Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Historic Racism

A piece I'd written for It Never Was Worthwhile was challenged last week at a Renegade Writers meeting. There's nothing unusual about having your writing criticised by the Renegades - they're a pretty forthright bunch - but on this occasion the challenge was one of racism, which gave me pause.
Let me put it in context. The piece in question is written in the first person from the perspective of a deep south white boy. The year is 1918 and he and his buddies are posing for a photograph and 'we all grinned like a minstrel show.'
And there's the problem. That the minstrel shows were a dire manifestation of prejudice and racial stereotypes is undeniable. But when we're writing historical fiction, is our duty to be authentic or to be politically correct? A spirited discussion followed during which, as you'd expect, no conclusions or concord were reached. But all of us came away thinking.
I should declare my position before stating my argument: I abhor racism as one of humanity's vilest and most unjustifiable perversions. And I dislike political correctness almost as much, and for very similar reasons. I forget the correct numbers, but I read recently that black youths are something like 60% more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white. Yet they're around 25% as likely to be carrying anything offensive or illicit. That's the racism that we have to deal with, not whether it's OK to say 'blackboard'.
But back to the case in point. The short story I'd just read out referred to Yanks and Limeys. This met with no objection, in fact it was suggested that I should change 'Germans' to 'Krauts'. What would the reaction have been had I stayed with my original version of the line: 'we all grinned like niggers'? I self-censored that line because I felt it was moving beyond simple decency, but in so doing I replaced a word that black people use in friendship with an overtly racist institution that was only finally removed from our televisions in the 1970s.
Political correctness is taking us towards racism here, not away from it. If pejorative terms for caucasian races are acceptable then why not for Afro-Americans? And if we rule that all races must be treated equally then where's the authenticity in my text? Writing about the Great War without mentioning 'Hun', 'Boche', 'Jerry' or 'Kraut' is going to be a difficult and ultimately unconvincing process. Had I been writing in the third person in the present day then 'grinning like a minstrel show' would be unjustifiable. But when we write direct speech or narrate in the first person we must be true to the time, circumstances and background of the speaker.
Of course, I could be wrong, unthinkable though that may be. My principal challenger on Wednesday is as repulsed by racism as I am, so our difference is purely in the expression of our abhorence. What you have here is only my opinion - and I've never been accused of keeping my opinions to myself.


Kriss Harmsworth said...

If you writing historically correct you have to use the words as used then. At the time it was not racist. I loved the Black and White Minstrel Show and never at the time thought it to be racist I just thought they were entertainers like clowns. Are clowns racist for painting their faces white?

Kriss :)

Jem Shaw said...

Completely agree with you Kris, though I can see that a counter-argument exists. I understand that Peter Jackson's long awaited remake of The Dambusters has renamed Guy Gibson's dog. My own experience of this sort of nonsense is that the last people to be offended are the group being mentioned. I saw today a news item referring to Adolf Hitler's naming by Time Magazine as 1938's "Person of the Year". Bollocks! They named him "Man of the Year". When political correctness starts to change history we're getting uncomfortably Orwellian.

Pauline Woodhouse said...

Hi Jem, Some people get 'hung-up' on 'political correctness'and in my opinion ,this is when common sense goes out of the window and writers become restricted. To me, you were, as you say, telling the story in context to the time and place. It seems,certain people believe in waving the 'correctness' banner for their own self-esteem. I too am very opinionated!!! pauline

Jem Shaw said...

Again, I agree completely. However, in defence of the person who raised the issue on the night in question, I do need to say that I don't believe that is her motive. She has a sincere and deep belief in anti-racism. While I disagree with her on how we should express this, I don't for a moment question her sincerity.

Jaicen said...

From my own point of view, I don't know how a book can be accepted as an example of a time period, if everything is changed to suit the modern world. That it is written from a modern writer, will not change the fact that these words were used, and not always offensively. There is a series of books here, written during the depression about a half caste detective called Bony. The author, Arthur Upfield, was a stockman and bushman and incorporated his vocabulary and that of the people, both black and white, who influenced his characters into his excellent stories. During some reprints, the issue of racial overtones was brought up, but the publishers were loathe to change the words, as it would then mean the books were no longer authentic. They compromised in the end, by putting a disclaimer in the front, stating that descriptions and terminology may be considered by some readers to be offensive, but for the sake of authenticity the books have remained as they were written all those years ago. The same sort of disclaimer in a book written from a modern writer might defuse the situation and discourage readers who will be offended from reading them. But, we can't pretend it didn't happen, after all it did. And hiding the fact doesn't change it, it just keeps us ignorant. The majority of people, I am sure, can read such words and allow that, as much as they dislike them, they were in use during the period of the story.