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Racial slurs and perception of racism in Heart of Darkness

Mastropierro, Lorenzo; Conklin, Kathy

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Lorenzo Mastropierro

Professor of Psycholinguistics


The aim of this paper is to investigate the effect of the racial slursniggerandnegroinHeart of Darknesson readers’perception of dehumanisation,discrimination, and racism. It compares data collected through online question-naires to test whether the absence or different frequencies of the slurs influencehow participants perceive thefictional representation of the African people in thetext. Three versions of the same questionnaire are used: one with unmodifiedpassages fromHeart of Darkness, one with the same passages but without theracial slurs, and one with the same passages but with more slurs than in theoriginal. Findings show that the absence or overabundance of slurs compared tothe original does not alter reader perception of dehumanisation, discrimination,and racism. By comparing the results, this paper makes two interconnected con-tributions. First, it contributes to the critical discussion about racism in Conrad’snovel, by providing evidence on whether the representation of the Africans isperceived as dehumanising, discriminatory, and racist by readers. Second, it offersan empirical perspective on the usefulness of the“sanitising”(removing orsubstituting of all racial slurs) of literary texts with potential racist implications,adopted by some publishing houses and applied to novels like Conrad’sThe Niggerof the“Narcissus”and Mark Twain’sThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Nov 24, 2020
Online Publication Date Apr 5, 2021
Publication Date Apr 27, 2021
Deposit Date Apr 21, 2021
Publicly Available Date Apr 6, 2022
Journal Journal of Literary Semantics
Print ISSN 0341-7638
Electronic ISSN 0341-7638
Publisher De Gruyter
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 50
Issue 1
Pages 25-41
Keywords Linguistics and Language; Literature and Literary Theory; Language and Linguistics
Public URL
Publisher URL


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