Thinking critically about St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patrick’s Day is here, and the spirit of the day is apparent everywhere. Shamrocks and clovers decorate people and walls, while American rivers run green with Irish pride. Similar to the way many non-Mexicans celebrate“CincodeMayo,”most of the people who celebrate St. Patrick’s Day are not Irish. St. Patrick’s Day seems like just a harmless day on which people go to parades and drink lots of beer, but is it actually an example of subtle cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is a difficult subject to understand completely. At surface level, cultural appropriation can be defined as when a person from one culture adopts any aspect of another culture. This definition is weak, though, because it includes nearly everything that exists in the “melting pot” of the United States. Under this basic definition, yes, St. Patrick’s Day is an example of cultural appropriation. By that same definition, though, non-Europeans should not wear jeans, white people should not eat tacos, and atheists should not celebrate Christmas. Some of the greatest features of living in the United States come from the vast diversity of cultures. Many Americans are proud to live in a place where one store sells both Chinese food and pizza — both good foods, both from different cultures. The question, then, is why are some forms of cultural appropriation frowned upon while others are celebrated?

Everyday Feminism Magazine offers a deeper understanding of cultural appropriation: “a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.” Basically, for there to be cultural appropriation, there must be a majority party that is taking important, celebrated aspects of another, more oppressed party. It is impossible for a person from an oppressed culture to practice cultural appropriation because, more times than not, oppressed people have to adopt aspects of the majority culture whether they want to or not. When Irish people first came to the United States, especially after the potato famine, they were oppressed and marginalized by the other people who already lived here. Furthermore, most of the people who celebrate St. Patrick’s Day now do not understand its cultural significance. Thus, St. Patrick’s Day is, in fact, an example of subtle cultural appropriation.

Other common examples of cultural appropriation include white people wearing cornrows or dreadlocks, and schools and football teams having offensive Native American mascots. How can a football team with no Native American members pretend to be honoring Native American culture by calling themselves the Redskins? Do people even know what “redskin” means? At best, it is a derogatory term for Native Americans. According to Esquire magazine, though, “redskin” actually refers to “the scalped head of a Native American, sold, like a pelt, for cash.” Either way, the definition is demeaning to Native Americans, and the mascot needs to change.

Some examples of cultural appropriation had lasting, positive effects on one culture, while negatively affecting another. The best example of this is the way African American music has been taken over by white people. Many Americans mistakenly believe that Elvis Presley, “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” was the first person to produce that style of music. Rock ‘n’ Roll music, one of the most appreciated musical revolutions in history, was not invented by Elvis, though. Actually, Rock ‘n’ Roll comes originally from African American artists. Even the term “Rock ‘n’ Roll” is appropriated from African American culture — originally existing as black slang for having sex. When white people claimed Rock ‘n’ Roll, the effect on black culture was devastating in that an entire art form was stolen, and future profits went to white people instead of African Americans. The same has occurred recently with hip-hop, in that white rappers like Eminem, Macklemore, and Iggy Azalea have gained success and fame from a style of music created by black culture. In some cases, white rappers have had more success than the African American rappers who created the genre. While cultural appropriation of these genres of music has negatively affected the African Americans who were the original producers of the music, consumers of the two genres gained immense amounts of quality material.

There are also some scenarios in which cultural appropriation is more acceptable. For instance, if a white man buys traditional Indian clothing from a person from India who makes Indian clothing, the man is doing more than simply purchasing Indian fashion — he is supporting and appreciating the culture. Instead of buying the clothing from a company owned by white people, he purchased his clothing directly from an Indian, proving he appreciates the style for its cultural significance, not just its fashion statement.

Overall, whether one’s cultural appropriation is acceptable or not comes down to one simple question: is somebody from the culture you are appropriating offended by what you are wearing, doing or saying? If the answer is yes, then you are wrong. In this sense, St. Patrick’s Day is a difficult subject. Personally, I’ve not heard of an Irish person being offended by the way Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day — but that doesn’t mean every Irish person feels the same way. St. Patrick was known for going to Ireland and converting the entire country to Catholicism, but not everybody wants to thank him for the way Catholicism controls the government and the morality of the people. This is not to say that we shouldn’t celebrate at all, though. The best thing to do today is to be respectful while celebrating Irish culture. Don’t wear Ireland’s flag. Unless you understand who St. Patrick really was and what he really did, don’t mention him at all. And, unless it’s specially made by some secret Irish brewing recipe that distorts the color, don’t drink green beer and say it’s Irish; (the Irish like their amber beer just fine).

7 Comments

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    Let’s skip to the really important question. Why its OK to punch cultural appropriaters.

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    I think the author simply buys too much into western social thought. Does he not question whether or not someone feeling offended is relevant to begin with?

    I find much of what Americans people call “offensive” can be answered with “so what?” Not only are most offenses not intentional or hateful by international standards, they tend to simply mean some level of inequity, which against is mostly a bad thing only by western beliefs. Generally, the freedom to do what you want supersedes someone else’s need to be unoffended. This is the attitude Americans should work towards.

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    As an American of Irish ancestry, I’m personally extremely offended that someone with the last name Wagner (umm, Nazi much?), thinks it’s okay for him to speak to the struggles of my people. Stop Teutonsplaining, listen, believe, and be a good (i.e. silent) ally.

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    Live with First generation Canadian Irish and am friends with plenty of pagan identified Irish and mixed Irish that drink away their disgust at the young people that use St Patrick’s Day as an excuse to get sloshed saying “Today everyone is Irish”. All mention this us a family oriented day that yes involves a good celebration so most likely there will be beer flowing, but they are very offended that everyone else is joining in and being foolish about it. And many if the Pagan friends are also deeply concerned with the implications of celebrating a Catholic saint which is very symbolic to the end of a long Era of indigenous culture.

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      If you grow up in a modern Western society and adopt a grab-bag of pre-Christian spiritual beliefs and practices from ancient European peoples, does that also count as cultural appropriation?

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    The author has never encountered actual Irish people who were offended by St. Paddy’s festivities- but that won’t stop him from being preemptively offended in their behalf.

    It must be awfully tiresome to live in a world where everything is always wrong.

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      But that’s a way to socially-signal your virtue, and a way to political power. Define a term like “racism” or “cultural appropriation” as being terrible but only possible by white people, and guilt-trip your way to power.

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