My personal Twitterverse directed me to this post at Stop the GR Bullies this morning. It’s a collection of reviews by Goodreads readers (Goodreaders?) focusing on Victoria Foyt’s Revealing Eden Part One: Save the Pearls.
Revealing Eden Part One: Save the Pearls is a book that apparently aims to turn Western racist tropes on their heads by making light-skinned people the oppressed class and dark-skinned people the oppressor class, in a world where darker skin gives its possessors the ability to better withstand UV radiation (thus making light-skinned people more likely to die horribly; ergo, they are shunned by the darker-skinned folks).
(Feel free to ignore the awful science behind that notion. It is fiction, after all.)
Thing is, a non-trivial number of readers concluded that the book trades in a whole lot of real-world racist (and sexist) tropes. Many of them took this opinion to Goodreads, where, in the view of Stop the GR Bullies and Foyt herself, the reviewers failed to draw a sufficiently distinct line between “this book trades in racist tropes” and “this author is racist.”
Here’s what Foyt had to say about the race-related criticism of her and her work, as quoted by Save the GR Bullies (similar comments appear in an article by Foyt at HuffPo):
In the novel I aimed to turn racism on its head, hoping to portray its horrors and its inevitable road to violence. The dust jacket photo shows Eden’s face half white and half dark. She is shedding a false cover, and learning to accept herself—a journey we all must take, regardless of race.
To say that a Pearl’s dark skin covering represents blackface could not be farther from the truth. It is not a comic travesty or patronization of any race. Rather, it is a cautionary tale of the dangers of racism and of the rampant destruction of Earth.
The titular character, Eden Newman, progresses from a girl who hates her white skin to someone who understands that real beauty comes from within. I believe that anyone who reads the entire book will understand its testament to man’s brotherhood and the need to respect our planet, as dozens of reviewers have noted. Quick judgments and fear-mongering bring about misunderstanding – in this case, targeting a novel with racism when it has a strong anti-racist message!
I highly respect all races, and abhor racism. I sincerely hope that you will read Revealing Eden and grasp its message of love and hope for the planet and for all men.
The blogger at Save the GR Bullies is quick to jump to Foyt’s “defense”:
Now, criticism of a book is not bullying, but calling the author racist (when she has clearly stated that she is not) … that is bullying.
Merely saying “I’m not racist and I never meant to be!,” when one is white in America, is nonsense. Unless you were raised in a Skinner box, you’re racist. The U.S. has a deeply racist culture, and every last one of us is indoctrinated with those ideas. The point is not to deny our racism (there is no plausible denial); the point is to actively put in the work to decolonize our own minds, to fight the stereotypes and tropes.
Writing a book that relies on those very stereotypes and tropes is not fighting racism, but perpetuating it. Some of the racist tropes in the book pointed out by Goodreads “bullies” (all of these are taken from the reviews “called out” in the GR Bullies post):
On top of that, the black male lead, Jamal (seriously) is described as beastly and exotic evoking the “Mandigo” [sic] stereotype while the “one nice Coal” is named Peach and might as well have a big ol’ sign on her saying “Mammy.”
…It’s a poorly-veiled excuse to feed into old prejudices and fears and it’s being promoted as kid literature.
Her racism shines through on every page, but that’s about all that’s clear. …Add in the one dimensional characters rooted in stereotypes, the plot twist straight out of a soap opera, & the complete failure to build a believeable mythos for her world…. The offensive plot devices are all that make this train wreck remotely interesting & they’re not being deployed with any skill. It’s poorly written, poorly plotted, & after a while it even fails at being offensive simply because it’s so boring.
And, from the comments on the GR Bullies’ blog post:
That many racist undertones (Referring to Black people as “them” and “their kind,” using Blackface, ignoring the voices of PoC when she herself is white, associating the Black love interest with animalistic/beastial/dehumanizing imagery, etc) can’t just be a coincidence.
To this, I would add the criticism that calling the light-skinned characters “Pearls” and the dark-skinned ones “Coals” is problematic. Foyt argues in her HuffPo post that “Pearls” is meant as an insult while “Coals” is meant as praise – in a post-apocalyptic world, which do you want on your side, the shiny gem that shatters easily and can buy you nothing, or the tough rocks that can keep you warm at night?
But the reason this setup fails is that, to the readers in this world, the pejorative/praise dichotomy goes the other way round. “Pearls” are associated with value in our minds. “Coal” is not. Foyt’s set-up passes off a de-valuing of dark-skinned people as a compliment. This is a well-known oppressive tactic, and one with which PoC (and other oppressed groups) in the U.S. are all too familiar.
The final commenter I quote above points out that the proliferation of oppressive tactics in Revealing Eden Part One: Save the Pearls is no coincidence, and it isn’t. It does two things: it demonstrates that these racist tropes and stereotypes are alive and well in Foyt’s mind, and it demonstrates that this is a novel that supports the entire system of institutionalized racist claptrap. With elements like these, this work does not challenge racism, no matter how badly its author wants it to or believes it does. A book that contains racist elements works to perpetuate racism.
It is of course entirely possible to include racist tropes in a work without a full-blown “screw you, [insert racist slur here]s, I’ll show you” clarity of intent. It’s entirely possible, even probable, that Foyt abhors the idea of racism because she equates racism with pointy white hoods and cross-burnings, and that these are activities she would never personally engage in.
What protestations like Foyt’s overlook is that racism isn’t always clear. It’s not always overt. And it’s not always fueled by active hatred or fear of other races. Sometimes, an author includes racist tropes in a work not because zie actively believes them, but because zie hasn’t bothered to examine them critically and realize that they are, in fact, stereotypical nonsense that doesn’t apply to real-world individuals of color.
But no amount of protesting “I’m not racist!” will do that intellectual heavy lifting. The author has to do that work hirself. Without it, zie risks producing books that perpetuate racism, even – or in Foyt’s case, especially – when they claim to be challenging it.
Foyt’s refusal to see the need for this intensive self-examination is what makes charges of “racism!” toward both her and her novel appropriate. Yet what neither she nor the GR Bullies bloggers seem to realize is that Foyt has the power to shut down those charges. The first step is to stop defending the problematic elements of the work. The next is to acknowledge and fix them. Whinging about “bullies!” won’t make Foyt’s writing less racist. Only Foyt can do that.