Writing about Racism in the Past (Updated)

There’s an argument I get into about Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy, which is set in England in the early 1800s. When I criticise the book’s racism the defender often says, “But they’re just reflecting the racism of the time.”

Here’s the problem with that argument for The Grand Sophy (or for Gone With the Wind for that matter). They were not written during the period they were depicting. They do successfully evoke the racism of their particular periods. However, a distinction has to be made between depicting the racism of a particular time and being complicit with that racism.

For instance, The Grand Sophy was written and published after World War II. That is, the book was written and published after there’d been an appalling demonstration of the logical end of anti-semitism: the Holocaust. Heyer is not critiquing racism in The Grand Sophy she’s re-inforcing it. Her Jew is not human, he’s a grasping monster. That’s not even as sophisticated a portrait as Shakespeare’s in The Merchant of Venice several hundred years earlier. So, yes, I have huge problems with it and haven’t been able to read that book for many, many years.

The fact that those attitudes were historically accurate for the period she’s writing about is irrelevant. You can show racism without condoning it. Heyer not only condones it, she revels in it. It’s clear that she thinks Jews are bad people, not that she’s showing that many people of the Regency period believed that Jews were bad people. That’s a huge difference.

Compare Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind to Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Wench both depict the racism of the period they’re writing about, but Mitchell’s text looks back on slavery with nostalgia, Perkins-Valdez absolutely condemns it while not reading like a twenty-first condemnation of the nineteenth century. Wench is one of the best historicals I’ve read.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot as I research and write a novel set in the early 1930s in New York City. A period when racism and sexism were everywhere.

In the 1930s NYC was even more segregated that it is now. People in Harlem lived in third-world conditions with much higher unemployment than the rest of the city. The only jobs available to most black women were as domestic help. But when the depression hit many white families could no longer afford help and those that could increasingly hired white women. There were black men and women with professional degrees, but few whites would employ them. They had to go into business on their own—tricky given that no bank would loan them money—or work in capacities well below their skills.

Racism pure and simple.

Some of my characters are white. Most have the racial attitudes of their time. If I depict them accurately they can only be read as villains by contemporary readers. But if I depict them as thinking and acting like a twenty-first century liberal white USian then I create a very unrealistic depiction of the time and place. Which makes me wonder why bother writing an historical?

That’s not to say that there weren’t white campaigners against racism at the time. There were. But they were white anti-racism campaigners of the 1930s. They did not think about racism in the same ways that many of us do now. Actually, they may not have thought about “racism” at all as the word was newly minted in the 1930s and did not become widespread until decades later. Reading some of the letters and lectures of these campaigners now can be horrifying. To say they are often paternalistic would be a kind assessment.

It’s a fine line. Obviously, it’s impossible to write an historical that’s a hundred per cent faithful to the time and place. I wasn’t around then. All my information is second hand. All of it is informed by my time and place. But I want to avoid truly egregious false notes. People saying and doing things that were not thinkable at the time.

But in doing that you can wind up in trouble with your contemporary audience. Someone I know, a white writer, wrote a book set in the 19th century and received a lot of criticism for not using the term “African-American.” Despite the fact that the term did not exist then. They were also criticised for using the n-word, which was in common use at the time.

The last word is a major problem. It is a hateful word bearing the weight of centuries of slavery and Jim Crow laws and continuing racism today. For many reading it in any context at all feels like a slap in the face. So is historical accuracy more important than the hurt of people reading your book?

During the period and place I’m talking about—NYC in the 1930s—it’s a word that was used a lot by most classes. Though a nice upper class white lady would not have sullied her lips with. However, when she hears it said, she’s supposed to be shocked not because it’s racist, but because it’s vulgar.

I think many white writers are reluctant to be accurate in their depiction of racism for fear of being seen as racists themselves.1 I fear it. I want to be a good person. But racism exists and white writers are part of it. The ways in which we write about race and racism are important because we can help shape thinking about them. And depicting the past as a magical wonderland full of enlightened, kind, good white people is not only wishful thinking it does not help us understand and combat racism right now in the real world.

