Tag Archives: racism

Whitewashing Who We Were Doesn’t Erase Slavery

We live in the age of anti-bacterial hand-sanitizers. It’s as if we scour enough, we’ll get rid of everything offensive about us, even the bacteria.

We’re overkillers when it comes to cleaning, so it was a matter of time before such practices overtook the literary world.

We’re so politically correct now that it’s easy to forget things were ever offensive. Better to pretend we’re a happy-shiny society than to wallow in our real, albeit largely-past, flaws.

There I was, chillaxin’ on Twitter, when @PublishersWeekly tweeted that a new whitewashed (pun intended) version of Huckleberry Finn is being released.

In it, the word “nigger” will be replaced with “slave”.

Here’s the thing.

Picture-143-300x300When you think about that horrifying chapter of America’s history — the era of slavery — what cultural works come to mind right off the bat?

Two. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

Even though the Library of Congress and other organizations have listed them amongst the books that have “changed the world,” both have been banned — even recently.

Yet, if we had a time capsule that was to reflect who and what America was in the 1800s, you can bet those two books would make the cut… whether you appreciate, in modern terms, the language used or not.

It’s pretty easy to argue that, during those times, people weren’t exactly breaking their typewriters pounding out future classics that recorded the slavery horrors around them. Ignorance was the safer order of the day.

Literature was about escapism then, not realism.

I get that “nigger” is said too much (219 times) in Huckleberry Finn. But are we really trying to suggest that, back then, the norm was using niceties like calling them “coloured folk” or “black” or even “slave”?

Isn’t the whole POINT of Huckleberry Finn being a classic the fact that it captures, in a beautiful and heart-rending story, the racial hatred and poison that marred America’s early days?

Isn’t the point that, in the middle of those times, bi-racial friendship could evolve against all odds? Wasn’t the story a glimmer of light about a darker era?

Shouldn’t the presence of the “offensive” words give schoolteachers the opportunity to discuss how powerful language can be — especially when used against people, in an attempt to oppress or hurt them?

Isn’t Twain’s language merely a stepping off point for talking about how word choice is important, how words can hurt as much or more than sticks and stones, how they ring out in our head long after blows stop landing?

Can’t that discussion help us in the battle we need to fight against modern bullying and other kinds of “schoolyard oppression” that change into darker themes as we age?

Whitewashing the language used in Huck Finn by taking the racist rhetoric from the book is exactly the kind of soul-destroying move that makes most writers cringe.

Language is everything in writing. We obsess over word choice. We wake in the night just to change a noun in our text.

“Nigger” is not “slave”. Nigger is a soul-crushing, race-dividing epithet. “Slave” is what we call them now — not historically relevant in words spoken then, though it is historically accurate.

Rewriting literature because of how society evolves is how we lose the impact of that literature, the relevance of that writing, the truth of its wordy-snapshots of our times. It kills truth.

That we once lived in a world where one could haphazardly toss around crushing racial epithets like “nigger” without anyone thinking twice, that’s something we not only need to remember, it’s something we need to remain aware of — to accept as part of who we once were and who we must strive to never be again.

racist_button_2We’re in a better day, but not by much. Not when African-Americans are a fraction of the population butalmost a majority of the penal system. Not when Tea Party freaks are shouting down a black president because they can’t handle his skin colour.

Huckleberry Finn’s linguistic offensiveness is exactly the way to further the almost non-existent dialogue on race in America. Instead of shutting it up and putting prettier words on the page so it’s less offensive, let’s wake the hell up.

HEY, it’s SLAVERY. It IS offensive. It SHOULD offend us. It should make schoolkids’ skin CRAWL when they learn what REALLY happened. WAKE UP.

They should learn how horrible tarring-and-feathering was, that slaves would be killed by being made to drink boiling water or oil, that lynching was a common “behaviour tool”.

Slaves weren’t just treated badly, all right? Let’s get real here. Let’s be honest about how horrible it was.

Saying the word “nigger” 219 times barely even scrapes the surface.

The country’s moving past its civil rights days, but race IS an issue in America and the conversation still isn’t something suitable for dinner parties. It’s skirted and avoided.

Our race is a part of who we are — we need to get to the point in society where we’re comfortable when comedians like Russell Peters joke about all the cliches that define us race-by-race.

We do that by accepting what we did wrong in the past, and then celebrating what we share in common — as well as celebrating those things that make us different, because it’s in that difference that we find the beauty of contrast.

Picture-144-231x300Let’s get past this ridiculous apologist crap about whining over words and try to accomplish real change by discussing why those words still need to be heard.

