Using Austen to Understand Racism

Jane Austen, keen observer of oppression

African American columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic Monthly turned to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility last week when trying to understand how racism works in our country. He was a little vague on the linkage, but once I figured out where he was going, I realized that he had successfully used Mrs. John Dashwood (Fanny) to penetrate the mindset of American racists.

At issue was “Niggerhead,” the name that Rick Perry’s family camp carried for years. It apparently took a fair number of comments and many years before Perry changed the name. “Throughout the week,” Coates wrote, “I’ve insisted that there isn’t as much to be learned about Perry, individually, as there is about the people who see no big deal in any of this.”

Sure enough, Coates found himself being attacked as a reverse racist for finding racism in the name.

So how, Coates wondered, can people throw around language that is clearly racist while insisting they are not racist?  He came up with the following observations:

1.) We like to think racism only lives in the hearts of evil people.

2.) The prospect of racism living in the hearts of good people, of decent people, is rather terrifying.

3.) Deep down we know it lurks in the hearts of us all.

4.) It lurks in an especially powerful way in the hearts of those conditioned by the very air to believe in their superiority. God forbid it ever be exposed.

Now for Sense and Sensibility. The passage Coates selected involves the delightfully villainous Fanny, the woman who  (in a tour de force chapter) persuades her husband not to give his half sisters any financial support after their father dies and who throughout the book finds every opportunity she can to stick it to them. Then, when she is “forced” to treat them courteously (a friend assumes that she will do so and for appearances sake she can’t do otherwise), she resents them even more.  Here’s the passage, with the part that Coates uses in bold:

The consequence of which was, that Mrs. John Dashwood was obliged to submit not only to the exceedingly great inconvenience of sending her carriage for the Miss Dashwoods; but, what was still worse, must be subject to all the unpleasantness of appearing to treat them with attention: and who could tell what they might not expect to go out with her a second time? The power of disappointing them, it was true, must always be hers. But that was not enough: for when people are determined on a mode of conduct which they know to be wrong, they feel injured by the expectation of anything better from them.

If I understand Coates correctly, he is saying that racists who claim they aren’t racist feel injured when someone like Coates expects them to be better. Like Fanny they know somewhere deep down that their conduct is wrong (their consciences are working somewhere in there), but they resent having to think about the possibility that they could be better people. Such expectations feel like a stinging rebuke and they react in fury.

A full-blooded out-and-out racist might not have any qualms of conscience, but Coates points out that racism isn’t limited to evil people. In fact, most of us have racism lurking somewhere within (I know that I do), which is why the issue is charged. French philosopher Francois de La Rochefoucauld writes that hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virture, and just as Fanny hypocritically must appear to care for her sisters-in-law, so the racists Coates has in mind must appear to be against racism.

Don’t they ever get tired of twisting themselves into knots? It’s a lot healthier to face up to one’s prejudices and move beyond them. What distinguishes Austen’s heroines is their willingness to confront internal flaws and improve. The Fannies of the world, on the other hand, remain devoted to tearing down those around them.

When they do so, as Austen makes clear, the greatest victims are themselves.


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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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