“Race, Whiteness and the Myth of Celtic Appalachia”

(Photo by Laura Hope-Gill)

A talk delivered to Asheville WordFest April 14, 2019.

(Video of talk and audience response available here on Vimeo.)

If there is one non-native ethnic group who are invoked to explain the history and character of Appalachia, it is the so-called “Scotch-Irish.” From the mid-nineteenth century to the present, a stereotype of clannish, stubborn, bellicose, hard-scrabble white folk has been invoked to explain all manner of issues pertaining to Appalachia.

If a reminder of the ongoing influence of the Scotch-Irish myth is needed, one could scan the best-selling book Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance (2016) for quotes such as these:

… to understand me, you must understand thatI am a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart. … I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent … The Scots-Irish are one of the most distinctive subgroups in America. … This distinctive embrace of cultural tradition comes along with many good traits—an intense sense of loyalty, a fierce dedication to family and country—but also many bad ones. We do not like outsiders or people who are different from us, whether the difference lies in how they look, how they act, or, most important, how they talk. To understand me, you must understand that I am a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart.

In recent decades, the idea has entered into the popular imagination that the Scotch-Irish are Celtic and that this ethnic background helps to explain their history and presumed idiosyncrasies. Once we begin to unwind the clock and unpack the assumptions, however, the contradictions and ironies begin to mount and what seemed like a simple proposition really isn’t. History is always more complicated than we expect and identity more slippery. 

I must make the caveat from the onset that I am wading into tangled, multilayered, and delicate issues that would take an entire book or semester of college courses to explore in detail. I hope you will be patient with me as I zoom through wide expanses of treacherous terrain.

Appalachia’s Scotch-Irish identity is intimately tied to whiteness, but racial constructs are more convoluted than they appear. Whiteness is not an organic, biological dispensation but a construct of English colonialism in North America to facilitate what all empires do: create hegemonies and hierarchies for the purposes of domination and exploitation. In his book The Idea of English Ethnicity, Robert Young shares an important conclusion about the racial myth-making that accompanied the British Empire at its nineteenth-century apogee:

Englishness was constructed as a translatable identity that could be adopted or appropriated anywhere by anyone who cultivated the right language, looks, and culture. … authentic Englishness was itself transformed into a mode of masquerade that was best performed far from home, a global identity into which others could always translate themselves, however distant from England their place of birth. (pp. 1-2, 3)

These elements were present in early phases of English imperial expansion. The myth of Anglo-Saxon superiority transplanted to North American soil developed into whiteness and Manifest Destiny. The adoption of an anglocentric-identity erased the ethnicities of those willing and equipped to adopt it, producing the illusion of a monolithic whiteness. Whiteness reinforces social and political hegemony by providing material reward and psychological comfort to those enclosed within the bounds of anglo-conformity.

Of course, a handful of broad racial blocs have erased the ethnic identity of most constituent peoples but in differing and unequal ways: the distinct cultures and identities of people stolen from Africa and enslaved in America were intentionally erased and replaced with the blanket racial category of “black” that had no meaning to them. Similarly, hundreds of individual native nations in the Americas had their distinctive identities erased with the label “Indian” or the color “red.” And so on.

The process of becoming white was different because it offered material and symbolic compensation for assimilation at the top of the racial hierarchy. Even so, some ethnicities now considered “white” were not initially categorized as such but had to make strenuous efforts for decades to be included within its bounds. These processes of hegemony and co-option have a long history within the British Isles relevant for understanding their application in North America. The destruction of the political and social institutions of Celtic communities by the expanding English empire made resistance to assimilation difficult in the diaspora, not least because the cultures and identities of Celtic peoples had already been stigmatized before they emigrated.  

Allow me to illustrate the myth of whiteness by making a literary tangent into a very American mythic narrative, the origin story of the comic-book hero Superman. Born as “Kal-El” on planet Krypton, his parents send him away in a spacecraft to Earth knowing that their own planet was on the brink of destruction. It lands in the countryside of the US and the toddler is adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent, and raised as their own. They soon discover, however, that young Clark has superhuman powers and they instruct him to use these powers for good. He moves from his rural town to Metropolis, where he keeps his superhero identity secret and works as a journalist, while saving people and civilization when they were in peril. 

