The annual St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast always features some cringeworthy moments.
But this year, a day before it began, some were cringing at a joke made by the host, State Senator Nick Collins, suggesting that City Councilor and mayoral candidate Michelle Wu wasn’t “from Boston.”
That message landed poorly for some in the wake of a deadly mass shooting in Atlanta that left eight people dead, including six Asian women. The killings last week prompted many — including Wu — to speak out about an increase in violence against Asians and their own experiences of being treated as “perpetual foreigners.”
In a statement last Wednesday, Wu, who was born in the United States, said that scapegoating of Asians for the coronavirus pandemic “has reinforced the sense of invisibility and perpetual foreigner status that so many of us have known our entire lives.”
Collins’s remark came in response to the video Wu had released in advance of the St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast, which took place virtually on Sunday. Wu’s video had parodied Ben Affleck’s habit of carrying more Dunkin’ Donuts coffee than he can manage. Collins on Saturday posted her video with a joke: “What else do @BenAffleck and @wutrain have in common? They both love acting like they’re from Boston!”
Wu responded with her own dig at Collins, alluding to rumors he may also join the race for mayor.
“Neither one is sweating Nick Collins as competition for their next gig. See you tomorrow, Senator,” she replied, with a winking emoji. (On Monday, she declined to speak further to the Globe about the exchange.)
Wu, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, was born in Chicago but has lived in the area since 2003, with a brief time away. She has been a city councilor since 2014. Collins’s remark that she was not “from” here prompted a number of people to call him out on social media. Others said the joke was nativist and parochial, and played into the idea that Boston is only welcoming to white people who were born and raised in the city.
Love to see a white man say that an Asian-American woman who's lived and worked as a public servant in Boston for 10+ years isn't actually from here and doesn't belong! I'm sure that doesn't play into nasty stereotypes that have become especially relevant lately! https://t.co/Qvvoptnf26— Prerna Jagadeesh (@PrernaJagadeesh) March 20, 2021
Nativism is disgusting. Being born and raised in Boston isn’t a choice anyone made, and it doesn’t entitle you to a single thing. These kind of “jokes” are a deliberate and cynical appeal to the worst impulses of bigots. That’s the truth. They make Boston a worse place to live. https://t.co/ev4YPqO7cy— andrew (@DrewDawg) March 21, 2021
Collins’s spokesman told the Globe in a statement that his tweet was meant to be “playful” and in keeping with the spirit of the event, where politicians roast one another for laughs.
“This was playful banter in the spirit of the St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast between two colleagues and friends about Councilor Wu’s skit portraying Senator Collins’s favorite actor Ben Affleck, who is from Cambridge,” the statement said.
The event, rooted in Boston’s Irish traditions, is typically hosted by the state senator representing South Boston. But in 2014, the new senator representing that district was Dorchester’s Linda Dorcena Forry, who is Haitian-American. Though then-Councilor Bill Linehan argued that hosting duties should remain with a South Boston politician — and Collins initially agreed — Dorcena Forry took over as emcee for several years. The breakfast has continued to change as Boston’s political leadership became more diverse.
Collins made note of that as he opened the breakfast on Sunday with a call to unity.
“This show, the St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast, celebrates what’s great about this city — its diversity,” he said.
“The struggles the Irish have endured are the same for all of our immigrant families and communities,” Collins went on, “and we stand united with the Asian-American community against all the hate and violence, particularly last week that was suffered by those in Georgia.”
Wu, too, had poked fun at her non-Irish heritage in her St. Patrick’s Day video that featured her joking about not pandering to voters, while popping open a Guinness and announcing her acquisition of corned beef and cabbage. It even shows City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who is Black, teaching Wu’s sons Irish stepdancing.
Wu’s Affleck parody was a public preview of the video , in which she also jokes about life as a parent during the COVID-19 pandemic and campaigning virtually.
Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report.