Bearing in mind that racism is a learned behavior and considering the setting of Huckleberry Finn, is Huck racist?P.S, i know racism is never ok.

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Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a good question!  Given that racism is a learned behavior, I could support a response that Huck is racist.  However, I will not because of the time and place in which the novel takes place.  Today would be a different story, though, and I will share some thoughts about those differences.

If we learn something that is not good, for whatever reason, and we are never exposed to an alternative option, are we responsible for what we have learned?  Society,with a few significant exceptions, determines rights and wrongs, and Huck's only exposure was to the concept that slaves were property and that African-Americans were less than equal, almost less than human, really. Granted that there were people in the United States who opposed slavery, they were few in number, and Huck was not exposed to them.  Huck was never presented with an alternate point of view on the issue, and everything and everyone around him reinforced what we now see as racism.  In fact, I find it remarkable that Huck treated Jim as well as he did! Imagine that you were raised to believe that all green-eyed people were inferior to you and no one ever pointed out to you how ridiculous that was.  Every person around you acted on the premise that green-eyed people were bad, stupid, and incapable of taking care of themselves.  Everything you ever saw on the Internet, on television, or in the newspaper reinforced this idea.  Would you be whatever "ist" this results in?  Would you be to blame for holding this opinion?

Now, as for today, a person who is racist, who is part of modern society, has no excuse, particularly in the United States and most European countries.  Children are exposed to a diverse school population, people from all races work together in the workplace, and it is against the law to discriminate on the basis of race.  People might be racist because we cannot control people's minds through legislation, but they should know better than to act on the basis of that racism.  The "N" word is no longer acceptable in polite society, for example, and couples of mixed race are fairly common. 

So, was Huck racist?  Today he would be, but as a creature of his time and place, I think not. In fact, there is a book you might be interested in reading, that argues Huck might have been black. Its title is Was Huck Black?:Mark Twain and African-American Voices, by Shelly Fishkin Fisher.  Woudn't that be amazing!      


MaudlinStreet eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In addition to what the previous poster has mentioned, I'd like to add that the character of Huck at the end of the novel is different from Huck at the beginning. I would argue that "final" Huck is not a racist, & that this is a result of a conscious decision. Huck chooses to separate himself from the racism and oppression of the dominant white Southern culture. The moment occurs when he considers writing a letter to the Widow, revealing Jim's location & essentially sentencing him to slavery forever. But after he writes, he remembers each time Jim watched over him, and treated him as though Huck was his son. It is a painful example of moral or spiritual codes vs. actual, physical law. According to society, Huck commits a sin by helping Jim. But something inside Huck knows that would be wrong. It is this aspect of Huck that rebels against the established culture of racism. He explains it:

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I'll go to hell”—and tore it up.

He submits to his higher law, & tears himself from the society in which he was raised. I would say this shows him to be caring, compassionate, and dedicated to justice for everyone.

slchanmo1885 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree that according to today's standards, Huck is racist, because he was taught to be by a racist society. What's important to understand here is that Huck has never known anything else but the status quo. Huck is, as a poor white, son of a drunkard, pretty low on the social ladder. However, black people are placed even lower. Huck is a product of the society that he lives in, but he is able to break out of that mindset and see Jim as a person. Even though he "knows" that slavery is supposedly right according to everyone around him, and that blacks are supposedly inferior, he is still breaks out of that mold and decides to free Jim, even if it means his soul is doomed to hell. Against all that society tells him, he makes a different decision and helps his friend. 

In a post above, the book "Is Huck Black" by Shelley Fisher Fishkin was mentioned. This book doesn't exactly try to argue that Huck himself was black, but that Mark Twain used rhetoric and linguistic styles that were borrowed from African American culture. It is an interesting read, especially if you're interested in linguistics and dialect. 

Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Huck is a racist, in the beginning, because he is a product of his racist society, as well as being a reflection of it. Of all the elements of this novel that make it superb, the most significant are Huck's dynamic character and the theme it develops. The growth of his spirit and his act of ultimate moral courage are just beautiful to behold. When human beings need each other, look out for each other, and share their daily lives, racism cannot survive. Huck will not give Jim up to racism, regardless of the personal consequences he truly believes he will experience. He will sacrifice his own soul rather than sacrifice Jim, his friend and fellow human being. Love, courage, and human decency triumph in Huck, despite all he had been "carefully taught."

ask996 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Twain was using humor to mock a very dark aspect of our American society. Hucklebery Finn, and Tom Sawyer were not meant to be representation of Twain's personal beliefs, but rather a reflection of societal flaws that he wanted to examine with humor. Therefore the books themselves are not racist.

That being said, racism implies a choice of one over the other. If Huck is merely reflecting modeled behavior and attitudes rather than exercising choice of one behavior over the other, then he might be ignorant (and his change through the book indicates he is learning) but can he truly be considered a racist.

drmonica eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Absolutely Huck is a racist. Twain uses Huck as his narrator in order to offer social commentary on the evil of racism; if Huck were not himself racist, the humor and poignancy of his observations would be lost. Part of the effect of Huck’s racism is to make the reader smile and nod when seeing Huck’s unwitting transformation; remember when Huck complains about “humbling” himself “to a nigger.” Nevertheless, Huck also makes the decision that if helping Jim escape will doom himself to hell, then to hell he will go because he senses that it’s the only thing he can do.

e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Huck is not intellectually equipped to overcome the racism of his society. He recognizes Jim's humanity and, by extension, equality, but does not demonstrate any ability to overcome his culture's racial attitudes. This makes him a racist.

His racism is not necessarily something that he is personally responsible for...

People in our world today who espouse the same opinions as Huck Finn would be considered responsible for those attitudes because there is ample social encouragement not to be racist. 

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The previous posts have eloquently argued the notion of racism in Twain's work.  I might also suggest that through the depiction of racial inequality in the work, Twain could be suggesting the need for social change in its stark depiction of reality.  Perhaps, through suggesting what actually is, Twain hopes to inspire what can be.  This might be a way to resolve the racism that exists in the setting of the novel.

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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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