Not knowing better and other thoughts about books and race and words

Some theses on books and race, not directly related to but inspired by some of the comment that these new edits of Huckleberry Finn have caused. Feel free to apply these (in modified forms obviously) to sexism, or most other forms of discrimination. I repeat, none of this is directly related to Twain’s book. I haven’t read Huckleberry Finn. (For actual Huck Finn commentary, see here,here and here).

Thesis 1: Racism was not invented in the Twentieth century.
Things which were not perceived as racist when they were written may still have been so at the time; they did not magically come to be that way after someone proposed this revolutionary idea that we should treat all people like human beings. It also means that things a lot of us consider completely innocent now will likely be looked upon with horror in a few decades. As long as we’re moving in the direction of being nicer to a greater number of living beings, this is a good thing and does not cause me too much concern.

Thesis 2: Most of the time, they did know better.
There’s a particular defence of racism in literature that I find insulting to pretty much everyone involved. That is that people living at a particular point in time simply didn’t know better than to be racist. This is patronising to start with – “s/he doesn’t know any better” is not the sort of remark you make about someone you’re treating as an intellectual or moral equal. But it’s also only varying degrees of true. At most points in history there have been plenty of people suggesting that certain forms of behaviour were not okay – it’s one of the ways we’ve gotten to (at least) this point. I’m not suggesting that it doesn’t take effort, or that it isn’t far easier to believe what your society and the structures that make it up make it easiest to believe. But, particularly in the twentieth century, the means for knowing better have always been there, and people who chose to have had the opportunity to seek them out. To suggest that this is not the case does a tremendous disservice to all the people and movements in history that worked so hard at taking those first steps and making those thought processes available.

Thesis 3: Things that are critical of colonialism/slavery/other things associated with racism may still be racist in and of themselves.
Three words: Heart of Darkness. Strongly anti-colonialist. Frequently very beautiful (subjective, I know. But I think it is and so do many other people). Racist. I’m not a huge fan of people who dismiss it entirely for that last characteristic, but I prefer them to the sort of people who believe that because of its anti-colonial stance it simply cannot be racist and the rest of us are all just missing the point.
[Corollary: “The author once said this thing that was really progressive” is not a particularly strong defense of a work of literature.]

Thesis 4: Fraught words are fraught.
And thus we descend into lolcat speak. I’m against removing words from books. I think we need to keep them there and confront our pasts. And this is a viewpoint I’ve seen in a lot of commentary on the Huckleberry Finn debate. It’s well-meant, and to a point I agree with it. But I’d like to do this with the understanding that making those decisions for everyone is a tricky issue. No one has a right to mandate individual responses to words – certainly not in situations where the fraught histories of those words have generally been to the disadvantage of the individual whose response you are attempting to mandate. This has all gotten very convoluted.

Thesis 5: Replicating the racial politics of the forms you emulate is still racist.
Certain Tolkien Scholars, no one cares how many medieval texts you cite to prove that the portrayals of certain groups of people were *only* that way so they’d echo his literary tradition. Missing the point. Stop now.
I suspect this is an ongoing list. What else would you add?

7 Comments to “Not knowing better and other thoughts about books and race and words”

  1. Also, words that are slurs in one time, place, or group are not so in another time, place or group.

    Re: thesis 4, things that are pro-colonialism etc may also contain themes that undermine racism etc, creating stuff that is complex and fun to sort through.

    Re: Thesis 4, also see Chetan Bhagat.

  2. You haven't read Huckleberry Finn?!! Why? And how come?

    I would add:

    Words, even fraught ones, are just words: To focus on a word or a phrase and ignore everything else is a form of illiteracy, one that, encouraged, is easily used as a form of political suppression. To accept that something as subtle and complicated as a book can be judged by a single soundbite is to accept a diminishment of intellectual discourse. And to take words at face value, without context, is to make comedy / irony impossible. The n-word should stay in not so much because it forces us to confront 'our' past (whatever that means), but because it's a valuable lesson in the need to look beneath the surface, in the idea that a person (in a book, as in real life) may say one thing and mean another, which is a large part of what makes books exciting.

    I would also add (re Tolkien, for instance) that bias is generally in the eye of the beholder. Pretty much any text can be interpreted to fit one's pet theory of oppression. It's the reason one has more faith in writers than in theorists.

  3. Love this post. Agree vehemently with all of these, and especially with #1 and #2.

  4. Aadisht – Explain the Bhagat connection, please? And yes, I accept your first proposition – with some caveats. :)

    Falstaff – There are huge gaps in my education; particularly with regard to American literature. I must do something about it someday.
    I'd accept your addition as well – also with caveats.

    Unmana – Thanks :)

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