot just be “color blind” and not see someone’s race, or the color of their skin.
I’ll adamantly admit – this notion went completely over my head. Again, because I respected him, but also because I was so intimidated by his intelligence I did not push him more to explain. I wish I had, looking back.
Only now, about 15 years later – I get it! My Eureka moment only took 15 years. 🤦♀️
While me, the white, flaming liberal who thought it was completely wrong to look at a person and see their race, by placing “virtual blinders” on I was ignoring or failing to acknowledge that person’s experiences and perspectives as a person of color!
The Conclusion, Finally!
In conclusion, finally, I know:
- I know and always knew that I cannot speak from the perspective, or to the experience of a person of color living in America. It’s just like no one can truly speak from the perspective, or to the experience of a person with cancer unless they’ve been in the trenches and battled, or are battling the cancer beast.
- Even though the Irish faced much of the same racism and bigotry people of color faced, and continue to face, it’s still not the same.
- While I am a female, disabled, immigrant who has faced my own forms of discrimination, again – it’s still not the same.
- Although with the best of intentions, I’ve lived my life “color blind”. However, I can no longer do that because in doing so, I blind myself to that person’s experiences and perspectives as a person of color.
Ah. The End.