I have no conclusions about any of this. But I would love to hear your thoughts.

Update: I seem to have managed with this post to give the impression that I am writing an all-white novel. I am not! I have never in my entire career done so! I will never do so! I was mentioning the white characters in this post because they are the ones who will be read as villians if I give them the racial attitudes that were prevalent at the time. Sorry for being unclear.

  1. And there are an awful lot of white people who seem obsessed with that particular word and seem to look for any excuse at all to be able to use it. To which, well, uggh. []


  1. Brian Dolton on #

    There is indeed a big difference between accurately portraying the attitudes of the time and condoning them – though I fear not all readers will actually get that; I think some writers get accused of being racist simply by depicting racism. In such circumstances on has to soldier on, and try to do better.

    People are complex creatures, and I think there can be value in showing otherwise sympathetic people to have racist attitudes (that fit with their time/culture); it can act as a pointer as to how people ARE shaped by their surroundings. It’s also usually a good idea to undermine the racism of the characters by showing to an external observer (the reader) that their prejudices are foolish and unfounded – I haven’t read the Heyer you refer to but that sounds to be exactly what she fails (and by what you write, DELIBERATELY so) to do.

    ANd, of course, people DO change, over time, and DO learn to overcome ingrainde cultural prejudice. That, too, can be a valuable thing to show in fiction.

  2. David Moles on #

    In the course of trying to track down a citation for “soup ‘an fish” this morning, I ran across a piece* on John Dos Passos talking about just this:

    “Wop, spic, chink, kike, nigger — Dos Passos’ characters utter them all. The language spoken by his characters may not be politically correct, but it is historically correct, and to see it in print is to remind us what a nasty country this once was… Dos Passos makes such terms more offensive by presenting them with the immediacy of indirect dialogue and stream of consciousness writing which tends to draw the author into this travesty of language. We wonder as we read, did Dos Passos share the attitudes of his trash talking characters? It may seem so — his presentation is that casual, that natural, that effective.”

    The writer goes on to note that Dos Passos (a) probably didn’t, and (b) on close inspection, it shows in the text — giving the example of this passage from “The 42nd Parallel”:

    “He had a box at the opera and a Stevens-Duryea and nothing to do except go to tailors and visit specialists and occasionally blackball a Jew or a newcomer applying for membership in some club he belonged to.”

    (I think it’s pretty obvious throughout the text which side Dos Passos is on, but without the books in front of me I can’t find more examples.)

    It’s easy for me to say, of course, because there is literally no word anyone can say that is a slap in the face to me the way those words cited above are a slap in the face to Italians, Hispanics, Asians, Jews or African-Americans. But I think reminding us “what a nasty country this once was” — or is, or can be — is a very valuable service, and pretending it wasn’t one is anything but. And I don’t think it’s hard — or should be hard — to do that without participating in it or perpetuating it.

    * http://whistlingshade.com/0902/dos_passos.html — the piece is so-so, and it gets “soup ‘an fish” wrong anyway (it’s what Dos Passos’ characters rent to wear to dinner at a place where “pearl-divers” work, not the place itself), but it was good on this.

