25.4.08

Casual racism

I know that one of the "issues" in the Obama/Clinton contest is the topic of race: are people voting for Clinton or are they voting against a black candidate? There's a discussion about the casual, hidden racism this contest has raised. I'm not writing about that (you know my views on the whole political thing) but to write about what happens when we read or watch older works.

One theme in Cranford is the so-called destruction of the town by the incoming railway. One character, one of those village matriarchs so common to Victorian writing, is opposed not just because the village will lose it's solitude and peace, but because there will be workers constructing the tracks and they might be Irish. Gasp! But that was reality then: the Irish were despised immigrant labor. The comment is so casual, so off-hand, that it's all the more shocking given today's PC culture.

It reminded me how I felt reading Ellery Queen mysteries last year. The first time I'd read them, when I was much younger, it was about the mystery and sharing something with my father. This time, I noticed the language. At least once in each book either Ellery or his father said "That's white of you" (sometimes "damned" or "mighty" was inserted into the phrase). The way they treated and spoke to their houseboy(!) was also casually racist.

There's been a lot written about the value of reading Huckleberry Finn: it is good for students to read that sort of language, to be exposed to those sorts of ideas? The same could be asked about these works, yet in the case of Cranford, PBS is ignoring any issues and airing it next month. I suspect we'll all survive, just as I've survived watching All in the Family and reading Ellery Queen.

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