the white savior and redemption of the oppressor
a discussion of how white guilt breeds racist narratives
Disclaimer: I'm white. I have a ton of privilege. I'm not an expert on being a POC. I also frequently fuck up. I like some problematic books and continue to like them even after I've learned that they're problematic. I get defensive when I read tweets about white people and think "but I don't do that!" I feel excluded sometimes from the diversity conversation because I'm "just" neurodiverse (yeah, I know, poor thing insert eyeroll). Yes, I have problematic beliefs and opinions that I'm working on, and I still mess up. Which is why I usually just try to shut up and RT people who know better. Which I will still do.
But today I've just had it. My goal is to use my privilege to reach a broader audience, and because (sadly) you might listen to me where you'd get defensive and huffy at a black woman. But I've no doubt screwed up somewhere in the writing of this post. If I did, and you have the spoons to do it, please let me know? And, regardless, the best people to listen to on this issue are the marginalized, and I've included a bunch of links to #ownvoices scholarship at the end for highly-encouraged further reading.
how we got here
This was sparked by a perfect storm of publishing bullshit that occurred today. One, Kirkus responded to criticisms of its starred review of The Black Witch by Laurie Forest by writing an article defending their position. The novel American Heart was announced in Publisher's Weekly; it features a world in which there are Muslim detainment camps and a white girl becomes a true patriot by smuggling a Muslim girl to safety. There's a slew of issues you could talk about in reference to these books, but I'm going to focus on just one.
How did we get here?
The Black Witch. American Heart. The Continent. I know I'm missing some. Two intertwined tropes are at the heart of all these books: the white savior and the redemption of the oppressor. In The White Savior, a spunky white person saves a nation/group/race/whatever of usually-marginalized or otherwise under-attack POC. Because I guess they couldn't do it themselves. And often mixed with this is the Redemption arc, in which the previously-racist white kid learns along the way, with the help of a chipper cast of POC dedicated to their education, that POC are humans too and their previous notions were a no-no.
white guilt strikes again
There are many factors that feed into why we keep freaking getting this narrative over and over but one really struck me today: white guilt.
White guilt, the plague of white liberals, is the guilt that stems from awareness of your own privilege and complicity in the oppression of POC. It's pervasive.
It's also not helpful. Maybe a little bit. A little bit might spur you to action. "How can I be better? What can I do to use my privilege?" But for a lot of people, it spirals into this paralysis of shame that results in: inaction, defensiveness, withdrawal, and hurting the very people you feel guilty about getting hurt. Like by writing books that reinforce negative stereotypes. Or by writing stories that belong to POC.
Or writing yourself your very own redemption arc. Because you're a good white person. You want to help POC. (And you want them to know you're not racist.)
I repeat: white saviors and redemption arcs aren't written to help cure racism and support POC. They're written so white authors can:
- feel less guilty about having privilege
- pat themselves on the back for being more progressive than the heroine/real-world cross-burning racists
- ignore the issue of implicit bias
- teach other white people that POC are humans, i guess?
why people get pissed off (an abridged version)
Newsflash: maybe POC are sick of reading books about white people relearning that they're human, again and again. Maybe they're sick of being the convenient sidekick who exists to show the reader that the white hero isn't so bad after all. I mean, Huck Finn was written a long time ago. We don't need to repeat its narrative into perpetuity.
Not to mention there's something deeply paternalistic about a story in which the POC are saved solely by the clever actions of the white hero. Maybe someone's writing themselves some wish-fulfillment, huh?
One of the worst parts is that there's never a confrontation with the hero-as-they-were-before. It's always "wow, how heartwarming that so-and-so overcame her beliefs!" instead of "wow, so-and-so really fucked over a lot of people before she decided to think about POC as people."
The damage is never addressed.
There's always forgiveness.
Because it's our perfect fairy tale. Because perhaps white authors write these stories because we want to be forgiven for our own mistakes and microaggressions, but we don't want to accept the discomfort of actually confronting the people we've hurt. Fiction is our proxy.
a brief foray into the black witch
In this context, I want to address a specific assertion from the Kirkus article.
How are we as a society to come to grips with our own repugnance if we do not confront it? Literature has a long history as a place to confront our ugliness, and its role in provoking both thought and change in thought is a critical one. - Kirkus "On Disagreement" in response to critiques of their The Black Witch review
Um, so, once you get past the completely patronizing title of the article, there's this quote.
Oh, dear, sweet summer child.
One of the biggest problems with The Black Witch is that it doesn't engage with that material critically. It's idealistic at best, dangerous at worst. Unlike in true satire, where the privileged class is the subject of the joke, Elloren is the hero. Her transformation from racist to less-racist is upheld as some breathtaking, heartwarming triumph of conscience and empathy--rather than being made out as a "finally!" with a trail of bodies in its wake.
And the worst part? The trail of bodies isn't addressed. Elloren emerges from her transformation unscathed, encountering little to no repercussions for her formerly repugnant behavior. Her victims forgive her, befriend her, praise her for her courage. It's not critical to write a story in which a white person learns that fantasy POC are humans and suffers no consequences of their past actions. That's called reality, my friend, and it caters to the thin moral victory of the oppressor rather than the silent suffering of their victims.
Real change is messy. It's complicated. It means accepting that you've hurt a lot of people and it means a lot of people never forgiving you and being forever harmed by your actions. It means owning what you've done and doing better.
a humble non-solution
Still think you can write a better version of this story? I propose some humble alternatives.
How about a story where the white person becomes a small cog in a larger movement spearheaded by POC and the person who saves the day is a POC and the white person doesn't get individual credit. And shuts up and listen to the POC in charge.
How about a white person realizing their trenchant racism/indifference caused catastrophic consequences and no one forgives them.
Or (OMG IDEA) how about letting POC save their own day?
And if you must write a "person X realizes that group of people Y aren't evil" because you just really want to right the wrongs of the world in fiction, then maybe choose to vary your groups along a dimension that isn't the subject of ongoing real-world violence.
your new favorite people (and further reading)
Now go read some phenomenal scholarship from some marginalized people who have been doing this work longer than me, know way more, and have taught me so much of what I know. I'm indebted to you all.
First and foremost, go on twitter and scope out all these timelines (and you're allowed to feel defensive and think "but not me!", just keep it in your head and then come back when you're calmer and ready to listen). They take the time and energy to post stuff about diversity every day and don't get enough credit for it:
@ElleOnWords @theshenners @whitewashedOUT @ElloEllenOh @gildedspine @WeeziesBooks @_diversebooks @thebookvoyagers @bookishwithtea @bookavid @acthomasbookks @kristinewyllys @mrjaycoles @sajidahwrites @twittysuch @b00kstorebabe @dailyjulianne @hannahmosk @justinaireland @lorimlee @nebrinkley @aimalfarooq @tehlorkay @claribel_ortega @fangirlJeanne @bcmorrow @debreese @heidiheilig