  3. Micah on #

    The first thing I think about after reading this is why is it so important to tell this story? Why do we need another story revolving around racist white people? The reason I don’t read historical fiction is because a great majority of it either completely ignores how awful the time periods were (because most of these stories are written for white western audiences by white western people) for people of color (or any other marginalized group). The people who are so often the main focus of these stories are villains. They’re people who would want to see me killed for looking at them in the face. They don’t think I’m a person or deserving of any sort of equality or human rights. So they are bad guys. When you look at post reconstruction writings you’ll find that a great number of abolitionists regret ending slavery. A lot of “anti-racist” whites of the 1930s were actually extraordinarily racist. Paternalistic is putting it kindly. At the best, the biggest leaders in equality among white people were doing it for personal gain on their parts.
    Going back and dealing with regency fiction, most writers don’t ever touch on imperialism and colonialization. Most of these books ignore the fact that anyone but white people even existed in England (or any other western European) countries at the time. It’s a big horrible mess that no one really deals with.
    The thing is, historical fiction is most often by white people for white people and that’s where most of the problems come in. Writers of this type of fiction are not usually challenged to think about the implication of everything going on and push themselves to do more work. When they do research, most of the source materials are clearly things written by racist white folks. That’s the only reason we look at Queen Victoria and America’s founding fathers with any sort of fondness. That and we don’t actually care about racism.
    So when it comes to writing historically, it seems most writers can’t help themselves but throw their own racism into the mix. This even happens when they catch themselves trying to be progressive. It’s not just in the depiction of characters of color, but in the depiction of the world itself. It’s how exclusionary the world is, or throw away lines about American Progress or the greatness of the Industrial Revolution where it is entirely obvious that the writer has forgotten about slavery, colonialization, genocide, convict leasing, sterilization programs, introducing diseases into populations, Native American relocation projects, and a host of other issues. People just don’t think about these things and it comes through.
    White people should really avoid using the N-word at all costs. If historical accuracy is that important to you, cool, but I have to wonder about what kind of person you are. If that sort of historical accuracy is that important then it’s clear you don’t want me anywhere near your writings. There should be no conflict here. That was wrong of them. There better not have been a single historical inaccuracy in the rest of their book if that’s the length they’re going to go to.
    What it comes down to is this, you have to ask yourself why you’re writing something and think about the impact that it has. What’s the point of doing what you’re doing. Why aren’t there people of color in this story? Why are there so many white people? What are these white people doing? When I talk about how cool these white people are why am I not mentioning the awful events that got them to the place they are. Stuff like this. Just general “does this actually need to be written?” stuff.

  4. Ashley Hope Pérez on #

    I’m in a bit of the same place writing about East Texas in the late 1930s for novel #3, my first non-contemp YA. It’s even trickier for me because it’s where I’m from…

    I recently listened to Dennis LeHane’s THE GIVEN DAY, which does a nice job of what you’re talking about here, reflecting the historical reality without making everyone who’s complicit seem like a total villain. It’s set a bit earlier, in the late 1910s, and in Boston.

  5. Justine on #

    David Moles: Thanks for that. Dos Pasos is always interesting.

    Micah: Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. Yes, to all of that. It does seem that a great many steampunk novels, for example, have zero interest in what the underpinnings of the British empire were: grand scale exploitation of people and lands not their own.

    To answer your specific question as it concerns my own work—though I’m pretty sure you were asking the questions more generally—yes, my book does have black characters. It’s an ensemble cast and there are multiple view points: black and white. If you’re interested I talk more about some of the research that’s gone into it here.

    Ashley Hope Pérez: Thank you. I’ll have to check out the Lehane book. Looking at how others handle these issues is very useful.

  6. Midas on #

    Your right but you also have to remember there are plenty of books being put out in our generation by liberal writers and black Americans that portray the whites as evil racist scum etc. Which is also racist.

    People like their own little world. sad but true.

    I remember the world fantasy award winning black female write who won based on a story about a Evil White man who raped a black woman, had a baby and now hes chasing her because hes so evil and wants to kill her.

    Sounds pot calling the kettle black times 10. This person also condemned Stephen King as a Racist for his book The Stand. Which if she didn’t just win a award for Racist Tripe then I would say she should say what she feels. But when shes a Giant Hypocrite about it. Then that needs to be pointed out.

    I treat people I meet like Dr. King said we should. But I see a lot of BS that is spreading Hate disguised as condemning.

  7. Justine on #

    Midas: I’m really not sure how to respond to you because I find your characterisation of Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death unrecogniseable. Are you saying that any negative portrayal of a white character is racist? Then you’ll have to colour me racist as I have written a book with a villainous white male character.

