‘Unofficial’ Is Back, Like a ‘Hungry Ghost’

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I’ve termed, tongue-in-cheek, a one-man
campaign against the ‘Unofficial St.
Patrick’s Day’ event. In reality, no campaign
can be a one-person affair; if it is,
you’re already losing. I’ve received financial
support from the University (who
have their own motives). More significantly, I’ve had the
moral support and intellectual guidance of my colleagues
across a range of social and political movements here in
the community and further afield which has reassured me
that my sense of pain and outrage is valid and reasonable.
I’ve, thus, come to understand how stereotyping disempowers
those objectified. Most importantly, I’ve come to
realize the ways in which this issue is similar to challenges
faced by other ethnic and cultural groups, as well as the
important ways in which it differs.
Most of the time, when we see criticism of ‘Unofficial,’
it is in terms of the danger binge-drinking represents to
those engaged in it, or annoyance at these uncouth, undisciplined
students, interfering with the regular operations
of the university and the community. While I too am concerned
about any physical endangerment, these aspects
have never been my primary concern. The notion of a
Fools’ Day, a chance to break free of the rules and strictures
of day-to-day life, is an old one, and can provide an
opportunity to up-end social norms, representing, on the
face of it, the social mobility and practical critique of
authority we might otherwise desire. University of Illinois
students, though, are not generally among the most disadvantaged
in our society. To what extent is this an example
of the already-privileged exerting that privilege to exempt
themselves from the rules that bind others? Is the city’s
timid response based on the fact that this event’s main promoter
is a prominent local businessman?”
Reflecting on ‘Unofficial’ as an example of cultural
stereotyping at the University, I have found myself doing so
in the shadow of that most blatant example of racism and
cultural appropriation, the “Chief.” As I write this, window
displays in campus-town stores juxtapose these two “traditions”
in a disturbing montage of arrogance and presumptuous
racism. At the same time, it is more than a truism to
note that there are important differences between the two
acts of appropriation. The expansionist history of the United
States involved the killing of many Native Americans, as
well as the destruction of much Native American culture,
whereas that same expansion provided many opportunities
for Irish immigrants. There are few individuals on campus
who identify as having Native ancestry, while many individuals
claim at least some Irish ancestry. The ‘Chief’ was
officially sanctioned as a symbol of this campus, while university
authorities have taken various steps to discourage
and suppress ‘Unofficial’ events.
These points speak to the special context of the ‘Chief’
and suggest why it became such an important issue on this
campus. None of the points, however, negate the problematic
nature of the Unofficial event, such as it is. I have
learnt, too, that it is important to avoid turning these
experiences into a competition, where a group ‘wins’ by
being more put upon—this benefits nobody, and prevents
us from learning from the common ways in which different
forms of stereotyping, appropriation, and prejudice
each act to erase the humanity of individuals and groups.
Further, as is so often the case, the so-called mitigating
factors of the ‘Unofficial’ event lose their sheen when
examined in any detail. I’ve had many people claim “I’m
Irish too” as a defense for some prejudicial remark. These
people are, almost invariably, many generations removed
from their immigrant ancestors. They don’t speak with an
Irish accent, and, rarely if ever, practice any Irish customs.
Their Irishness is a cloak to be put on or taken off as convenience
dictates, and is generally musty from lack of use,
lying forgotten in a dark closet of the mind until pulled
out with a rhetorical flourish.
I’m proud of my heritage, of Irish literary culture and
scientific accomplishments. I’m happy when someone’s
questions allow me to boast about our beautiful landscapes.
I’m glad that many people are able to feel pride in
a connection, however tenuous, to my country and my
people. But it would be more than charitable to describe a
one-dimensional identification of Irish culture with drinking
as tokenism.
We can quibble over the reasons for this stereotype.
Many will point to the role played by advertising campaigns,
most notably that of Guinness. Perhaps less wellknown
is the history of imagery of the Irish—how we have
so often been portrayed as sub-human, irrational, not in
control of our actions. While being seen as poets and
raconteurs is, on one level, a neat reclamation (a positive
twist on decidedly negative prejudices), on another level,
it traps us within the bounds of those same images.
In the case of ‘Unofficial,’ we have an event created and
promoted by bar owners, for commercial purposes, which
further reduces Irishness to a single concept: “Drink until
you’re Irish,” say the T-shirts; “Unofficially wasted.” Any
sense of reclamation undone, the implications—never
subtle enough to be connotations—are painful, upsetting.
And so, it’s helpful—nay, important, necessary—to
have the tools of critical reflection, and bonds of fellowship
with those who can engage us in dialogue. I’m grateful,
therefore, for my fellow activists who have assisted me
in my personal and intellectual growth, providing emotional
support and enabling me to engage productively
with this issue.

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