This story was written in the late 1930s by Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster. Siegel’s parents were Jews who fled Lithuania and changed their names after moving to America. Shuster’s parents were also Jews who had emigrated from the Netherlands and Ukraine. What I find so fascinating and insightful about the Superman origin story is that it is a reflection of the creation of whiteness and an American version of what is referred to in an Anglo-British context as the “white man’s burden.” Allow me to retell the story in those terms.

Seeing that their society was on the brink of disaster, the parents send their child to a foreign world where he will be safe. In fact, unlike his birth-place, his new home gives him powers beyond what he had before. His early life was in the rural countryside, but economic opportunity brings him to the city. He assumes an ultra-English name: the name “Clark” being a literate bureaucrat, and the name “Kent” being one of England’s so-called “home counties” which borders the greater London metropole. As a journalist, he has the power to determine how history is recorded and interpreted. As a superhero, he personifies the global dominance assumed by the United States in that era, intervening all in sorts of conflicts. He must keep his original pre-immigration identity secret, however, for contact with relics of his true origin – kryptonite – makes him vulnerable.

There are unmistakable parallels with the history of immigrants coming to the United States because of crises in the country of their birth. Jews, such as the families of the authors, are notable examples. Millions of refugees came to the United States from Europe and the Near East out of genuine desperation, their home communities persecuted, torn apart by war, and ground down by poverty. There was plenty of trauma, existential anxiety and vulnerability in generations of immigrants, but it was more often repressed from shame than processed in cultural or psychological terms. In other words, I believe that underneath the white mask of power and seeming invincibility is a history of unresolved trauma and fear, a sort of collective post-traumatic stress syndrome. Immigrants saw the mask of whiteness as providing them with security and status, so many made strenuous efforts to adopt it, adapt to it, and negotiate its boundaries to include them.

It’s also easy for us today to forget how much people’s inner and outer lives were disrupted and disoriented during the transformations of industrialization, especially in its peak in the nineteenth century. Millions of Europeans went from a deep sense of attachment to the countryside and the traditions of their ancestors, communities of deep family connections and personal inter-dependencies, to impersonal urban areas where relations were based on abstractions and transactions. This was an entirely different mode of existence than people had previously known, and the transition from rural peasantry to urban working class did not always happen willingly.

I’ll return now to where the Scotch-Irish fit into this picture and why the myth-making around them matters. The Scotch-Irish only came into being as an ethnic group when the English Crown made a systematic effort to conquer and colonize Ireland in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The north of Ireland was a target for these efforts. Why? Because for generations, Ulster had been a hotbed of Gaelic resistance. It was a bridge between the Gaelic chieftains of Ireland and the Gaelic chieftains of the Scottish Highlands. Gaelic society spanned this archipelago, and warrior-mercenaries vital to resistance in Ireland came from Scotland via Ulster.

The English crown declared the estates of Gaelic lords forfeit and granted them to other aristocrats who promised to be loyal and populate the land with settlers who would progress the aims of colonization. Of course, things did not always work according to plan, but the rhetoric of colonization and empire glorified Anglocentric, Protestant identities, and was explicitly anti-indigenous.

So let me be explicit about this ideology of colonization: every empire justifies its abuse of power and imposition of domination by claiming that it is inherently superior. Since the 12th century, English propagandists claimed that the barbaric Celtic realms needed to be civilized. Celts, whether in Wales, Ireland, or Scotland, were represented as lazy, bestial, thievish, and incapable of exploiting the material resources around them. The Englishman’s burden was to civilize those around him, which required invasion and colonization. Debates continued into the mid-19th century about whether it was better to try to reform Celtic peoples or simply kill them all off.

