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.


  1. Though I cringe at the occasional racist term or attitude, I have difficulty working myself into a philosophical funk over it. Why do we read vintage literature? In part, at least, because we enjoy becoming immersed in an earlier era, complete with warts and discomforts. If I want a Victorian or Edwardian setting that’s been sanitized to preserve my comfort, there’s plenty of modern historical fiction that will provide that — but honestly, that doesn’t do anything for me. I don’t think that makes me a bad person — I don’t enjoy the literature because it’s racist, but perhaps because its racism is authentic and historical. I’d rather have a reality that makes me uncomfortable than a fantasy that shields me from a true understanding of the period.

    • I definitely don’t want a sanitized version of the era in which the book was written, and I understand that views I disagree with come with the territory. I don’t want the racism in these books to go away. I just also find that it consistently makes it uncomfortable — and that discomfort colors my reaction to a book as a whole.

      I’m not trying to criticize these books — except when they’re terrible, which they sometimes are. I’m trying to take a critical look at my reaction to them.

  2. I don’t know if you have ever read a really wonderful book that treats this topic, “Snobbery With Violence” by Colin Watson. It’s out of print, but you can probably find a copy around. I think you would find it very interesting. This blog entry I found makes a good case for it.


    It’s really one of my favorite books.

    • That sounds really, really good. I will definitely try to get hold of a copy.

  3. If this were two or three years ago, my knee-jerk reaction to the racism–from casual to blatant–would be overwhelmingly and undeniably negative. But after becoming a fan of classic film, which has incidentally exposed me to American culture of the 1930s-1950s, the racism and stereotypes seen in film and in books make me research the lives of people in color during the 19th and 20th centuries.

    It’s a bit like refuting the assumptions about the character of Americans of color/ethnicity made by white (Anglo-Saxon, that is) Americans of the period. Plus, as an anthropologist, I find it fascinating to see from where our ethnic stereotypes derive–the Irish cop, the Italian gangster, the Black maid, the Japanese butler, etc–and how they haven’t really disappeared, they have just morphed into forms palatable for our late 20th/early 21st century sensibilities.

    • I think I’ve moved in the opposite direction. You can definitely learn a lot from stereotypes in older fiction, both about culture in the past and culture now. I’m still interested on that level, but I think I used to be more interested. Lately it just makes me uncomfortable and frustrated and sad.

  4. I wonder if some of our discomfort arises from the inability to effectively respond to that which disturbs us. Sure, you could vow to never read another Rohmer novel, but that’s unlikely to have any effect on Mr Rohmer’s future sales; nor is any condemnation you may pen likely to reach the author’s notice. The attitudes which offend are situated out of our reach, and if they often foreshadow modern prejudices, they don’t sustain a common response.

    I just finished E. Phillips Oppenheim’s The Double Life of Mr Alfred Burton (1913) and, while it was relatively racism-free, I found myself consistently uneasy about the explicit prejudices of class and taste on which the story is built — attitudes for which modern standards don’t provide such a clear moral compass. I’d love to have you put that one on your reading list.

    • I think you’re probably right–one consistently frustrating thing about reading older books is that they’re part of a conversation that’s pretty much over. Most of the time, though, that seems like a good thing–I certainly enjoy not having to worry about offending the authors of the books I read, for example.

      I’ve actually been meaning to acquaint myself with Oppenheim, but I didn’t know which book to start with, so this is a really welcome suggestion — and after The House of a Thousand Candles, I think I can trust you for recommendations.

      • I have to say the Alfred Burton is a very atypical Oppenheim — he mostly writes spy thrillers, and this is a sort of SF/Romance/Social Commentary. I enjoyed it, but I’m recommending it because I’d like to see your reaction, not necessarily because I think you’ll love it. :]

  5. Speaking of SF, the racism and especially the sexism of early SF (some of which is also in Project Gutenberg) is particularly difficult to work past as you read (or at least it is to me), because of the author’s assumption that social roles will continue to be the same in the future as they are now. Yes, science fiction is one device by which authors can gain freedom to explore contemporary ideas outside of contemporary settings. Admitted. But it’s one thing to say, “This is how the writer perceived the role of women (or people of color, or the Chinese, or the Japanese) in society,” and another to say, “This is how the writer believed the future would perceive the role of women in society.”

    • I don’t read a lot of SF, but I can see how that would be frustrating. The authors can only guess what’s going to change and what’s going to stay the same, and I guess it’s a lot easier to speculate about material things.

  6. In my not so humble opinion, differentiating between propagating racism and the natural human inclination towards xenophobia would be be my line in the sand to determine whether or not a read should receive my attention. Xenophobia, born of man’s natural fear of strange or odd qualities in other human beings, is a fascinating feature of man. It adds a believable quality to many characters, both in the past and today, thereby coloring literature with a wonderful study of human nature. To think that men today should know better than to exhibit xenophobia is to actively delude ourselves. Worse than that, pretending that this inclination does not belong in the human constitution, falling prey to the cultural inculcation of the day, allows for this rather nasty quality of man to fester and then burst forth in violence unchecked. Instead, man should be honest and accept that these qualities are real and exist as natural components of the human creature. With such honesty man can come to terms with this quality in a fashion that lets him openly deal with it instead of repressing it through a fantastical ideal as to what man is. With honesty, la verite’, xenophobia and all of its ugly children can be approached with pragmatic logic and not fairy tale rationalization.
    Genruk of BadNatured.com

    • My main issue with your argument is that, if xenophobia is a natural human inclination, so is racism. If xenophobia comes out of a natural fear of strange qualities in other human beings, racism comes out of a natural fear of physical difference. I mean, you can feel free to make your argument about cultural inculcation, but I think you’re wrong to differentiate here.

  7. There is racism in contemporary literature too. The effort to create a “believable” character from another race often results in a caricature, a stereotype, something that the writer feels his/her readership will accept. A white readership largely unfamiliar with non-whites might need broader caricatures.

    • I suppose every age has its racism and stereotyping, and it’s invisible to a contemporary audience.

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