Is Gaelic Literature “White”? Decolonizing the Classroom Should Be About More Than Skin Color

Does a Lithuanian student feel a surge of pride when “Beowulf” is read by his teacher? Does the daughter of Sami immigrants feel a special affinity for the Wife of Bath? Does a Lebanese boy feel a special sense of privilege when the novels of Mark Twain are discussed in class?

There has been a great deal of discussion in recent years about the idea of decolonizing the classroom. In short, given that formal education has a profound effect on how we see ourselves, understand our place in the world, and shape our values and ambitions, institutions of education must change to reflect the global village, a more diverse student body, and a greater sense of justice and fairness. Given that our formal institutions of learning are by definition the product of imperial entities and agendas, it is inevitable that they contain biases and exclusions from those colonial eras and projects that need to be actively deconstructed if education is to be “liberating” in the sense that they are intended to be, and not perpetuate the inequities of earlier eras.

So far, so good. What I think is highly problematic, as a scholar of Scottish Gaelic Studies, is that many contemporary advocates of the idea of this decolonization of the academy present it merely in terms of racial essentialism: that the problem is that the curriculum is dominated exclusively by “dead white men” and that greater representation of non-white people, cultures and intellectual content will decolonize it.

Let me step back for a second to explain how I understand and engage with some of these basic concepts. I understand coloniality to be the imposition of one socio-political entity’s authority over another in one or more domains: military, cultural, political, intellectual, economic, territorial, etc. This abuse of power is usually exerted in multiple domains and almost always justified with the rationale that the colonizing entity is superior in some absolute sense, often articulated in cultural, moral and intellectual terms.

Wherever there is a great accumulation and exercise of power, there is abuse of that power. Empires centered in such places as China, Rome, Mexico, and Peru all engaged in forms of colonialism and the effect has never been benevolent to the vast majority of those who had the misfortune of having it imposed on them. And it was happening long before the idea of racialism emerged as we now know it. The common factor is the idea that people and/or societies can be put into a hierarchy, with some being better – and hence more worthy of power, wealth, authority, resources, etc. – than others. Biology provided the rationale for putting people in a hierarchy of races in the modern era.

One of the major problems with “whiteness,” as it is used in North American discourse, is that the ethnolinguistic basis of “white” identity remains occluded by it, as though it was merely about skin tone. We must be careful to distinguish between lived realities and historical complexities. As the power brokers of North America allowed increasing levels of immigration from a wider range of countries in the nineteenth century, the range of ethnic groups living in colonial settlements in North America grew, and so did frictions and confrontations about assimilation. To whose language and cultural norms was it necessary to conform in order to access the maximal power, wealth and privilege in the (so-called) “New World”? That of the archetypal white, Anglo-Saxon protestant. In other words, whiteness in North America is built from the template of the English Empire who laid the colonial foundations, and later immigrants were expected to conform to it to become fully “white” and “American” or “Canadian” (I will ignore the issue of Franco-Canadian identity for the moment).

You might ask, “Don’t you mean ‘British’?” That too is another colonial facade and one that also gets to the colonial foundations of our educational institutions. Britain has always been a multilingual, multicultural island, but at the time that Englishmen were leading the colonization of North America, they had only just emerged victorious in a similar conflict over supremacy in the British Isles. In fact, many of the leaders of the colonization of America were involved in colonization schemes in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Having gained military and political domination, they had the ability to impose their authority over institutions covering the dominions of their former rivals, who were (supposedly) uncivilized if their existence was to be acknowledged at all. What was “British” was really just what was English, writ large. Only recently have some anthologies of “British literature” started to look outside of the anglophone canon and shown an interest in being inclusive of the literature of the contemporary Welsh and Gaelic peoples who had a huge influence on their English neighbours, but too often this inclusion is too superficial and not integrated enough.

The way in which Spanish, French, and British empires asserted authority, created institutions, and exercised power differed greatly according to their previous historical experiences but these issues of continuity and innovation are not adequately analyzed and discussed. It is too often assumed that the system of domination and exploitation that prevailed in British North America was a reflection of skin colour that emerged organically in “New World” encounters, but this mistake is a projection of modern racial essentialism.

