"You don't look Irish!"
Last year I “came out” as Irish as part of a Mixed Irish Writers panel at the Crossroads Festival in San Francisco, along with Clare Ramsaran, Caroline Mar and Dylan Amaro-McIntyre. While I have been part of many Japanese and mixed race events, it was the first time I had appeared publicly as part of an Irish community event. I realized that it is never too late to embrace parts of oneself that have been hidden or repressed and it felt good to do so, as if I am becoming more whole.
My feelings of being Irish go back to the first day of school when Mrs. Sullivan, my new teacher, called out my name, “Stephen Murphy” and I raised my hand like she had told us to. She stared at me with a quizzical expression and said sarcastically, “You don’t look like a ‘Stephen Murphy.’” I heard kids whispering and giggling and I was embarrassed and confused.
I recall this incident, and others like it, every year on March 17 when I celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. This is a day on which I am aware that my paternal grandparents came from Ireland. I remember the ambivalence but eventual warmth and acceptance which was extended to us by my Irish immigrant family when we came from Japan after the war. While realizing that I have Irish roots, I am also acutely aware that I was born in Japan to a Japanese mother.
In the U.S., there are self-proclaimed Irishmen who tell multiethnic Irish that we are not Irish. We may also have to deal with the complexity of being Irish but not White, as socially defined. And we may be challenged by those who claim that we are trying to identify as White and rejecting our other ethnic identity. We may have to reassure them that we are not distancing ourselves from our other identity, just embracing our wholeness by claiming all of our heritage.
On St. Patrick’s Day when I belt out classic songs like Foggy Dew, I feel a bit Irish. I realize that the difficulty in being Irish is not mine, but is created by racial divisions. I, and other multiethnic Irish, will encounter challenges to our authenticity—“How Irish are you?” But we can empower ourselves and our children by exploring and knowing our Irish family roots, language, and history, to prove our Irishness.
This year I celebrated quietly, remembering the Irish grandparents who I never met. Because of our physical appearance, being Irish becomes an invisible part of our identity. But we are reminders that every Irish person doesn’t look like a stereotypical Irishman. Irish come in all colors. And the next time someone says to me or my children, “You don’t look like an Irishman,” I’ll just have to say, “Well we are Irish, and this is what we look like, so we must look like Irishmen!”