“Was” Racist

What is the shelf-life of a racist text? Is there a point when it ceases to be racist? If there is such a point, how is it related to pedagogy? I am not, here, thinking of those texts whose racism has to be explained because it’s subtle or incidental. Nor am I really thinking of those “classics” by Conrad and Twain. Instead, I’m thinking of a book like Dixon’s The Clansman.

These are odd questions, engendered by an online discussion in which it was suggested (good old eliminate agent!) that certain texts were published as racist texts. That “were” caught me. If they were published as racist texts—to enable certain political, social, cultural goals—what are they now? Are they still racist? And how do we teach them, if we do?

If certain goals are no longer possible—it is unlikely Jim Crow will return, though time is fickle—then what does a book like The Clansman communicate? In part, this is a question of persistence and re-deployment (the military metaphor is appropriate). It is also a question of how “new” racisms emerge and function.

What is “new” about them is precisely the contexts in which they emerge, but also how their “newness” remains invisible under guidelines and paradigms designed to detect and correct for “old” racisms. Thus, for instance, the persistent notion that racism is a white/black issue has made it difficult to make visible other kinds of social relations. But now I’m venturing too far from my original questions.

When we claim that a text “was” racist, we mean something about the kind of labor the text was supposed to perform within a particular place and time. It cannot be a transhistorical claim.

Yet, we are always faced with the problem of what Williams termed the residual, no matter how attenuated.

Within the classroom, part of this residual has to deal with students’ affect. How does one engage with those who agree with Thomas, for instance, that cross-racial contact is a bad idea? How does one engage with those who love the genre and novel (as I do) and feel guilty for doing so, because they think it implicates them in its racism? How does one engage with those who refuse to engage with the novel because it is wounding to read its descriptions? (Here, the subtle point that disengagement is also a form of engagement has little traction.)

There are other dangers: for instance, some students may use racist texts as divining rods, to fault those who don’t agree with them. And few classroom encounters are as uncomfortable as trying to adjudicate the “you’re racist” accusations.

In which case, why teach racist texts? Why teach racism as emanating from specific historical points and having specifically historical functions? Why risk a kind of pedagogy that, to be frank, many would disagree with on ideological, formal, and political grounds? Dixon may be fun, but it’s hardly Henry James. And why spend two weeks on Dixon instead of two weeks on Du Bois? (It’s nice to imagine that one can teach everything. We pick and choose.)

I don’t want to put myself in the awkward position of “defending” racist texts, even as I acknowledge that choosing to teach a racist text expresses a certain kind of defense: the syllabus is a mini-canon, and to canonize, even in that limited form, is to value.

I am interested in thinking about what it means to continue to risk pedagogy. I’m interested in how we bend and stretch as teachers and thinkers, even as we anticipate teaching our students to bend and stretch.

One thought on ““Was” Racist

  1. Wow, thats a great question. I am sure McKay will answer it for me. Give me a few weeks to read over your list!

    I always ridiculously historicize stuff, and I usually would like to (I have yet to teach a class where I set the syllabus) teach a ‘great’ work from that period along with parts of a work that everyone read from that period (were they the same thing, life would be easy). Still, the way race and racism is taught is as a dichotomic binary, in which you are or you are not. So, a racist person wakes up out of bed as a racist, showers as a racist, eats breakfast as a racist et al. They are always thinking of ways to eff the other. However, if racism is but one thing in a package of identities, then you can read a lot of texts where the racism is just kind of… meh, nothing to be bothered with. That makes the EXPLICITLY racist texts so much more valuable, because the motive is always there. And if you want me to give you an example of a ‘was’ racist tract, look at some stuff Ben Franklin said about the Germans. Nobody would really bat an eye now (oh those Germans!) but if you are trained in reading race-making language its pretty obvious what he is doing. And then of course you have to parse out race-making from race-hating (though I view them as the same thing, which is why I am not a good pan-africanist :)).

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