Heart of Darkness: Racism is a Relative Term
Racism is a relative term. While many people argue that Conrad's novel, Heart of Darkness, contains the theme of racism, they tend to ignore the fact that this novel was written around the turn of the century. During this time period it was accepted practice to think of a black man as savage because that was how the popular culture viewed the African American race. If someone called a black man "savage" today, that someone would be considered a racist. Of course, this turn of the century view of blacks is inexcusable but it was the accepted norm of the time. The problem is that modern critics tend to apply modern thinking to all novels, including those written in a specific time period with beliefs different from today. These critics do not incorporate the context of the novel and simply rage forward with a directed, ignorant viewpoint, arguing from a more civilized stance. The definition of a racist has changed a great deal since the early 1900s, and we must consider this when analyzing any piece of literature. The problem arises when modern thinkers assume that we must continue to build on our ever-expanding knowledge instead of looking into the past and trying to relate to the accepted views of the time.
To try to see racist tendencies in a text we need to know the definition of racism. The definition we use today is as follows:
A racist apprehends that there is a connection between the colour of our skin and our inherited mental and intellectual disposition, our behavioural pattern and our temperament and moral behaviour. All these inherited features are the same for every person belonging to the same race according to a racist. Since racists believe that human beings divide into races, they also believe that the different races are either superior or inferior (e.g. a racist would call white Europeans a superior race and black Africans an inferior race). The superior races are entitled to dominate, exploit and destroy anyone belonging to an, in their mind, inferior race, and racists do not hesitate to do so either.1 Members of inferior races are not seen as individuals or as human beings with feelings at all.
Using this definition of racism makes it, in many ways, easy to see racist statements in the text and this is why it is also easy to classify the text as a racist text. Nevertheless, a text does not need to be racist just because some of the characters in the text are. Heart of Darkness is an example of a text with many racist statements without being racist itself. Moreover, why is that one might wonder? Mostly because there are also many antiracist parts in the book. I have selected a few of these antiracist parts to prove that Heart of Darkness cannot be a racist book just because some of the minor characters are racists. That does not make the purpose of the book racist.
One of the first non-racist statements that Marlow pronounces is when he talks about London and...