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St. Patrick’s Day in Butte, Montana

How a small Montana city taught me not to fear the unknown.

Butte, Montana, is one of the most Irish small cities in America, and Saint Patrick’s Day is an event. My partner, Miles, claimed that Butte is home to the country’s biggest celebration of this holiday, outside of Boston. Second to the St. Patrick’s Day celebration is Evel Knievel Days, which honors the city’s most famous son.

Having grown up in the uptight, puritanical Northeast, visiting Miles’s home state felt like cultural tourism in an exotic place. I was curious about a part of White America I thought I had never seen before. And what could be more White American, I thought, than spending St. Patrick’s Day in Butte, Montana? It would be my first time traveling to a part of Montana outside of Miles’s hometown of Bozeman, one of the few liberal-leaning towns in the red state. His white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes would mark him as someone who may very well be from Butte. But would having him next to me—Black, with a glorious Afro sprouting from my head—be enough to protect me from the racism I was sure thrived in rural white towns like these? He wasn’t sure.

But what I did know was that we would find fun no matter what. We always did. We drove into town the night before the big day. We had a nearly sleepless night in a seedy hotel, woke up late the next morning, and made our way into town just as the St. Patrick’s Day parade was ending. The streets were filled with families and teenagers and college kids all decked out in green. But as night began to fall, the crowd and energy changed with more folks vying to indulge in the holiday before it ended. We walked around town in the bitter cold, ducking into different businesses when we needed to warm up. It was during one of these stops that we tried the famous Irish Butte pasties—a meat-filled baked pastry brought to the U.S. by Irish and Cornish immigrants—in a small neighborhood restaurant that seemed to be filled with folks who knew each other. The bars and pubs became the hubs of the celebration, and, not wanting to miss out on any of them, we spent the night hopping from packed Irish bar to reserved cowboy bar to rowdy frat-boy bar and around again.

Nearly every place I entered, heads would turn for a moment to show me their white faces, including the odd double take from time to time.

Miles may have overstated how grand the celebration would be in Butte, as it doesn’t compare to events across the country in cities like Chicago, New York City, Boston, or even Savannah, Georgia. But being in Butte on that day, Miles’s exaggeration was almost believable. The hum of the green-clad crowd in the city’s “uptown” was amplified by the quiet stillness of the town’s many desolate buildings and the mountains that serve as its backdrop. And looking down on the city from its main hill, Butte looked like an island of light floating in the surrounding darkness. It felt like there was no other celebration going on in the world than this one.

I wanted to see all that Butte, Montana, had to show me. And ultimately, Butte, Montana, saw me too. Nearly every place I entered, heads would turn for a moment to show me their white faces, including the odd double take from time to time. But there were no record-scratch moments—no silences befalling noisy rooms as I had imagined for my first trip to Butte. Instead, I found a familiar discomfort. The familiar questions in eyes that were surprised to see my Black face there and my chin rising instinctively higher, faking confidence before truly feeling it.

And though the packed bars could have felt like the holiday was just another cheap celebration excuse to drink pint after pint of ale, I could feel that this was more about being able to take pride in the history of the once-rich city in their present-day economically depressed community. In the late 1800s, thousands of Irish immigrants flocked to Butte looking for work in the mines. The copper industry that both lit a fire under and smothered the city was built on the backs of these immigrants. Butte’s Irish roots are alive beyond the month of March in the city’s pasty-serving restaurants and Irish fraternal organizations.

The familiar questions in eyes that were surprised to see my Black face there and my chin rising instinctively higher, faking confidence before truly feeling it.

Its mining past is ever present, too—through its streets with names like Platinum and Iron and in the headframes marking some of the many old mine shafts that reach deep into the town’s hills—and was the source of its wealth. Perhaps the most noticeable example that casts a shadow over everything is the giant open-pit mine filled with toxic water. Known as the Berkeley Pit, this mine, which was opened in 1955, is now one of the nation’s largest Superfund sites, a government-funded clean-up site for hazardous pollutants. Flocks of geese have died in the poisoned water when they landed in it to rest during migration. The pit is now one of Montana’s most unlikely tourist attractions, offering self-guided tours and even a gift shop.

By the night’s end I found myself comfortably buzzed and having a good time in a new city. St. Patrick’s Day was officially over; it was past midnight when we headed to our last stop, a packed sports bar in an old bank building. There, among the blaring TVs and in the mass of drunk white people shouting in celebration, I took a quiet moment to myself to reflect on our St. Patrick’s Day adventure in Butte—another memory we now shared. I was thankful. How little harm had come to me, I mused, in a place I assumed would be hostile to my brown self.

That’s when I felt it: a kneading on the back left part of my hair as if a cat were preparing to bed down in it. But when I turned around, what I found was a small, white woman with one small hand on her beer and the other patting and inserting itself into my hair. She was facing away from me shouting into the crowd, “Janet! Come feel this!” Before Janet could squeeze her way through the crowd to us, I removed the woman’s hand from my hair and told her shocked face never to touch me. She backed into the throng of white partiers surrounding us.

Here, finally, was the racist confrontation I feared would occur during a bacchanal in a majority white city in the middle of nowhere. And it was far from the first time something like this had happened to me. The dehumanization of having someone touch you without consent and to question your humanity felt no better in Butte on St. Patrick’s Day than all the other times, but it also felt no worse. I already knew how to react. She didn’t know me, but I already knew her. And dismissed her. I turned back to Miles and asked, “Did you see that?” He hadn’t.

Here, finally, was the racist confrontation I feared would occur during a bacchanal in a majority white city in the middle of nowhere. And it was far from the first time something like this had happened to me.

I took a big gulp of my beer knowing I had as much right to be drinking in Butte on St. Patrick’s Day as anyone else. I was an outsider here, but as a Black woman immigrant, I was an outsider in a lot of places—most places in my own country. Might as well travel, I thought. My sole hesitation about visiting Butte had rested on my belief that I would face a new kind of racism, one that perhaps I wouldn’t know how to meet. But in actuality I had faced worse, in places I call home no less, and that has steeled me with feeling like an outsider everywhere. Butte taught me that I needn’t be fearful about visiting new places where I’m the outsider, because I’ve been an outsider everywhere I’ve gone. There’s nothing new to fear. We stayed at that bar for another hour before making our way down the hill to our motel. But first I took another gulp of beer and patted my beautiful crown.

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