Racism, xenophobia, etc.September 28, 2010
Note: I’m not trying to criticize authors for views that were widely accepted at the time in which they were writing. Or, at least, not much. Mostly I’m trying to take a semi-critical view of my feelings on the subject.
I think I’ve talked about this here before, but I’m still not sure how to deal with racism and xenophobia when they show up in the books I talk about here. And they show up a lot.
Every time all the black characters are stupid, or the author talks about the whites of their eyes a lot, or Chinese people are conniving opium addicts, or the entire Italian population of New York lives for the opportunity to steal a white man’s job, it’s offensive. It’s never not going to be offensive. And if I’m already not really liking a book, an instance of blatant xenophobia will probably make me stop reading it.
But what about the books that have a lot going for them until the narrator takes a trip through his local Chinatown and shudders with disgust at the population?
You can’t judge an author writing in 1900 for their racism the same way you could if they were writing now. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they get a free pass, either.
Basically, racism makes me uncomfortable and unhappy, but it doesn’t stop me me from loving, say, Marie Conway Oemler, whose black characters are mostly benevolent, superstitious nonentities. Oemler isn’t a great example, because the first part of The Purple Heights is a good argument for her awareness and disapproval of institutionalized racism. But that’s part of the problem. There’s a spectrum of writing quality from, let’s say, extremely enjoyable to not enjoyable at all. And there’s a spectrum between not noticeably racist and massively racist. And where a book falls on one spectrum isn’t correlated to where it falls on the other.
In the last few days I’ve been reading a couple of books by Earl Derr Biggers. One is the first Charlie Chan mystery and the other is an unrelated romance/mystery. But have some really interesting characterization and plotting. Both give me trouble on the racism front. I don’t know how I want to feel about them, or how I actually do feel about them.
The worse the stereotyping is, the easier it is to deal with, somehow. Take Sax Rohmer, for instance. I read the first Fu Manchu book. I found it impossible to take seriously (actually, I have a fantasy that someday someone will make a movie of this book in which Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie are paranoid crazies and there is no conspiracy at all. It wouldn’t require many changes). It’s the prejudice that’s interwoven into a more general view of society that’s difficult to know how to deal with.
I also suspect there’s a lot of more subtle stereotypes that I miss, just because I’m white, and American. On the other hand, I’m hyper-aware of antisemitism — for which reason I don’t talk about it much. But there are books that I love that tell me that because I’m Jewish, I’m incapable of being a decent person — for some reason, adventure novels are really bad about that. And for some reason. I’m inclined to let those antisemitic stereotypes pass.
I don’t know. I guess what I’m saying is that this is a complicated issue, and one that I often think about. And I would welcome discussion of it.