Can A Book Be Racist?

I recall having a discussion with a colleague years ago about racism. I accused him of being racist in his grading policies since he graded his minority students more leniently than he did his other students. He objected that this couldn’t be racism, since he was treating the minority students more favorably. I thought that treating his students differently because of their race — regardless of how he treated them — was still racist, that that all students should be held to the same standards. I still think that is right, though I am not nearly so sure as I was at that time. In fact, I am not nearly so sure about many things I was sure of 20 or 30 years ago!

But the question of what constitutes “racism” is a tricky one. As I noted in a blog several months ago, Chinua Achebe, the African novelist, wrote a scathing attack on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness because Conrad’s narrator, Marlowe, uses the “N” word repeatedly. Achebe insisted that the book was “racist” and that people should not read it for that reason. I published an essay defending Conrad on the grounds that while some books might be called such, this one is not. The fact that the narrator used an offensive term in a novella set in the early part of the twentieth century was simply an accurate depiction of the way people used the word in those days. In addition, it is not clear that Conrad himself can be accused of racism, and his novella certainly didn’t encourage or, worse yet, promote racism. On the contrary. I argued that if you read the novella carefully you can see that it is the Europeans who are under attack. The native people in the novel are in every way superior to the whites who are there to exploit them and their continent in a greedy attempt to take everything they can profit from– especially, in this case, ivory. We know from reading Conrad’s biography, furthermore, that he was sickened by what he saw when he visited the Congo late in his years with the British merchant navy.

What was happening in Achebe’s case, I felt, was that he was unable to get past Marlowe’s use if the “N” word, which is offensive to the people so designated — now. Out of deference to black people we should assuredly not use a term they find offensive, even though they might use it themselves. The one who is the target certainly is in a position to determine what words are or are not offensive. But it makes no sense to accuse a man who wrote in 1902 of being “racist” if he is using language that was not regarded as offensive at that time. Edith Wharton, for example, uses the term as well. And there are other terms that were in general use at the time that we now recognize as offensive and it would be a mistake to dismiss those writers out of hand because they weren’t able to determine 50 or 60 years down the road what words would be found offensive by future readers.

One of the common practices in our schools, in so far as any of these books are read at all in the schools, is to substitute acceptable words for the offensive ones, thereby protecting the young from the words that might offend someone even at the cost of altering the nature of the work being read. I am not sure where I come down on this question, because I have such a high regard for great writers and object to any attempt to alter their works. But I am not the one being targeted by the offensive terms, so I don’t really have anything to say about it. In the end, though, I would prefer if the kids were read the books as they were written and the teachers used the reading as an opportunity to talk about racism and the language that some find offensive. It seems to me that we are missing out on an excellent educational opportunity.  It’s a tough call.

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14 thoughts on “Can A Book Be Racist?

  1. ” I am not nearly so sure about many things I was sure of 20 or 30 years ago!” – This applies to the evolution of my attitudes as well, I don’t think it is right or ethical to change the words in a book; you are right – the teachers have an excellent opportunity to discuss racism and the sensitivities of writing.

      • Since I grew up in the Deep South, of course this post appealed to me on many layers. I reflected on my own immersion in a culture where I often heard slang words that were part of the vocabulary but were not spoken (many times) with disrespect. There were times that I heard those words spoken with malice. We can roll back to your words about not being nearly so sure about many things compared to 20 or 30 years ago, but one thing I am sure of is that I now have a strong backbone and voice. I didn’t have experience about speaking up for others, but I certainly do now, and I do! We can’t change our history, but it is there to teach us valuable lessons.

        If I wrote a story about those times, fiction or nonfiction, I would most likely use the ‘n’ word in dialog between certain characters. Changing that would be lying and covering up a part of our history. It might not be pretty, but it happened, and I – for one – am ashamed. I would be truthful, even if it dealt with a delicate issue.

        I’ve been out of town this week, and it feels good to be home. Propped up in the window seat, I am watching the peaceful river while re-reading Pandora’s Box now! Z

  2. One of my favorite books is “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the N word is used. There has been ruckus over replacing the N word with slave in “Huckleberry Finn” to the chagrin of many. It tells the story of the time and it is OK to be offended as it is offensive, but it is true. What many found offensive is that “Gone with the Wind” won a Pulitzer Prize. As my Literature teacher said, how could the slaves be portrayed in the book and movie as being so happy and contented given their circumstances. They did not show the whippings and treating the slaves as chattel. It sugar-coated what slavery was all about. To me and many others, that was offensive. Good post.

      • Hugh, I just got back from a matinee of the musical “Big River” based on Huckleberry Finn put on by the community college in town – very nice production, with good casting for Huck and Jim. Like the novel, the “N” word was used throughout and in live theatre made the story even better as it showed Huck’s realization of how similar (and many respects better) his friend Jim was to him. If it had been sugar coated, the audience experience would not be as enriched. BTG

  3. Great reflection Hugh. As a teacher, I can say without a doubt that if I chose a text with use of the “N” word in my English class, it’s highly probably controversy would occur. People who don’t think critically will take anything out of context. Discussing the “N” word and it’s history, various uses–including rampant use among some African-Americans today–should open the door to challenging and rich conversations about language, not knee-jerk reactions about racism.

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