    I also hate to break it to you that there are white people in the real world who are profoundly racist. That in fact systemic racism is a feature of the world we live in. By your logic writing about that racism makes the writer racist which is so nonsensical I don’t even know where to begin.

    Pointing out racism is not racist. You might wish to take some courses on logic before you visit my blog again.

    The only one I’m seeing spreading capital-H Hate is you, Midas. It’s very striking that you couldn’t bring yourself to even use Nnedi Okorafor’s name.

  8. jennygadget on #

    I thought Sherri Smith did an excellent job with this topic in Flygirl.

    Brian Dolton

    “I think some writers get accused of being racist simply by depicting racism.”

    hmmm. I’m sure it does happen, but I think more often what happens is either 1) the work is described as racist, and people hear that as “the writer is racist.” Which isn’t what was said. and/or 2) the narrative supports the racism being depicted in ways that the writer didn’t see. (Which is often how works get called racist.) The second is a matter of interpretation, but that doesn’t make it an invalid interpretation.

    For example, no matter what Ness may be trying to say about racism or colonialism in later books in his Chaos Walking series, the way that [spoiler] was handled The Knife of Never Letting Go just pissed me off so much that I’ve spent several weeks trying to write up a post that isn’t just CAPSLOCK RANTING. I’m not wanting to write that post so that I can tell him he is a racist, but because I think it was racist. Plus, if it wasn’t casual racism? then it was, imho, bad writing about an important topic.

    Ashley Hope Perez,

    I *loved* What Can(‘t) Wait – and I can’t wait to read this new novel!


    “White people should really avoid using the N-word at all costs. If historical accuracy is that important to you, cool, but I have to wonder about what kind of person you are. If that sort of historical accuracy is that important then it’s clear you don’t want me anywhere near your writings.”

    Also, I wouldn’t think that this is the kind of historical tidbit that is going to leave people ignorant if you leave it out. It’s not like the word is unknown. I would think it would be more important to focus on other ways in which bigotry was expressed and discrimination enforced.

  9. Ashley Hope Pérez on #

    It’s great to see the discussion continuing here in the comments! I didn’t mention it before, but I have also been struggling greatly with the question of the N-word. I’m mildly obsessed with a feeling of authenticity in dialogue. Dialogue shouldn’t be a facsimile of reality (boring!), but it should gesture convincingly toward it.

    This is why, for example, my second novel, THE KNIFE AND THE BUTTERFLY contains a number of words–and sentiments, especially about women–that aren’t at all an expression of who I am. They’re part of who the protag (a teen male) is at that moment, and I need them so that I can show how his experience deconstructs that bravado (at least partially).

    So where does that leave me with the N-word? I would never dream of inserting it with anything close to the frequency with which I am sure it was uttered in 1937 East Texas, but to omit it completely seems wrong, too. Right now I am using it in the mouths of a few characters in their most extreme states. (I did the same thing with the F-word in THE KNIFE AND THE BUTTERFLY and managed, by the end of writing, to cut down the frequency pretty dramatically.) I will have to decide later if the N-word needs to come out altogether. I’m not sure, though, that in a book that deals with lynching (as mine does at one point) that it’s right to leave it out. This was a time when some people still attended lynchings as if they were picnics, keeping photos as souvenirs or to send as postcards.

    Still, as Jenny pointed out, we can also count on readers to fill in at least some of the trappings of racism on their own. BTW, Jenny, thanks for the awesome words about WHAT CAN’T WAIT. 🙂

    Finally, J.L., another recent (historical) read set in the 1930s that handles race/racism well was Joe Landsdale’s SUNSET AND SAWDUST. And I have just borrowed WENCH from my library–thank you for the recommendation.

