Gaelic as Social Justice, Part 4: Promoting Gaelic as an Anti-Racist Action
In previous articles in this series, I have argued that the Scottish Gaels – the cultural group to which the Gaelic language belongs – have for centuries constituted a persecuted minority in Scotland and the UK more generally; and that promoting their language, Scottish Gaelic, is a question of social justice. Some people feel uncomfortable with the idea of the Gaels as a minority ethnic group, thinking that because the majority of Gaels are considered to be white, the promotion of their language must be racist rather than anti-racist. This view is incorrect, for two reasons. In the first place, not all Gaels are white. Membership in the community of Gaelic identity has historically depended not on genetics or blood-quantum, but on being raised by Gaels in a Gaelic community. The child of a Gael, if raised with Gaelic traditions, is a Gael – whether born or adopted, and whatever the colour of their skin. In the second place, it should be noted that the historical relationship between Gaels and ‘whiteness’ is far from straightforward. For much of their history, the Gaels – even if phenotypically pale-skinned – were not considered white. In fact, for much of the time that there have been Gaels, the concept of ‘whiteness’ simply did not exist, as I will explain.
It was only in the late seventeenth century – when Gaelic culture had already been exterminated in the Lowlands, and the government of William of Orange had begun its campaigns of state-sponsored terrorism and military occupation in the Highlands – that the construct of ‘whiteness’ begin to take its modern shape. Whiteness was concocted by wealthy English-speaking landowners in English colonies in the New World, largely to prevent uprisings by slaves and working-class freemen in colonial North America. Traditionally, the distinction between slaves and freemen had been a religious one, with Christians as the owners and non-Christians as the owned, but – as more and more slaves underwent religious conversion to Christianity – it seemed necessary to distinguish slave from master on a different basis. At that time, European servants felt tremendous sympathy for the plight of Afro-Caribbean slaves and vice versa, and the threat of uprisings by the collective colonial underclass against their exploitative bosses and masters constantly loomed. By dividing the exploited workers among ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’, and constantly giving the ‘whites’ preferential treatment while insisting that ‘white’ people had more in common with one another than with ‘Black’ people, the colonial elite succeeded in undermining worker solidarity before it could cast down their unjust authority.
Before the invention of whiteness, the idea of ‘race’ had mostly to do with nationality in the sense of linguistic and cultural affiliation. It was possible to speak of the ‘French race’, for instance, or the ‘English race’ – or, for that matter, the ‘Gaelic race’ – in a way that no longer makes sense according to the modern construct of race. Even when the idea of whiteness began to gain traction, not all people who are today considered ‘white’ were initially perceived as such. At first, the right to be ‘white’ was limited to pallid Protestants who spoke English as a first language, with other light-skinned Europeans still thought of as belonging to lesser ‘races’. The Scottish Gaels began to be considered ‘white’ only in the mid-to-late 1700s, when – after the Jacobite defeat at Culloden – they ceased to pose a military threat to the constitutional arrangement of the United Kingdom. Only when the British state had conquered them and begun to culturally assimilate them did their status in the eyes of the elite change from ‘savage’ to ‘white’.
Thus, being the language of the Scottish Gaels does not make Gaelic a language of ‘whiteness’. If anything, the recognition of the Scottish Gaels and their language as indigenous goes a long way toward dismantling the construct of whiteness. When cultural groups who have been labelled ‘white’ refuse to play the role of the white oppressor – that is, refuse to feel solidarity with other ‘whites’, but, instead, embrace the long-suppressed indigeneity of their forbears – they make cracks in the edifice of whiteness that might one day help bring the whole decrepit construct crashing down.
The end of whiteness would be a very good thing, because destroying solidarity among whites would mean they could no longer mobilize to oppress non-white people. For instance, If the so called ‘identitarians’ currently cruising the Mediterranean to murder hapless refugees didn’t think of themselves as ‘white people’ or members of ‘Western culture’, they suddenly wouldn’t feel so eager to defend the ‘European homeland’ from African and Middle-Eastern incomers, because the ‘European homeland’ (read ‘white homeland’) wouldn’t exist for them anymore. In a world where culture mattered more than colour, they would have little more in common with other Europeans than they would with the migrants they currently fear and despise, and would see no reason to seek common cause against them. Similarly, in the United States, racist mayoral cabinets, police departments, and zoning boards could no longer look out for the interests of ‘the white race’ if they ceased to believe that there were such a race. By this, I don’t mean the old neo-liberal trap of ‘colour-blindness’, wherein people pretend to observers that there are no races so that they can pursue policies of white supremacy without seeming overtly racist, but rather to the wholesale destruction of whiteness – the conceptual dividing of white people into distinct cultural groups based on their current or ancestral regional and cultural affiliations until the white race itself has been dismantled.
In the age of whiteness, a Gael is perceived as being basically the same as a Welsh person, who is perceived as being like an English person, for the simple reason that the nations to which they belong are thought of as being majority ‘white’. For the same reason, all three are looked on as being somehow more similar to each other than to a Berber or a Khoi-san (who are ‘Black’), or to a Shawnee or a Cherokee (who are ‘Native American’). Before the construct of whiteness existed, however, each of these people – the Gael, the Welsh person, the English person, the Berber, the Khoi-san, the Shawnee, and the Cherokee – would have been seen as representatives of equally distinct nations, none of which (aside from their situation within or outwith Christendom) had any special relationship to any other. Each of these nations – and any of the thousands of other nations throughout the word – had a particular set of cultural traditions, including language, and it was usually possession of these cultural attributes, rather than appearance or genetics, that defined one’s membership in the nation.
So, in conclusion, I say to those who insist that promoting a British language in Britain is racist that I agree with them – but only if the language in question is English. The English language is, and has been for at least 300 years, a language of whiteness, empire, settler colonialism, and cultural genocide – not only in Britain, but throughout the world. English was the language of Indian Removal and Black slavery in North America; the military conquest, occupation, and resource depletion of much of Africa and Asia; and the murder, rape, and cultural degradation of the indigenous peoples of Australia and Oceania. ‘English-language-only’ was the explicit policy of the soul-destroying compulsory state schools to which indigenous people in every conquered land of the British and American Empires – including the occupied Scottish Highlands – were forced to send their children in order that they be divested of their ancestral cultures. The promotion of Scottish Gaelic in Scotland is therefore not at all comparable to the promotion of English in Scotland. The former is an example of social justice activism, whereas the latter – if undertaken to the exclusion of the promotion of other languages – only furthers imperialism and cultural assimilation. Therefore, while the suggestion that Scottish children should be taught English in school and be encouraged to speak English on the playground ought to meet with grave misgivings and thoughtful caution, the idea that the same children should learn and speak Gaelic should be entirely uncontroversial – especially if the children in question are, in fact, Gaels. To deny the Gaels the right to use and propagate their own language in the country in which they live and in which that language originated – a country which was, historically speaking, wrested from them through coercion, and which was largely built on lands stolen from them by the state – is to actively will their destruction as a people, and to callously and unconscionably deny them the justice they are due. Conversely, to stand up for Gaelic and Gaelic speakers in Scotland is to strike a blow against global English-language hegemony and white supremacy – not only for the Gaels, but on behalf of minoritized communities throughout the world.