All this confusion keeps the real issue off the table. Just because America has a black president doesn’t mean society’s past this. Our refusal to discuss racism because of the presidential elephant in the room does us no favours.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Racism exists today.

Let’s show how horrible it was then;  we do that through the language.

Teach the book, the original language. In so doing, teach the pain, but also teach the better way we need to behave.

Teach that talking, not ignoring, is how we heal and grow.

Teach. Don’t confuse.

Hate Lives Here

Yesterday a local Vancouver paper asked a question on its Facebook page: “Do you think more could be done to combat homophobia?”

In the ensuing comments, a White Pride freak — who I’m really fucking wanting to identify by name here but don’t feel like dealing with the legal hassle as a little blogger girl — put some very, very hateful anti-gay comments.

I wouldn’t call his statements “homophobia” because it was too hate-fuelled to be a mere ambivalence toward gays. White Pride Freak would rather live in a world where they didn’t exist, and it sounded like “by any means necessary”.

The aftermath of WPF’s comments were pretty routine — a few people like me distancing themselves from the “white” part of his comments that smears us by inclusion — and a lot of people laughing it off with “This guy can’t be real” reactions.

The fencepost upon which gay man Matthew Shepard was beaten & left to die.

YES.

YES, he can be real. YES, he can be dangerous. YES, he can be in the house next door.

Someone commented to me that it didn’t seem possible a dude like that could live north of Raleigh or west of Calgary.

YES. It’s not only possible, but it’s real.

We’ve had gay-bashing incidents of late here in uber-liberal Vancouver — by other minorities!

Hey, let’s keep the wagon wheel of hate rolling.

By saying these guys can’t be real, we’re avoiding truth. We’re ducking the reality that hatred fuels much of what goes on in our world — whether it’s women’s centres being bombed, Middle Eastern women being stoned for adultery, gays being bashed for holding hands on the street, or prejudices rising everywhere daily, never mind national strife like Palestine-v-Israel, or Iran spouting rhetoric.

Hatred’s out there, man. Don’t think otherwise.

The Georgia Straight’s Facebook moderator decided it prudent to delete the offensive comments on this particular thread. I disagree. My reply comment:

I’m sort of disappointed that [skinhead motherfucker]’s homophobic, hate-filled rants were deleted.

By a) responding with “haw-haw, he can’t be real” and b) knee-jerk “how dare you” replies, then deleting his words, we’re pulling the wool over allour eyes.

We say “HEY, THERE’S A REAL PROBLEM OUT THERE” about hatred or racism, but then we sanitize the web so no feelings get hurt.

Let’s hurt some feelings! Let’s see these bastards for who they are! Let their names be known! Let their evidence stay up so we can point and say THAT IS NOT RIGHT, LET’S FIGHT THAT, LET’S PROVE HIM WRONG.

Sure, a bunch of people got all bent outta shape reading that kind of hate speech — but the mentality of “Well, if it’d been worded more politely, it’d be okay and we could ‘dialogue’ ” is just ridiculous!

IT’S HATE. Let’s see it for what it is.

Let the world see that it’s still out there, regardless of our pretty little fast-food metrosexual ever-so-aesthetic iPoddy 21st century.

Then let’s fight back and end that hate where it lives. END it, not delete it.

From Wikipedia's "lynching" page. The lynching of Laura Nelson in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1911; she had tried to protect her son, who was lynched together with her.

Deleting the thread has all the brilliance of when a Canadian bookstore chain decided it would never, ever stock nor order Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Right, because ignoring the book the first time worked out so well for us.

KNOW THY ENEMY.

If we want to overcome hatred, racism, homophobia, elitism, all of it, then we need to know exactly what their thoughts are so we can break those down.

This is the internet — the home of anonymity, the tool of free speech, the widest platform for idea-expressing ever invented.

But every motherfucking site has a moderator who goes and deletes the hate, hiding the nasty fuckers that we need exposed.

Deep down inside, we all know cruel people are out there, and we know they’re cowards who hide real, real good.

Thus it’s become easier when we hide them too, and go on with our lovely little domesticated modern lives. God forbid our routines get injected with realism.

These people are real.

They live where you are.

They’re more marginalized and angrier than ever.

And we’re giving them a pass by letting them say what they say, then deleting it. So, then they run back to their little web microcosms and fester with their continuing hate spiel, palling with their little hatin’ buddies, all the while leaving us blissfully ignorant that hate-filled fucks like them are more prevalent than we’d like to think.

Stop protecting us, website moderators.

Our ignorance will not inspire their change. We need all the good peoples in on this fight.