  10. Anne Lyle on #

    The way I tend to deal with it in my Elizabethan (alternate history/fantasy) fiction is to share the prejudices out between characters and make them variable in intensity – no culture is so homogenous that everyone has the same attitudes. I try to show that even sympathetic characters can hold wrong-headed opinions, and sometimes other characters within the story will call them out on it. I’m sure there will still be a few readers who ate umcomfortable reading about such topics in any form, but avoiding them just perpetuates the myth that the past was a Golden Age and that Western civilisation is going to hell in a handbasket – which it really, really isn’t.

  11. Heather Wallace on #

    I think it’s worthwhile to look at Dorothy Sayers’ books. In her book “Whose Body?”, there are stereotypical attitudes towards Jews portrayed. She was also accused of antisemitism. But there is also an honest attempt, both by Sayers and her hero to be decent and observant toward all the characters. I recommend her books,as perhaps a help for you in your historical research.

  12. Harriet on #

    Justine, I think maybe you are being very slightly unfair to Georgette Heyer.

    Now, I’m certainly not saying that I believe her presentation of the Jewish character is done because this was ‘historically accurate for the period she’s writing about’. In the case of a character presented by an omniscient third-person narrator – rather than a description by a character in the book – that argument doesn’t even make sense.

    I believe the only extent to which this applies is the fact that the character was Jewish at all. She does reflect the period by having HER CHARACTERS use the term ‘the Jews’ when they mean ‘the moneylenders’ – the question of whether or not this is acceptable could certainly be debated. But when she came to present an actual moneylender, it would therefore be a natural follow-on to make him Jewish. I don’t know whether this is accurate or not, as I have no knowledge of the proportion of Jewish and non-Jewish moneylenders in Regency London. I also, obviously, have no idea whether she agonised with herself about this decision, or whether unthinking racism meant that it didn’t even occur to her. (I reluctantly have to suspect the latter. But I don’t actually know.)

    But I do believe that the character was created the way he was (and I would go for ‘comic villain’ rather than ‘grasping monster’) because he was a MONEYLENDER, rather than because he was a Jew. And because the plot required – or at least benefited from – a scene where Sophy could outwit a moneylender.

    Now, there are probably highly stereotypically ‘villainous Jew’ aspects to the way his character is presented, which would not be acceptable now, and may not have been at the time Heyer was writing – I can’t think of any offhand, but I’m pretty sure I would find them if I went back and had another look. But have you read The Scarlet Pimpernel? Obviously, Baroness Orczy was writing in an earlier time from Heyer, but I find the appallingly anti-Semitic statements made by both the characters and the author about the Jewish character who appears at the end of the book (who ultimately proves to actually be Sir Percy in disguise) to be extremely unpleasant reading.

    Disclaimer: when I first read The Grand Sophy, I didn’t actually realise that the character was meant to be Jewish. Yes, I was old enough that there is no excuse for this, but the fact is, even though he was a moneylender, even though his name was Goldhanger, and even though there were probably stereotypes in the presentation, it TOTALLY DIDN’T OCCUR TO ME. So I just read it as a really funny scene with a comic villain who gets his comeuppance. And it may be for this reason (and because the rest of the book is my favourite Heyer) that even today I can still read this scene without feeling the discomfort I do with The Scarlet Pimpernel.

    Possibly this means it is worse, because it is more insidious. I’m honestly not sure. I certainly agree that one needs to be much more careful about cultural stereotyping when it comes to minorities who have been oppressed, and that Heyer probably didn’t exercise the level of sensitivity that she should have. But at the end of the day – and obviously I am only speaking for myself here – I find that it doesn’t taint the whole book.

  13. Ashley Hope Pérez on #

    Interesting comment on my piggy-backing post (here: http://www.ashleyperez.com/blog-preview/item/266-good-company-for-thinking-about-race-in-novels) about the use of the N-word. Comment comes from a scholar of early American history who knows heaps about slavery and its fall-out in the centuries after. She suggests that at least some use of the N-word is called for in order “to be true to the time period, and respectful of all African Americans of the degradation and humiliation they had to endure on a daily basis in the American South and beyond.” Helpful perspective.