This ideology of the opposition between the civilized and savage is reflected in one of the cherished classics of English literature in the era of the conquest of Ulster, The Faery Queene by Edmund Spencer. Spencer boosted the English fiction that King Arthur had once ruled Ireland so that conquest could be reframed as the regaining of ancient territory. And the conquest of Ireland would have the benefit, he implies, of improving it, just as Britain had been supposedly improved by English conquest:

The land, which warlike Britons now possesse,
And therein have their mightie empire raysd
In antique times was salvage wilderness
Unpeopled, unmanured, unprov’d, unpraysd … (FQ II.x.5)

This passage contains a deep Truth about the psycho-dynamics of colonialism: that the colonizer himself is internally colonized, and this psychic damage to the fulness of his humanity is what enables him to pass the damage on to others. Texts such as this imply that imposing English civilization on the barbarity of Ireland would be a replay of Britain’s own imperial past.

The Gaelic perspective on these events was quite different, of course. Here is my translation of a few stanzas from a long Gaelic poem that comments on the perversion of the native order in both cultural and environmental terms:

§ 9. Now they divide Ireland between them – that land of the children of Niall – every single bit of that milk-rich plain of Flann being turned into “acres.” …
§ 11. It is right to enumerate these: we have seen a swapping of norms in Ireland which would have stupefied people in any previous age in the land of Laoghaire of the pure dew.
§ 12. Heavy is the misery: the seats of assembly are emptied; foodstuffs rotting away; the hunting passes are becoming streets. …
§ 26. The cause of all this – being colonized by the Scots and young crowds of London – is God’s vengeance – where have the Gaels gone?

The conquest of Ireland profited the colonial élite, and the triumph boosted the next stage of empire, the colonization of Virginia. Some of those involved in the conquest of Ireland, such as Sir Walter Raleigh (below), went directly on to this continent to expand the reach of empire. Another stream of emigrants to America came from lower orders of colonists in Ireland who were affiliated with the Presbyterian church, whose non-conformity to the Anglican Church of the king set them at odds with political authority. They saw mass migration to American colonies and settlement in self-reliant communities as the best way to maintain their freedoms.

Generations later, in the mid-1800s, the Potato Famine struck Ireland and a large influx of Gaelic Catholic Irish immigrated to the United States. The long-since Americanized Presbyterians did not wish to be identified with their former countrymen, and so adopted the ethnonym “Scotch-Irish” to emphasize the distance between them. Celtic peoples had been long since stigmatized as an inferior race and spokesmen for the Scotch-Irish always touted their fictional credentials as Anglo-Saxons, despite the historical reality that they had ancestry from multiple ethnic origins, including Gaelic. This is one of many examples of how fluid racial categories are and how creative people have been in defining and negotiating them.

For example, in his 1906 book The Scotch-Irish in America, John Walker Dinsmore claimed:

Now, who were, and who are the Scotch-Irish? The common notion is that they are a mongrel breed, partly Scotch and partly Irish; that is, the progeny of a cross between the ancient Scot and the ancient Celt or Kelt. This is an entire mistake. Whatever blood may be in the veins of the genuine Scotch-Irishman, one thing is certain, and that is that there is not mingled with it one drop of the blood of the old Irish or Kelt. From time immemorial these two races have been hostile, and much of the time bitterly so.

So much for brotherly love and solidarity between white folks. The Scotch-Irish felt pressured to obscure any Gaelic ancestry they had and align themselves with the dominant anglocentric hegemony, especially in linguistic and cultural terms. 

Language is commonly touted as a defining feature of Scotch-Irish Appalachia, but it is always a form of English, like “Elizabethan English,” not a Celtic language. Similarly, music, such as ballads and fiddle music, commonly represent Scotch-Irish mountain heritage, but again, this is the heritage of anglophone Britain, not Celts.

The idea of being Celtic or Gaelic or Irish only lost its stigma in America in the second half of the twentieth century as these groups were safely absorbed within the notion of whiteness. As the historical details and cultural specificities of these immigrant experiences have faded from living memory and been replaced by vague symbolic markers such as “Celtic music,” more Americans have been willing to embrace the idea that their ancestors were Celtic, although exactly what this means remains quite fuzzy in popular discourse. 