There is a great deal of continuity in the English habits of mind and structures of power from the conquest of the (so-called) “Celtic fringe” to the First Nations of the Americas (and elsewhere). Theodore Allen traced the structural antecedents of racialized structural oppression to Anglo-Norman rule in his two volume study The Invention of the White Race; forced assimilation via linguicide and religious indoctrination have been formal policies by the anglophone élite for centuries in Wales, Scotland and Ireland; land and assets owned communally were forcibly forfeited to the Crown for redistribution according to political loyalty and modernist notions of individual property; and so on.

Moreover, during the height of the empire anglophone leaders ensured that the Celtic fringes would be divested of the right to assert their own cultural authority. The creation of nation-states in the eighteenth and nineteenth century was a very uneven process, with some ethnic groups entirely subsumed by a single dominant group who monopolized power for themselves, to the detriment of the former, at least in cultural and ethnic terms. This was certainly the case with Celtic peoples. An article discussing of the decolonization of the curriculum in the Guardian states rightly:

Perhaps the fiercest debate about European thought emerges in the battle over the Enlightenment, that sprawling intellectual, cultural and social movement that spread through Europe during the late 17th and 18th centuries, and was the harbinger of intellectual modernity. There is no period of history that has been more analysed, celebrated and disparaged. … The Enlightenment, in her view, provides a myth, a creation story, that the west tells itself about what makes it more civilised and the rest of the world more barbaric.

Yet “the West” is far too simple a characterization, given that Gaelic Scotland and Ireland were among those places singled out as barbaric, unfit for self-rule, mired in ignorance and superstition, and needing to be reformed in the image of the Anglo-Saxon to “progress” into (supposed) modernity by Enlightenment thinkers.

“Why does any of this matter now? Scots / Irish / Celts are all white.” you might be asking. The domination of racialized identities and forms of the privilege in the nineteenth century (itself an indication that alliances with and accommodations to native peoples were no longer crucial for the exercise of colonial power) certainly does mark a turning point that determined for generations who would be empowered to access power in imperial settings. But there are several reasons why this should still matter to those committed to working towards social justice (whether in the form of decolonizing the classroom, courtroom or political backroom).

First, coloniality, the abuse of power and the scapegoating of Others have roots that are deeply embedded in our society and communal experience. We can move forward together best by acknowledging the widespread historical presence and hidden psychic power of these colonial constructs, values and beliefs. We can humanize and afford each other respect when we recognize our wounds, our potential for healing and our capacity to stop harming others by unconsciously playing out narratives of fear and domination. Is it not better to consider “offenders” as flawed, wounded human beings capable of redemption than evil-doers incapable of bettering themselves and their relationships with others?

Second, many of the underlying assumptions of the discourse of decolonialization consciously or unconsciously perpetuate racial essentialism. We cannot disempower the ideology of race and the habit of categorizing people into racial (or any other) hierarchies by capitulating to it if it is not historically justified. Not only are power and privilege intersectional, but many people classified as “non-white” have European ancestors who were conquered, disenfranchised and co-opted in past generations in much the same way as racism plays out today. In whose interest is it to encourage all people with pale skin to identify as White Anglo-Saxons, in exclusion to the wide diversity of languages and cultures from which their ancestors actually hailed? “White” is simply a cypher constructed from the Anglo-Saxon colonial template, blind to the wide variety of Eurasian societies, just as “Black” is an artificial category that ignores the wide variety of African (and other) ethnic groups. Why give these colonial constructs more power than they deserve?