  14. Doret on #

    I am a big Lehane fan and I loved The Given Day, and I agree with Ashley that the author did a great job of reflecting the racial tensions of the time in Boston. (Lehane was one of the writers for HBO’s The Wire) When it comes to this topic I judge each book individually but one constant is I absolutely hate one dimensional characters with no depth, like the author is working of a check list.
    White racist-check, Black person done wrong -check, White supporter of equal rights – check,

    On there own there is nothing wrong with such characters since all did and do exist but what gets under my skin is when it feels as if the author is just going through the motions creating flat characters and at that point they turn into cliches.

  15. Alasdair on #

    Interesting discussion. Writing about racism provokes lots of difficult questions and few easy answers.

    Just to take the issue of the ‘N word’, there are two reasonable-sounding positions. There’s Micah’s view that ‘White people should really avoid using the N-word at all costs’; even in historical fiction, even coming out of the mouth of a character who is depicted as a hateful monster who is wrong in every way. I can certainly understand that view. On the other hand, there’s the view referred to by Ashley Hope Perez: ‘some use of the N-word is called for in order to be true to the time period, and respectful of all African Americans of the degradation and humiliation they had to endure’. That has a certain logic to it too. If you want to depict the past accurately, but avoid causing further harm to African Americans today, you’re faced with an obvious dilemma.

    All I can say is that depicting racism, and particularly using epithets like the N-word, is not to be done lightly and always requires careful thought. You may be trying to write something anti-racist, but if you’re not careful you may end up writing something which simply repeats and reinforces the prejudicies of the past without doing much to challenge them. If you don’t at least recognise the problems of writing in this area, you probably shouldn’t be writing historical fiction at all.

    I should note that these problems apply specifically when racism is being written about by white people; for various reasons, it’s particularly problematic when a racist character is depicted by a white writer. At the risk of making a possibly ill-judged comparison: white writers depicting racism is a bit like male writers depicting rape and violence against women. It *can* be done sensitively, but you’d better be very, very careful about how you do it, or you’ll just make things worse.

  16. Ashley Hope Pérez on #

    Nicely summarized, Alasdair. My takeaway: always proceed with caution.

  17. Anon on #

    As an African American myself, I am sort of appalled at everyone’s reluctance to use “the ‘N’ word” in any circumstance. Appalled and a little depressed with the fact that a lot of black readers are so sensitive that they must so stringently avoid any mention of it. Yes, there might be a few dull pangs when you come across an occasional nigger in a historical book or tv show or movie, but I really doubt that the best way to overcome our painful history of racism and slavery is not to cower at the word that reminds us of it or to tell white people that they can’t use it. Although, I really appreciate their attempts to be both mindful and respectful of other peoples’ feelings, I have to say that it’s irritating to be treated like an over-sensitive time-bomb who can’t move past his peoples’ horrendous history by white liberals with an exaggerated sense of decency. Sometimes it seems that white people are more offended by the n word than I am.

  18. Allie on #

    I’m writing a 1929-1935 novel set first in new york then in the desert. There’s more xenophobia than racism that affects this story, but considering the jobless rate at the time, it was standard practice to limit the black workers on a gov’t contract to 15% or less of the total workforce. At some point, I’ll have to refer to that and I just realized I can’t use the term “black” because it didn’t exit. The acceptable (and non-vulgar) term was “negro”. But I fear it will affect the reader (or potential publishers). There were also native americans working on this gov’t project I’m writing about, but they were all lumped together as “indian”, a term with a very different meaning today. I’m stumped as to how to refer to these groups. This is a historical romance, so there really is no racism involved — too heavy. There is definitely some class warfare, though.

  19. mclicious on #

    Oh, I love this! Thank you so much for writing it. It’s something that needs to be said, both in the context of writing race, regardless of the time in which your story is set, and also that general problem with a lot of historical fiction throwing 21st century people into funny clothes and making them wander around, wondering where their cell phones are and why feminism hasn’t happened yet.

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