Thursday, March 15, 2018

Should We Make History Polite and Palatable?

Whitewashing history is a very dangerous game to play...

by Heather Blanton


Is it right to tell a story from the past but filter it through the sanitized, politically-correct lens of the twenty-first century? What do we lose if we follow that process? If we bury the sins and mistakes of the past, aren't we in danger of repeating them?

 Recently, I was doing some research and a friend gave me a couple of books on South Dakota history. They are all in the series Daughters of Dakota, edited by Sally Roesch Wagner. Each volume is a fascinating look at the life of lady pioneers--the gals who crossed the plains, stared Lakota Sioux right in the eye, lost husbands and children, survived fires and floods. You get the picture. The true Ladies in Defiance. But best of all, these books tell the stories in the women's own words. Each volume is a compilation of letters, diaries, and transcribed stories. First-hand accounts of pioneer life that give an amazing glimpse of life in South Dakota from the 1870s to the early 1900's.

There are several books in the collection. In Book 1, the editor goes to great pains to express that each story contains the actual words of the pioneer woman. Following the suggestion that "the English or grammar used is to be the writer's own for history is wanted [unvarnished] and not perfect manuscripts," editing was kept to a minimum. In fact, Wagner says, "The words have not been changed." 
South Dakota and her pioneers are all there in their ugliness—violence, racism, bigotry—and their beauty—generosity, kindness, self-sacrifice.

However, by book 6, Wagner has had a complete change of heart. She has decided she knows life in the nineteenth century better than the ones who actually lived then. "Today," she writes, "we know the disrespect and contempt contained in the word, 'squaw'; had these pioneer women known what we know, they would undoubtedly not have used the word."


Well, the poor, little, ignorant pioneers. If only they'd had someone like a college professor to enlighten them on diversity and social justice.  

To paint over this 19th-century mindset and not offend our modern one, Wagner continues, "In respect to them and their Native American friends, I have changed that word whenever it has appeared in the manuscript, along with the words, 'papoose' and 'buck.'"  

I don't know about you, but the woman's audacity almost leaves me speechless. But, wait. There's more. "'Colored' and 'Negro' are no longer considered correct usage; African American has replaced them in the women's stories." 

Don't get me wrong. I am certainly not defending the use of racial slurs. However, a hundred, a hundred-and-fifty years ago these words were common descriptors, sometimes used with malice, sometimes not. In my humble opinion, whitewashing history is a very dangerous game to play. If you don't present the past in its completeness, you get a skewed image that buries sins and hides mistakes. And that's not history at all. That's fiction.  

Do you agree with me or should we be making all history politically correct, polite, and palatable?   






14 comments:

  1. I agree with you. It is one thing to find palatable descriptors for our words. However, when quoting those who lived in the times, it is best to be accurate, even if the words make us cringe.

    I find this a lot with my use of Indian. At one time, it was a big no-no to refer to Native Americans as Indians. Now, many are of the opinion they prefer it. When writing a story about the native people of North America, I find in my research the use of the term "Indian" or "hostiles" was quite common. I try to refer to a Native American character by their tribe, if known, or sometimes I mix in "native tribes," but I think as long as the overall usage is not used to insult those with Native American ancestry, it adds to the story. The sad truth is, no matter how much we try to stay politically correct or not offend, preferences over time change, and there are always those who choose to take offense even where none is intended.

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    1. I agree. It seems lately, "Native Americans" have decided to take back ownership of certain words that the politically correct find offensive. Sort of like the way Americans took over Yankee Doodle Dandy.

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  2. I agree with you completely. When quoting pioneer women, changing the words takes nerve. In fiction, I try to find ways as Robyn says above to use correct but inoffensive words. We can't change history or there's no lesson there. Too much has already been changed in textbooks.

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    1. And if you forget the past, you're doomed to repeat its mistakes.

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  3. I agree with all 3 of you! When I think of the terrible treatment of our fellowmen and women, it hurts my heart! Knowing that somethings never changes, we all know what happened. Our children and grandchildren needs to know the truth!

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    1. Absolutely, Linda. Who's to say one day someone might want to whitewash what Hitler did the the Jews. We just can't tolerate obliterating the truth.

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  4. I appreciate it when authors and readers take the time to address this topic!

    In the case of history, it's good to keep in mind that while there may've been a mainstream idea or practice in society, there also tends to be people through history who don't conform to the mainstream of their time. Sometimes we can think, "People were ignorant, but that's just how it was and how people behaved back then." Yet, even in the past (as it still happens today), not every person thought or behaved the same way. Light and truth are constants, even in a period or place when light isn't prevalent or the truth isn't popular.

    Nonetheless, there's a difference between being politically correct and being culturally competent.

    Political correctness can oftentimes be the passive Silver Rule: "DON'T do unto others what you don't want them to do unto you." It can focus on trying *not* to do something, being polite at all costs in an attempt not to offend anyone. Being polite so as to avoid the trouble of backlash, whether or not you really care about the human beings you might hurt.

    Cultural competence applies the more active Golden Rule: "DO unto others as you would have them do unto you." Imagine yourself in the place of the person or culture you're writing about. Imagine yourself in the place of readers who are a part of or who descend from that culture. Consider their triumphs and their plight, past and present. Consider how you'd feel if you weren't writing about "other people" but you were writing about your own friends, about your own family, or about yourself.

    Political correctness often comes from a place of fear, while cultural competence comes from a place of love.

    Being a culturally competent author doesn't mean you have to whitewash, misrepresent, or try to erase history. Rather, it means you're active about finding ways to show love through your writing; to show that while ignorance existed/exists, that doesn't mean it was/is okay, and we can and must do better. There are different ways authors can do that, whether they weave it into a plot, reflect it through a character, include a thoughtful note for readers before or after the story, or what have you.

    A little consideration and/or creativity can go a long way in getting a message of light across, even when depicting flawed characters or regrettable portions of history.

    Write not from fear but from love. :-)

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  5. I believe we need to take in considerations of today when writing/speaking etc. However, one should not be changing words written by others. Add a disclaimer or explain that this was common usage of the time. But do not clean up quotations. While I would not want it overdone there are times when one has to use the language of the time to get the correct feel for the story being presented. I believe that keeping this true will lead to greater understanding and discussion among us. I agree write from love.

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    1. Yes, writing today we need to be cognizant of the culture and not use defaming words for meanness, but to tell a story properly. And if I'm going to great pains to "quote" directly from a historical figure, I don't think those words should be changed.

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  6. We are human and both we and the world we live in changes. At the same time, 150 years from now, would we want our thoughts to be changed to accommodate the time. We make mistakes. It is the learning that we grow, but we can't learn if we don't have the history to compare it to.

    I did a one woman show, set in the 1890's and used stories from the history of my home. Some words were offensive in the climate of today's time, but normal back then. What is most interesting, the people who should have been offended appreciated the honesty and use of those words. It drove home the journey the human race had made from then to now. It was a well-learned lesson for me, let history stand in all its mistake ridden glory. Doris

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    1. Yes, Doris, exactly. And you're telling was probably the richer for your fearless honesty.

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  7. You are absolutely correct! What History reader wants to be jarred into the present in order for the author to show an up-to-date version...This reviewer would be totally offended by the author...

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    1. That is absolutely a great way to look at it!

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