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Josie’s Girl: On Being Irish and White (Part 1)

By Jaime M. Grant

I grew up outside of Boston in the midst of the desegregation crisis of the 1970s, in a sprawling Irish family of first-generation American cops, teachers, and utility workers.  Before “the busing,” I loved and proudly claimed the culture of our extended family:  Grants and Dohertys descended from people who lived for hundreds and hundreds of years in Ireland’s northern-most community, Malin Head; fun-loving, fair-minded, give-you-the-shirt-off-their-backs.  But the daily violence I observed at the hands of mostly Irish mothers toward Black children driving into our Boston neighborhoods cleaved a devastating gash through my story of us.

When I look at the legislative and video record of former Vice-President Joe Biden in this time period, he really is who we were:  just a generation or two from being forced off our lands by colonizers who watched us die by the millions.  And now all buttoned up for the 6 O’clock news, throwing around terms like ‘local control’ as code for having fully joined the power structure and demanding our due, which did not involve having our children sit next to Black children while learning their ABCs.  By the 1970s, in the wake of decades of No-Irish-Need-Apply, we were fully white, and holding tight to that privileged space in the order.

During the busing era, I came to see another story of us:  we were a people who were not keeping faith with who we were.  We described ourselves one way, but we lived another.  I saw this too, as I grew, in nightly reports of the Vietnam war, and in the ways my parents viewed student protesters.  We said we were about fairness and a good laugh and generosity, but somewhere along the way, we had swallowed the lies and the values of the ruling classes.  I was only 12 or 13, but when I looked at life around me, at my mother’s depression and rages, at my father’s drinking and remoteness, and at all the violence, I had a growing dread, a vague inkling that it wasn’t just personal – as a people, we had lost our way.

“There is nothing sadder to people struggling against oppression in Ireland than to look towards Boston and see our people–we know how they got here; we know the oppression they fled from Ireland to get here–being used to oppress the Black people of Boston. People tell me Blacks are lazy, they don’t want to work, they are here to lower the standard of education. They tell me all of the things that I heard about myself, things Protestant people said about Catholic people in Belfast…The whole inspiration of our civil rights movement ten years ago came from the Black movement of America.”  Bernadette Devlin, IRA Leader

The feminist movement helped me put words to that dread, and names to the forces that were tearing our communities apart and deadening family life – sexism, racism, imperialism, capitalism.  In high school, I started to see the scaffolding of forces that bent our family story and fractured our relationships.  Eventually, feminism helped me name myself as a lesbian and come out, creating a fault line between me and my parents that would span over decades.

I drank my way through those years of exile; like my parents and my grandparents before them.  And it turns out, like my famine-surviving great grandparents, I took my grief and my dislocation to pubs, where I sat with strangers, told a few lies (to use my father’s favorite phrase), and hooked up randomly to try to put myself back together, to locate myself somewhere, anywhere.  All the while, dealing with my heartbreak about my Irishness.

And then, I moved to DC in 1990, got sober, and found a way toward wholeness via racial justice and AIDS activism and study in gender and sexuality. I carved out a vibrant queer life and began to pull together the threads of resistance and survival in DC’s amazingly rich Black and queer communities.  I also was–as activists do via our work–creating a pathway to my own wholeness, lover by lover, action by action, friendship by friendship, step by step.

For the past several years, I’ve moved beyond looking at my own story, and started reaching back, to Boston and to Ireland, to the stories of my Grandmothers and Great Grandmothers as a part of my path toward addressing trauma, colonization and abuse, and using it as a way forward, a resilience practice, a claiming.  And what I’ve found has strengthened my queer activist trajectory and practice, forever.  Because my Grandmothers were Bad Asses.  My father’s mother in particular did not care about the conventions of the day about women or Irish people or about respectability under capitalism.  Here’s her story.


To be continued.

Dr. Jaime M. Grant, author of  Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey and co-editor of Friendship as Social Justice Activism is a social justice researcher, writer, and activist who has been engaged in LGBTQ, women’s and racial justice movements since the 1980s.  She is the creator of the podcast, Just Sex: Mapping Your Desire and was the founding Executive Director of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership.

1 Comment

  1. Wonderful story Jaime. People are telling me they can’t wait to read the rest.