Third, I believe that one effective bridge to developing a greater awareness about the injustices of the legacies of colonialism among people who have been subsumed under a “White” identity is to allow them to understand at a deep level what the experiences of their own ancestors were, the difficulty of the choices they made, and the costs and consequences of those choices. Remember that subaltern people like Scottish Gaels had no independent socio-economic basis for accessing power, territory or wealth. It was their subjugation by an expanding Anglo-British empire that triggered their displacement and exile in the first place. They could only access power and privilege by recourse to anglocentric institutions. Some people resisted, some allied with other marginalized peoples, but most were resigned to accepting the inferiority of the language, culture and identity that they were born with and the necessity of accepting those of the empire. And if they were willing to accept their inferiority, to abandon their cultural inheritance in the name of “progress” and “improvement” and adopt the identity of the colonizing power, why would they fail to see the necessity of helping to carry that same process out on the next frontier of the Empire?

Fourth and finally, the contests for authority and power in Celtic communities are far from over. In all communities, including the last Gaelic-speaking community in North America, there are ongoing struggles to keep the languages and cultures alive and to counteract the centuries of stigmatization. Last week there were protests at the National Museum of Scotland because Gaelic is still being excluded from public exhibitions covering history in which it belongs. There are ongoing efforts to get an official Irish Language Act in place in Northern Ireland, which has been the site of continuous colonial struggle for over four centuries! Can the champions of decolonizing the curriculum really deny that these are parallel struggles?

Let me bring this back around to my main area of scholarly activity, Scottish Gaelic Studies. Despite the large and invisible presence of millions of people living in America today – of all skin colors – whose ancestors left the Highlands of Scotland, often unhappily and under extreme duress if they had any real choice all, you cannot study this literary legacy in any classroom of our institutions of higher learning. Despite the fact that their skin was “white.” Despite the fact that they were nominally “British.”

In the deeper layers of this literary tradition, there is a powerful indigenous cosmology and tradition. Rather than appropriate the cultural legacy of other peoples (such as First Nations), people of Gaelic ancestry can explore, celebrate and reclaim their own. This should be expected to be a long, difficult and fraught journey, but it is available to those who are committed to it.

Scottish Gaelic literature of the modern era is replete with all of the themes of coloniality that I have outlined in this brief sketch. There is resistance to colonialism, critique of the impositions of imperial authority, resignation to and shame about inferiorization, and efforts to identify with ruling élite and create distance from other marginalized peoples. It was in North America itself, during the French and Indian Wars (“The Seven Years’ War” in British historiography), that Highlanders redeemed themselves from Jacobite misadventures and won acceptance into the imperial order via loyal military service. It was into North America that the dispossessed Gaels flooded for most of the first century of the post-Culloden Highlands. And it was in North America that most Gaels had their first experience of racialized identities and learned to become “white.” And we have the best tools and precedents for decolonizing the Gaelic canon in the North America academy, if only we were allowed the resources to do so.

These complexities are hidden – and the opportunities for redemption are denied – if decolonizing the classroom focuses exclusively on the skin colours of people involved. I would love to see Gaelic literature given the place in the curriculum it deserves, alongside that of all of the other peoples of the world, and the chance to interpret the vices and virtues of those who engaged with it. Gaelic literature embodies and explores a specific way of being in the world, one that puts a premium on language rather than skin colour. The number of English departments enshrining the place of Shakespeare and Austen in our institutions is disproportionately large in comparison to the diversity of languages, literatures, and cosmologies that our ancestors once knew, and we are much the poorer and less tolerant for it.


5 thoughts on “Is Gaelic Literature “White”? Decolonizing the Classroom Should Be About More Than Skin Color

    1. Feumaidh luchd na Beurla an ceann-teagaisg seo a thuigsinn. Ach tha mi an dòchas gun téid luchd na Gàidhlig an sàs anns na gnothaichean seo anns an àm ri teachd, ged nach eil móran gu ruige seo.

  1. Mura bi muinntir na Beurla a’ gabhail ri argamaidean dhen t-seòrsa seo, tha feagal orm nach bitheadh muinntir na Gàidhlig a’ gabhail riutha na bu mhotha. 😦

    1. Chì sinn. Tha fios ‘am gum bheil feadhainn a’ tuigsinn brìgh mo chinn-teagaisg agus ag aontachadh ris, ach cha bhi h-uile duine a’ tarraing air an aon ràmh. Sin cor an t-saoghail.

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