Monday, January 13, 2014

Reverse discrimination can still hurt

Naughts & Crosses
Malorie Blackman's Naughts & Crosses is the first in a series of four books set in an alternate universe in which Blacks (Crosses) had power and Whites (Naughts - nothings) were held as slaves.  When we join the universe, slavery has been abolished for about a century and schools are just starting to be integrated, but there is a very long way to go.

The book is centered on two characters.  Sephy is the daughter of a powerful Cross family.  Her father is an important government official and her mother is an alcoholic.  Callum is Sephy's best friend.  He's a Naught and his father and brother are getting involved in the Liberation Army movement to fight for equal rights through violence and fear.

I was really interested in reading this book because I wanted to see what we could learn from the history of race relations by turning the situation on its head.  It's important not to look at history as inevitable, but as a series of choices that people made and could have changed at any point along the way.  Things could have gone very differently and it's important to know that.

Blackman uses that lens to look at history and gives us an alternate universe in which, historically, it was the whites that were oppressed by the blacks.  Unfortunately, though, that's about all she changed.  Rather than taking a hard look (and perhaps a more subtle approach) at how racism affects us all, Blackman came out with a lot of violence and anger and hatred on every side of the debate, with the ending message of, "See what happens when people are racist?  Bad things."  There wasn't much nuance or room for debate.

Thankfully, Blackman does give us both the Naught & Cross sides of the argument in this book - we learn from both Sephy and Callum and can see that both families are equally frightened of and worried by the other.  So you can see that racism goes both ways and cuts deep.  But that just made it even harder to believe in the central friendship.  While Sephy and Callum are supposed to be wonderful friends who tell each other everything... well, they don't seem to get along for a lot of the book, and I didn't quite believe in their friendship.

I do think this book does a good job of bringing to light just how much race can impact a society.  For example, when a Naught model gets on the cover of a major fashion magazine for the first time, Sephy doesn't understand why it's a big deal or a newsworthy event.  When a Naught classmate needs a bandaid, there are none available in a shade that matches her skin tone.  When students are taught history, they only learn about Crosses who changed the world, not about Naughts who contributed to the way our world is today.  I think it's important for the young adult audience at which this book is targeted to understand these issues and think about them more critically.  And so for that, I am really glad this book exists and I hope it is on reading lists so that students can have a real dialogue about it.

But, quite honestly, I will not be continuing with this series myself.  I found it overly dramatic, I didn't like the characters, and the last 75 pages or so bothered me so much!  I can't explain why, though, because that would probably be a spoiler.  But ugh.

It DOES seem as though this book is hugely popular with a younger audience.  So maybe, read it and consider if you would have liked it when you were 14 or so?  Or maybe if you really like thrillers and fast-paced plots, look into this one.  You will probably enjoy it more than I did.

15 comments:

  1. That's too bad you didn't like it more because it really is an interesting idea for a series.

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    1. It is! And maybe it's enough if you are 14? But as an adult, it was not.

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  2. Have you ever read Ursula LeGuin's Four Ways to Forgiveness? It's got a similar conceit--a world where the light-skinned have been enslaved by the dark-skinned, and where this is just now changing--but it's a lovely, intimate examination on teasing apart the system and the individuals who make it up.

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    1. I haven't! But I shall look into it. Thanks for the tip.

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  3. I'm not too sure about this either. I like that the author thought of reversing the slavery history and seeing what would happen, and maybe the author intended to show that the exact horrible things would have happened nevertheless. But I would like something more in this book and if the characters annoyed you, they would probably annoy me too.

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    1. Yeah, I frankly didn't like either of the characters as they were whiny and annoying. Also, I just think there could have been a lot MORE in this book. I think I am saddened by the potential it had vs what it achieved. It just didn't go deep enough for me, but maybe the series gets better as it continues.

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  4. I definitely really liked this when I was a teenager (like, a LOT. I love Malorie Blackman) but I've read the other 3 or 4 books more recently and I'm definitely more 'eh' about them. I so agree about the smaller details though, like that bandaid one really really made me go 'huh!' because that wasn't something I'd ever considered in real life before, you know?

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    1. Yes, I think those details are important for younger people to note, especially those who haven't really had the chance to interact with people from diverse backgrounds before. I STILL have trouble finding tights that match my skin color (though there are many colors, so I may just be bad at this), so I'm glad Blackman included those so that people could think about the small things that can lead to privilege.

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  5. I loved the first three in the series, I read them when I was about 18, I think. I loved all the small details from the role of the races being 'flipped'.

    The fourth book was a major disappointment, though.

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    1. Oh, what a bummer that you enjoyed the whole series until the end!

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  6. I like (a lot) that this book points out the more nuanced aspects of being a disempowered minority and I love an alternate universe, but something about the perspective switching approach seems a problematic way to approach prejudice. Is it presenting "these things are bad because they are painful and unfair and when that happens to anyone, whether you can identify with them or not, it's bad." Or is it presenting "this would be bad if it happened to YOU so don't do it." I guess the latter helps get to the former. - Elle

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    1. My friend and I were talking about this one, and she pointed out that the book doesn't really show you WHY racism is bad - how it really has colored (for lack of a better term) our interactions with each other and the pathways open to each of us and our political and judicial systems. It got so caught up in a ridiculous romance that it missed out on the "Hey, my life can only go down a limited number of paths because of this situation, and THAT is one of the main things that is wrong with racism."

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  7. I enjoyed these books when I was younger, but I agree that they often missed some of the deeper issues that arise with a racist society. I'd be interested to read more of Blackman's work -- I thought the Noughts and Crosses series had interesting ideas in it, and I'd like to see what else she writes.

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  8. I read this as an adult, too, after seeing it mentioned often as a great reverse-racism book, but didn't go on to read the next book in the sequence. I don't remember the ending, but I know I never went on to recommend the book to anyone, so there was something about it that disappointed me. Maybe it was the ending!

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  9. I remember this as a book one of my friends read at school, but I became so used to seeing it around I didn't actually find out what it's about. It sounds interesting, and I like the reversal idea (I've seen this done with gender and it's a good concept) but maybe this particular one isn't so good when you're older.

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