It is one of many historical ironies that the Scotch-Irish came into existence as an effort to dispossess and disenfranchise the native Gaels in Ireland and now have effectively replaced and erased them in popular discourse in America. This is a repeating pattern in the history of the Celts and other subjugated groups.

I wouldn’t understand these issues so well myself if I had not made the choice to go to live in Scotland and learn all I could in person. I went because of my obsession with Celtic Studies, and I insatiably absorbed as much as I could about Scottish Highland tradition. I find Gaelic literature an absolutely incredible storehouse of insights about human nature, of exquisite imagination, of expressions of indigenous knowledge, of historical memory, and so on. And the music is all that the clichés say about it, and more. And so on. My life has been greatly enriched by my engagement with and participation in Gaelic culture and tradition. 

At a certain level, it seems very strange and surprising that there are millions of Americans who have this ancestry in their background, and yet there is very little awareness of it and virtually no support in the academy. Why is it that so many descendants of Gaelic immigrants, if they are aware of this heritage at all, assume that their ancestors were little better than barbarians and that it was necessary for them to jettison their culture and assimilate? Why is there so little traction for reclaiming and re-evaluating this heritage, whether in the academy or in conjunction with wider social movements for decolonization and social justice? The short answer is that it has everything to do with the nature of whiteness and modernity in the United States.

A deep and nuanced understanding of Gaelic culture and history enables a critique of empire and colonialism within a “white,” European perspective. If the millions of North Americans with Gaelic ancestry now absorbed into whiteness can understand the ethnocidal injustices perpetrated on their own ancestors as an attack on their humanity and on their legitimate culture and identity, that can aid in building bridges of empathy to other victims of colonialism.

Confining the ancestors of all people who are now white to the same category, and assigning the same roles to all such peoples in the past because of current racial monoliths, is not only historically inaccurate, it cuts people off from the miseries and atrocities experienced in the past, prevents them from understanding how it differs from the present, and hinders them from imagining alternative futures.

Part of white frailty is this broken connection with the past. The bridge to an ancestral culture, apart from a few token symbols, was often burnt generations ago, abandoned through a belief in its inferiority. Whiteness, which was once assumed to be a safe haven of privilege, now feels to some people like it is under attack and doomed, and people who are merely white have nowhere else to go psychically. They’ve been conditioned with anglo-conformity and reject anything that is not familiar to this narrowly monolingual, monocultural view of the world.

Consider the militarism of the English-only movement and the videos revealing the hostility shown to people speaking languages other than English in public. This isolation leaves them on a shrinking island of fear and existential anxiety as the old beliefs in inherent superiority ring more and more hollow. And it has important consequences for what elements of their own ancestral past they are willing to embrace or erase.

The British colonial project that created the settler-colonial entities of the United States and Canada was made possible by the conquest and domination of colonies of Celtic communities within Britain and Ireland. The ways in which that original empire was created influenced the forms in which empire was constructed on this continent and elsewhere, yet this is seldom recognized or studied. What is unique about the Celtic peoples in North America – in contrast to people of other European descent – is that they are silently subsumed under the imperial facade of Britishness. 

In saying all of this, I am not attempting to make false equivalents between disparate groups. We can speak of Ireland, America, and Africa being colonized but this does not mean that the process happened in the same way with the same results. Power always finds ways to adapt to the conditions and opportunities that it needs to feed itself, but the results always compromise the full humanity of those subjected to it.

I often see calls these days for decolonization – decolonizing the curriculum, decolonizing the library, decolonizing the media, and so on – but in my estimation, the proposals are not nearly radical enough. The underlying premise seems to be that modernity is more or less inevitable and beneficial, except that racism prevented the material goods, institutional control, and social prestige from being distributed fairly. This is to understand our present conundrum only in terms of materiality and to misunderstand fundamentally how modernity profoundly changed everything for everybody.

