Like with Shakespeare and his play Othello (1603), Behn’s racist perspectives on non-white cultures complicate her treatment of her subject—the tragic life of a royal slave trying to escape slavery. While it isn’t clear that the narrator’s tepid attitude toward slavery as a normal social practice matches Behn’s own ideas of the institution, what is clear is that Oroonoko itself does little to challenge what would have been the widely accepted view of its 17th-century audience, namely that slavery was integral to maintaining the outposts of the British Empire.
In the Suriname setting, racist attitudes are readily apparent and pervasive. All of Behn’s white colonist characters, from the blatantly racist—like Banister and Byam, who torture their slaves into submission—to the more enlightened—like Trefry and the narrator, who befriend Oroonoko as their equal—participate in and uphold the enslavement of blacks imported from Africa by either owning slaves or by silent assent.
The very hierarchy of the society reflects the attitudes of colonial Europe. White colonists place themselves at the top of the social ladder. In Suriname they are on friendly terms with the natives, but only because they outnumber the colonists. The English do not consider the natives their social equals, but rather a primitive and innocent people useful for sharing important survival skills and trading exotic goods. The black slaves then occupy the bottom rung of society. The colonists think the African people are somehow physically conditioned to better handle the grueling work of maintaining a plantation, and are “inferior” enough as a race to justify enslaving.
Oroonoko’s arrival then complicates this hierarchy and the racist attitudes that maintain it. Beautiful, passionate, intelligent, and noble, Oroonoko possesses every good trait that the common slave was thought not to have. However, even the colonists’ esteem of the prince is tainted because they admire his atypical qualities, or his non-blackness (descriptions of Oroonoko heavily play up his Roman qualities). Importantly, Oroonoko and Imoinda represent the 17th-century English ideal of non-Western beauty—that is, an impossible amalgamation of outlying physical traits representative of both Eastern and Western culture. In effect, Behn actually whitewashes her black hero and heroine to make them more likeable to her Western audience.
Though the topmost tier of white gentility instantly accepts Oroonoko as royalty, and he never does the work of a slave, he is still not in possession of his own liberty. He is treated like nobility, but is still very much a slave, even if, as the narrator rationalizes, he’s a slave in “name only.” The fact that he waits through almost the entirety of the piece for permission to return to his home only drives home the point that being a slave “in name only” is still enough to deprive someone of his natural rights.
Racism Quotes in Oroonoko
They are extreme modest and bashful, very shy, and nice of being touched.
He was adorned with a native beauty, so transcending all those of his gloomy race that he struck an awe and reverence even into those that knew not his quality; as he did into me, who beheld him with surprise and wonder, when afterwards he arrived in our world.
The whole proportion and air of his face was so nobly and exactly formed that, bating his color, there could be nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable, and handsome.
And I have observed, 'tis a very great error in those who laugh when one says, "A negro can change color": for I have seen 'em as frequently blush, and look pale, and that as visibly as ever I saw in the most beautiful white. And 'tis certain that both these changes were evident, this day, in both these lovers.
He begged Trefry to give him something more befitting a slave, which he did, and took off his robes: nevertheless he shone through all, and his osenbrigs…could not conceal the graces of his looks and mien; and he had no less admirers …the royal youth appeared in spite of the slave, and people could not help treating him after a different manner, without designing it.