“Racism” Revisited

Once again as I near the end of preparation for the publication of my book I reprint a previous post that will appear in that book. I apologize to those who demand originality — though a few years ago this was an original!

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. 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. I have mentioned Achebe’s essay before, but it deserves extended comment.
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, among many of her generation, 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 to 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. Again.


14 thoughts on ““Racism” Revisited

  1. Yes, I agree. Some people (regardless of colour), jump on the bandwagon to denounce stuff that is taken out of context. We must never be swayed by ‘cherry picked’ arguments. Best philosophy is to do a little research before wading into any argument, for only education can give a firm grasp of the principles and allow for compromise on the two sides. Anything else results in ‘sticks and stones’ as sadly seems to be the recent case.😖

  2. Hugh, to your point, it seems annually people highlight Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” and ask should the use of the N word be expunged. To me, Twain’s genius was to show how we are all the same and Huck’s friendship with Big Jim reveals that. So, he wrote it in the vernacular of the day to expose the stupidity of bigotry. I fully understand the offensive nature of that word, but in this context as Twain intended, it can be a powerful reminder and teaching moment for those who need to hear it. Keith

  3. This subject almost always causes my heart to implode a bit because I grew up where racism threaded through all layers of the social fabric. It was in the news as well as in subtle background awareness – on the farms, in the schools, on the streets and in headlines. I remember my oldest sister phoning home from the University of Mississippi – in hysterical tears, and my parents in hushed worry – before they realized baby girl was loitering in hearing distance and then shuttled off to bed… When I read much of Southern Literature, it’s there – sometimes recording an accurate record of history – and I marvel at how un-evovled we are/were as a culture, where sensitive ones like me eventually dog-paddled her way out to clarity, and where others are still trapped so close to the traditions that they don’t realize they’re ‘still’ racists. .. As much as I cringe when I read the literature as it was intended, I feel it’s an important record of a history we should not sweep beneath the rug or artfully rewrite….

    I just packed ‘Lanterns on the Levee’ yesterday – otherwise I’d retrieve it from the shelf and probably spend the rest of the day reflecting…

    • No, I agree. It’s a mistake to rewrite the really important books. Use them as an historical record in order to discuss hot topics in a reasonable way — if possible!

      • I visited with dear friends today who are from Colombia… he keeps me informed about current events – about a week earlier than they trickle thru the expat sites… today we discussed this topic, thanks to your post! He too agrees that the past is very important and it must not be softened – if for nothing else than for new generations to learn valuable lessons and not make the same mistakes over and over and over and….

  4. You raise interesting questions, and ones that I have asked myself more than a few times. First off … I agree with you that grading the papers of minority students more leniently is racist, though likely not intentionally so … it presumes that minority students are not smart enough to live up to the same standards as other students.

    And as re your comment about being less certain now than you were decades ago … 🙂 Yes, when we are young, we fail to understand just how little we actually understand. I find that even at 66, I am still learning new ways to think about things, scratching my head and wondering why I did not understand that before! Which highlights the differences between thinkers and non-thinkers, for the non-thinkers continue believing that they already have all the answers and thus do not bother to keep questioning their beliefs.

    And to your main point (I am wordy tonight … trying to expel angst … sorry!) As time passes, language takes on new meanings, sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant. For example, I went to grade school with a girl named Gay … which at that time had no deeper meaning than happy, jolly, joyous. It means something entirely different today than it did in the 1950s. So what? Ni modo. I do not believe that we have a right nor a reason to change an authors words simply because the connotations associated with those words have changed. As you said, it is the teacher’s job … responsibility … opportunity … yes, opportunity, to use the difference in meaning to open conversations that are much needed in the classroom today! We can only learn the lessons of history if we confront it, discuss it, have dialog … and today, it seems that young people are not getting this dialog at home, so let us provide it in the schools. But to change the language of authors like Twain, Conrad and so many others, is an insult to the author. And on that note, I shall now be quiet … or at least move my soapbox to another friends’ post 🙂

    Good post, Hugh! Looking forward to the book!

    • Ah, Yes, I agree with both Hugh and yourself, Jill. We should leave historical (if offensive) words as written. As you say, they present a marvellous opportunity to have a discussion as to why they are there. If we removed all reference and changed the past, it is a form of censorship that serves only to drive bigotry into a surreptious, less visible (and harder to control) underground. With an opportunity to discuss racism, children can discuss why it is so hurtful to others.

      • That does seem to me to be the key points: we miss an excellent opportunity to discuss these issues with our students if we simply remove the words as they were written — lessons in history and ethics.

      • You laugh. But there were comments such as those coming-out of Sioux Falls, South Dakota a few years back because some found the replica of David in one of the public parks offensive!!!

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