Den amerikanska historikern och marxisten Noel Ignatiev har nyligen gått bort som räknas som en av den kritiska vithetsforskningens grundare och hans avhandling från 1995 – ”How the Irish became white” – är en av vithetsforskningsfältets allra mest citerade referenser. Ignatiev (som jag en gång i tiden brevväxlade med) låg också bakom tidskriften Race Traitor (som jag prenumererade på under en period) och vars motto ”treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity” provocerade åtskilliga på högerkanten:
”In 1995, Noel Ignatiev, a recent graduate of the doctoral program in history at Harvard, published his dissertation with Routledge, an academic press. Many such books appear, then disappear, subsumed into the endless paper shuffling of the academic credentialling process. But Ignatiev was not a typical graduate student, and his book, “How the Irish Became White,” was not meant to stay within the academy.
A fifty-four-year-old Marxist radical, Ignatiev had come to the academy after two decades of work in steel mills and factories. The provocative argument at the center of his book—that whiteness was not a biological fact but rather a social construction with boundaries that shifted over time—had emerged, in large part, out of his observations of how workers from every conceivable background had interacted on the factory floor. Ignatiev wasn’t merely describing these dynamics; he wanted to change them. If whiteness could be created, it could also be destroyed.
“How the Irish Became White” quickly broke out of the academic-publishing bubble. Writing in the Washington Post, the historian Nell Irvin Painter called it “the most interesting history book of 1995.” Mumia Abu-Jamal, the activist and death-row inmate, provided an enthusiastic back-cover blurb. Today, many of the ideas Ignatiev proposed or refined—about the nature of whiteness, and about the racial dynamics that unfold among immigrant workers—are taken for granted in classrooms; they influence films, literature, and art. But Ignatiev found it hard to accept the academic rewards that came with his book’s success. Committed to radicalism, he spent much of his time in academia doing what he had done on the factory floor: publishing leaflets and zines about the possibilities of revolutionary change.”
”Ignatiev’s speech was energetic, funny, and shot through with brio and irony. But it included a note of reflection. Ignatiev said that he had spent most of his life around people who vehemently disagreed with everything he said; he was confident that he had always been right, but also pretty sure that being right had amounted to nothing. He seemed to be posing a difficult question for those who believe, as Ignatiev did, in spontaneous revolutionary change: How do you measure success if the revolution hasn’t yet come? A few days later, Ignatiev flew out to Arizona to see his daughter and grandchildren. On November 9th, he died, at the age of seventy-eight.
The question of what Ignatiev accomplished is especially hard to answer because his radicalism took so many forms. He was born in 1940, in Philadelphia, into a family of working-class Russian Jews. By seventeen, he had joined the Communist Party; after dropping out of the University of Pennsylvania, he moved to Chicago to work in the steel mills. He would be a factory laborer for more than two decades, always with an eye toward provoking his fellow-workers into looking at their struggle in new ways.
In 1967, he composed a letter to the Progressive Labor Party that outlined his views. “The greatest ideological barrier to the achievement of proletarian class consciousness, solidarity and political action is now, and has been historically, white chauvinism,” Ignatiev wrote. “White chauvinism is the ideological bulwark of the practice of white supremacy, the general oppression of blacks by whites.” He argued that it would be impossible to build true solidarity among the working class without addressing the question of race, because white workers could always be placated by whatever privileges, however meaningless, management dangled in front of them. The only way to change this was for white working-class people to reject whiteness altogether. “In the struggle for socialism,” Ignatiev wrote, white workers “have more to lose than their chains; they have also to ‘lose’ their white-skin privileges, the perquisites that separate them from the rest of the working class, that act as the material base for the split in the ranks of labor.”
Many scholars have cited Ignatiev’s letter as one of the first articulations of the modern idea of “white privilege.” But Ignatiev’s version differs from the one we often use today. In his conception, white privilege wasn’t an accounting tool used to compile inequalities; it was a shunt hammered into the minds of the white working class to make its members side with their masters instead of rising up with their black comrades. White privilege was a deceptive tactic wielded by bosses—a way of tricking exploited workers into believing that they were “white.””