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Mad Scientess Jane Expat

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Reason #857915 to love my Kindle [20111215|17:00]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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As it turns out, my Kindle helps me to engage in arguments that I would previously have avoided like the plague. For instance, I was out with four friends last night at a pub, and someone brought up Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I don't remember what the conversation was originally about, but suddenly he uttered the phrase, "...it's not racist."

Now, normally this is the point at which I'd look round at my four white friends, who were clearly ready to prepared to let this pass without mention, and I'd drop it myself. I find it tiresome to be the one non-white person calling something racist and being talked down by a bunch of white people who are uncomfortable with the conversation and would rather be arguing about whose round of drinks it is. But I've actually read Heart of Darkness fairly recently on my Kindle. And what's more, I'd made a point of underlining certain passages that allowed me to state with certainty, "Yes, it is."

Then he started in with the "but it's a great piece of literature", "you can't judge it because of the prevailing attitudes in the time in which it was written" and "the definition of racism has changed over time" arguments. I patiently refuted the first - I was absolutely not saying that Heart of Darkness isn't a worthy piece of literature. It is. That doesn't mean it's not racist. As for the second, I can absolutely judge it to be racist no matter when it was written, because of the incorrectness of the third statement. Racism is discrimination against another person based on their race. It's really very simple. While Heart of Darkness certainly criticizes colonialism and discrimination in a passionate manner, the language used in many passages is racist.

So I took a deep breath and walked away from the group to go to the toilet. After using that noble facility for the purpose for which it was designed, I got out my Kindle and flipped through to "My Clippings". Then I walked back outside and read out the following passage (emphasis mine):

Imagine him here - the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke, a king of ship as rigid as a concertina - and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sandbanks, marshes, forests, savages, - precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink.

Trying to argue that it isn't racist to call the people of a country "savages" while referring to yourself as a "civilized man" is futile, which he eventually conceded. But damn, I really love my Kindle for giving me the armoury to tackle a conversation I would otherwise have been unwilling to have.

By the way, if you're wondering about racism, may I point you at this Tumblr: Yo, is this racist? (With snaps to [personal profile] ajnabieh.) My favourite entry is this one.

[User Picture]From: anthrokeight
2011-12-15 18:08 (UTC)
Okay, first, I love that Tumblr. I laughed, which I am not doing much of lately. So.


My favorite part of Thanksgiving this year was talking about Rudyard Kipling and "Kim" with my brother, who had just finished it on HIS Kindle. We had so much fun discussing how fine-grained the descriptions are and how he is actually really good at drawing complex pictures of many people in the book and how he gets at really interesting issues like sexual exploitation. And how his picture of the religious figures in the book are interesting because the Lama and the Catholic priest are shown to really care about education for Kim and how the Anglican priest isn't.


But in the discussion of this book was also the recurring theme that my other brother summaraized as "Kim... it's really good. And it's almost not racist."

I mean, Kipling can show these complex and interesting things about Indian people, and some of the issues of colonialism. AND HE DIDN'T THINK INDIANS COULD RULE THEMSELVES, and he still supports the colonial project.

Sorry world, Heart of Darkness isn't a as resistive a text like we might want it to be, and neither is most stuff in the world. Even if it's good.

Anyway. Threadjack over.

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[User Picture]From: nanila
2011-12-16 23:39 (UTC)
I'm glad you enjoyed the Tumblr.

And I was so so pleased that I did NOT back down from that discussion or agree to change the subject just to keep everything copacetic, which has been my tendency in the past. Because it's been ingrained into me to blend as well as possible. Which, in the circles I run in (male-and-white-dominated career) has served me well. >:E
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From: tyrell
2011-12-15 18:21 (UTC)
Ah yes, the 'is he racist, or did he just live in a racist time?' debate. Made furiously about Lovecraft recently here: http://nnedi.blogspot.com/2011/12/lovecrafts-racism-world-fantasy-award.html

I reserve the right to judge discrimination where I see it, but in the more tree-hugging circles I frequent this runs up against "You can't judge their culture by modern western standards". It's not, it's by facts. Can and will. Don't care how great a work of literature it is / different a country it is. I see oppression, I call it.

You wouldn't believe how much trouble this gets me into.
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From: pbristow
2011-12-15 22:24 (UTC)
Thanks for that link. Eye-opening, and I loved China's description of his "stategy". =:o}
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From: tyrell
2011-12-15 22:41 (UTC)
He's such a dude :)
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2011-12-16 23:09 (UTC)
I'm glad you're willing to get into trouble to stand up for that view. Thank you for that.
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[User Picture]From: chibaraki
2011-12-16 01:08 (UTC)
I think some of the problem is that people for some reason feel the need need to argue that stuff is not racist in order to like it, or see it as something of value. There is a lot of racist/sexist/whatever-ist shit out there. A lot of it is that way because at that point being racist was okay and a lot of people just didn't know better, but that doesn't make it not racist.

Am I going to say that Joseph Conrad is a terrible human being because he was racist? Probably not. But racism being socially acceptable in that time period doesn't mean he wasn't racist.

And again, the fact that Heart of Darkness is racist doesn't mean it's not great literature, or not worthy of reading and appreciating, or whatever. But it does mean that you ought to read it critically and be aware that it is indeed racist and yes, that is fucked up.

I mean I'm saying all this as an overeducated middle class white person who hasn't actually read the book, so grain of salt, but... man. I mean, yes, it's fucking racist. That doesn't mean no one should ever read it again or that we should edit that stuff out, but it is.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2011-12-16 23:08 (UTC)
That doesn't mean no one should ever read it again or that we should edit that stuff out, but it is.

Exactly. All I ask is that the flaws in such esteemed works be recognised. I wouldn't want them all to be struck off the reading list. If every great piece of English literature were dismissed because it was discriminatory in some sense, we'd all just have to read China Miéville all the time.

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[User Picture]From: cosmiccircus
2011-12-16 03:12 (UTC)
I love how you always argue intelligently!

And I'm also amazed at all that the kindle does!
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2011-12-16 22:45 (UTC)
Hm. I don't know that I always argue intelligently. I tend to avoid arguments (at least, arguments that aren't emotional ones with people I care about). I really don't like intellectual arguments when I can't marshal the knowledge I know is somewhere in my brain.
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