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  • Writer's pictureElaine Kelly

How can a White Person Feel the Effects of Racism?

Updated: Apr 27, 2022

Good question. As a member of the white Anglo-Saxon majority, how can I write about a fictional character of mixed heritage who struggles against racism? My earlier post describes some of how my character hides who she is, feeling like a racial imposter. I cannot feel what she feels. I must work to develop an understanding of my character by hearing their stories and relying on empathy and history. It is comparable to how a male author writes the feelings of a female character. Canada and the US have a rich history of people with mixed heritages who experience racism both as victims and oppressors.

History shows people ostracized for their heritage or beliefs

In my biblical fiction Forgotten Followers, the character of Joanna hides her mixed heritage to avoid persecution or ostracism. Today, many of us may hide our beliefs, orientation, or opinions for the same reasons.

Irish Catholics

Irish Catholics were treated as inferior by the British for centuries. In the 1800s, English vessels stopped at Irish ports before crossing the Atlantic to load provisions and recruit Irish labourers for the fishery. By 1840, roughly half of Newfoundland's population was of Irish origin. When my husband and I visited Newfoundland, we learned that fishing companies sometimes loaded Irishmen onto the boats while they were drunk. The companies hired desperately poor Irish fishermen as seasonal workers, telling them they would return to Ireland in the fall. But in the fall, fishing companies, wanting to load their boats with more fish, often abandoned Irish fishers to starve or freeze in Newfoundland over the winter. The British rulers were Protestant and persecuted Catholics but were granted religious liberty by 1779. By the 1780s, the Irish constituted close to half of the population of the island. Fishermen could be self-employed, but fishing companies controlled the prices for fishermen's supplies and the prices for fishermen's sales, keeping fisher families in poverty.

When my husband and I visited Ireland we stopped at the National Irish Famine Museum at Roscommon, outlining what happened during Ireland's Great Famine of 1845–1852. Britain had prevented Catholic Irish from land ownership and education, keeping them in a low-class situation, surviving as potato tenant farmers. When the potato blight caused starvation, Britain accused the Irish of being lazy and denied them food aid. Waves of Irish immigrated to Canada and the US.

My mother's ancestors were Anglo-Irish Protestants, without the education or wealth of Britons, they were still loyal to Britain and able to settle in Upper Canada (now Ontario), and make a living by building barns, and clearing rocks, and farming. Catholic Irish had a harder time. Catholic Irish often arrived with little money and the British bias against the Irish meant lower wages, living in slums, and finding work in difficult and dangerous jobs such as building canals or railways. Some municipalities in predominantly Protestant Upper Canada did not permit Catholic churches within their boundaries. After defending the borders against American invasions in 1812 – 1815, the dominant Anglo-Saxon population was suspicious that the Catholic Irish would not be loyal to the British Crown. In fact, there was continuing Irish resentment against Britain, and some Irish who immigrated to Canada, later moved to the US and in the 1860s conducted Fenian raids attacking Canada, still a British Colony, in an effort toward Irish independence from Britain.

While Catholics have been a large part of Canada since the beginning, due to the dominance of French Catholics in Lower Canada, later called Quebec, Catholics were a minority in Canada as a whole. For that reason, French Canadians required specific protections in the British North America Act that formed Canada in 1867. English Canada began to receive more Catholics after WW2, with immigrants from Italy, Poland, parts of the Netherlands, and the Philippines. About a third of Canadians are now affiliated with the Catholic church.

Americans also had a negative reaction to the wave of Irish immigrants in the 1850s. Signs went up in store windows saying: No Irish Need Apply”. Irish could only get low-paid menial and dangerous jobs: cutting canals, digging ditches, laying rail lines, cleaning houses, working in textile mills, farms and stables. This may have been related to both their nationality and their religion. An American movement called Nativism grew: a fear of outsiders and immigrants, combined with a love of the homeland. President Abraham Lincoln opposed the nativist movement in an 1855 letter: “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’". He went on to warn against the Know-Nothing Party, saying if nativism grows, "it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ Sound familiar? America did not have a Catholic president until John F Kennedy in 1961.

German Canadians

My father’s ancestors emigrated to British Canada in 1831 from Wurttemberg, one of the sovereign states of the German Confederation (1815-1866). They struggled to clear the land, and build a home and farm.

In Germany, the Industrial Revolution was beginning, rural people moved to cities, there was civil unrest and unemployment and the poor and low-class were encouraged to emigrate.

From 1820 to 1870, over seven and a half million immigrants came to the United States - about a third from Ireland and almost a third from Germany.

German Canadians were one of Canada’s largest ethnic categories for a time, second only to the British. Many United Empire Loyalists emigrated to Canada due to their loyalty to Britain during the American Revolution (1775-1783). German Mennonites, mostly Anabaptist farmers, began to settle in Canada due to their pacifist beliefs. Preferring to settle together, they acquired a huge area in Waterloo County and attracted a concentration of German settlers in the early 1800s. After Canada granted religious immunity from military service in 1899, all but one of America’s 18 German-speaking Hutterite colonies who had immigrated from Ukraine to South Dakota in the 1870s, relocated to Canada. At the same time, the Mennonites in Russia lost their military exemption and emigrated to Canada.

However, during WW1, Germanophones opposed Germans and pacifists and anyone who did not assimilate into Anglo-American culture. US President Woodrow Wilson said, “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him, carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic.”

In 1917, Canada disenfranchised all German Canadians who had immigrated since 1902 and classed German Canadians as 'enemy-aliens'. Canada classified Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, and Ukrainians as 'enemy aliens' and interned over 8,500 men during WW1. German cultural clubs and associations were dissolved, German schools closed, German-language newspapers stopped, German books were removed from libraries, and family and street names were changed. In 1916, Berlin, Ontario, changed its name to Kitchener, after a senior British Army officer. From 1919 to 1923, Canada prohibited German immigration, and in 1924 Germans were readmitted as ‘non-preferred’ immigrants, restricted to agricultural and domestic work. Germans often hid their heritage by using their mixed heritage. If you were part German, part Britain, you would benefit by saying you were of British heritage. Someone with a German and British heritage would say they were British; some with German heritage would identify by their Russian or Jewish heritage, and many of German heritage who had come via the US would claim their American heritage.

Following the horrors caused by the WW2 German dictator, German refugees were refused care by the United N