As scholars such as Walter Mignolo have discussed, modernity is inherently colonial – it could not come into being and could not continue to operate without coloniality. It is fundamentally about creating large-scale centralizations of power that impose hierarchies on human beings, nature, and knowledge itself. It reduces the universe to a dead machine whose parts must be measured, evaluated, and subject to control and exploitation. It is in contrast to the other ways of being and the nature of relationships between self, community, the environment, and the sacred that nurtured humanity for millennia. Modernity relegates all other alternatives to the dustbin of history while simultaneously objectifying its subjects and degrading nature. Nothing comes for free and our current ecological crisis should remind us that the power and material rewards of modernity are destructive and unsustainable. Modernity has thrived by de-indigenizing the dominant and dispossessing the indigenous.

The song-poetry produced by Scottish Gaels protesting the attack on their society in the 18th century provides a lesson in contrast, such as a song lamenting the large-scale migration to the Cape Fear of the Carolinas shortly before the American Revolution. This is my translation of an excerpt from it (printed in my book We’re Indians Sure Enough: The Legacy of the Scottish Highlanders in the United States):

Because you must sail away and it is not your desire to do so …
Because [the chieftains] will not allow you
to live in the lands that are familiar to you
it is better to leave willingly than to sink into slavery…
[the chieftains] think that you no longer belong to the soil …
they have lost sight of every obligation and pledge that they had
with the men who reclaimed their land from their enemies.

It is this process of uprooting from the soil that provided colonialism with subjects who could knowingly or unknowingly reproduce the chain of disenfranchisement and to entrench the net of trans-national, transactional capitalism. Gaels had few options other than to remain oppressed at home, or to emigrate and become entangled in the oppressions of others. 

It is not too much to ask white Americans to confront the ugly realities of racism in all its manifestations and to applaud the heroic efforts of those working to create a more just, fair, and compassionate society. It is not too much to expect us to learn about the histories of the violence of native genocide and African slavery, and to be conscious of the echoes of these trauma through the generations to the present day. 

However, the efforts of white Americans to comprehend the worlds of their own ancestors in the deep past, and the ways in which coloniality subverted them, should be applauded as equally heroic. Exposing the contradictions and hypocrisies behind the mask of whiteness is necessary for decolonization to have any deep impact and lasting success. In a recent article entitled “Roots Deeper than Whiteness,” David Dean writes:

Realizing the depth of my ancestors’ humanity prior to the advent of white supremacy has given me the strength to be accountable to the harms that they carried out in its name. I have come to believe that facing our country’s history (and my own family history) of racist violence, grieving it and seeking to repair it, could be deeply healing for me rather than shame-filled. I believe that heeding the calls of activists of color to address past and present racial harms, and to unlearn our own conscious and unconscious racial biases, should not be shame-inducing, but instead a process of reconnecting to our true heritage.

If the soul of Appalachia is to be healed, the tangled layers of cultural traumas around whiteness that are concealed by the myth of Celticness need to be unwrapped, examined, and treated with strong medicine. Like the deconstruction of the Superman origin story, we must unwind our origin myths to confront the shadows of our past in order to gain power over ourselves and our future. An identity based on fear of Others and triumphalism over them leads to a pattern of addiction to subjugation and appropriation. And if we want to find a way to co-exist with each other and other life forms on this beautiful little planet, we’ll need to expose and reject the impulses of domination and exploitation embedded within the myths of modernity. 

I’ll conclude this call for diving into this history rather than shunning it with a Gaelic proverb: An rud a théid fad o’n t-sùil // Théid e fad o’n chridhe (“That which goes far away from the eye // Goes far away from the heart”). 

Acknowledgements: Thanks to my friends and colleagues for many helpful comments and suggestions, and stimulating dialogue, in the writing of this talk, namely, Greg C. Adams, Christos Galanis, Rhiannon Giddens, Peter Gilmore, Kent Jewel, Ephraim McDowell, Alastair McIntosh, and Elspeth Turner.


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