Is YA Novel “Save the Pearls” Straight-Up Racist or Just Misguided?

I'm reviewing the first three chapters, because that's all I could get for free on my Kindle.

Jul 30, 2012 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

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Yup, that there is a white girl in blackface for the book's promotional trailer.

Let me tell you about Victoria Foyt’s recently published young adult novel -- the first in a series, because YA novels always have to be series now I guess -- “Save the Pearls, Part One: Revealing Eden.”

Eden Newman is 17 years old and a “Pearl” -- a minority white girl in a dystopian future in which black people are the ruling class. (If this doesn’t set your teeth on edge already, sounding as it does like the novelization of Paul Kinsey’s “Star Trek” spec script as described in this past season of "Mad Men," then you might want to skip the rest of this article.) 

This being a Young Adult novel, there’s also a romance component, which takes shape as Eden needs to get “mated” (i.e. married, I guess) before she turns 18, ideally to a black person whose superior genetics will counteract her own when they reproduce (it sounds SUPER ROMANTIC, doesn’t it?). If Eden fails to mate, she’ll be cut off by the government and thrown to the scorched  surface to get cooked alive. 

Following some catastrophic event (“The Great Meltdown”) that has left Earth charred and radioactive, what’s left of humanity now lives underground. Black people survived the event in the greatest numbers, hence their cultural and social dominance. White folks like Eden are not allowed to even be seen in public without darkening their skin -- in other words, blackface is an important plot device.

The author straight-up suggests that melanin makes you radioactivity-proof, and while there may be more to this dubious science, I can’t say for sure, I’ve only read the first three chapters of this book. I have only read that far because that’s as much as I could get for free on my Kindle, and I had sufficient opportunities in that short introduction for horrified eye widening and mumblings of “oh hellllll no” that I am not about to drop ten bucks on the whole thing.

Let’s discuss those opportunities, shall we?

PROBLEM: “Pearls” and “Coals”

“She was a lowly Pearl, worth nothing in a world ruled by dark-skinned Coals.”

We'll start with the way obvious. "Pearls" -- the slur for white people -- are rare and precious, while "Coals" (which has been a legit slur used against black people, in real life) are dirty and common. Everybody in this novel gets a weird mineral-themed “slur” -- words the author identifies as offensive in the world she’s created, and yet which she uses uncritically -- Asians are “ambers,” and Latinos are “tiger’s eyes.” I don’t know what aboriginal people are called. Maybe they’re all dead. And in case you were wondering if our modern-day racial stereotypes persist in this future world, the “Amber” we meet in the second chapter has DRAGON TATTOOS on his arms, you guys. Dragon tattoos.

These “slurs” don’t make much sense even in the narrative -- why would the allegedly grotesque minority of light-skinned people be named after an object that is generally coveted and pretty? That’s not how racism works. Racist language in this sort of instance works by associating the color of the oppressed group with negative stuff, and associating the color of the dominant group with good things. In our contemporary culture, blackness is usually encoded as dark, mysterious, scary, unknown. Whiteness is usually positive, bright, cheery, uplifting. This doesn’t affect racism in a linear way, of course, but it does contribute to our overall thinking about color. 

As proof, I tried to come up with some examples of more “negative” white things that Foyt could have used to indicate her oppressed white characters, instead of “Pearls.” I actually couldn’t think of any. The best idea I had was a snowball in the face, because snowballs in the face are white (one hopes) and they kind of suck. But “Snowballs In The Face” doesn’t have the same flow as “Pearls.” I really couldn’t think of anything else white that is uniformly unpleasant or dirty or scary, let alone all three at once. (I invite commenters to float suggestions here. I suppose it could be something semen-related, although that might be a bit much for a teen novel.)

PROBLEM: Blackface.

“Had Peach forgotten that Eden’s skin only had a dark coating? Maybe she was passing, after all.”

To put it bluntly, blackface will never not be a problem. At least not in our lifetimes. 

For almost two hundred years, blackface was regularly employed in popular culture to systematically marginalize and stereotype black people as less human than white folks; it was used to portray black people as stupid, laughable, inept, immoral, hypersexualized, animalistic, indistinguishable from one another, and even downright alien. The old minstrel shows of blackface’s heyday are blood-chillingly horrible, demonstrating and encouraging a complete absence of basic human dignity for dark-skinned people. The effects of blackface were culturally catastrophic and their stereotypes linger even in racism today -- not surprising given that blackface was still appearing on television right up into the 1970s.

No, “whiteface” is not the same thing, because it lacks the historical context of blackface. White people have never been stereotyped in American culture the way black people have, likely because of a small and inconsequential period in our nation’s history in which we enslaved millions of non-white people for a few hundred years. Slavery was in effect on American soil for roughly twice as long as it’s been abolished. So we still have some time to make up here. 

If you’re Grace Jones, and a genius, there’s a slim chance you may be able to use blackface in a way that is thought provoking and critical and not overtly horrible. However, if there is any doubt in your mind that you are Grace Jones and a genius, I will gently suggest you don’t even try.

PROBLEM: Racism-flipping.

“How many times had Eden heard it? White people were lazy good-for-nothings with weak genetics.”

This is a novel that is fond of italics. The favorite italicized word is “them,” which refers to all “Coals” in Eden’s internal monologue. It’s meant to draw a line between Eden and her tormentors -- and they are tormentors, treating her with roughly the same respect afforded Cinderella by her evil stepsisters -- and it is disturbing not because it’s shocking but because it’s so banal. “Them” is a term and an idea historically used by whites against people of color, deployed as a reminder of difference and inferiority. 

While I doubt this was intentional (because I am a hopeless optimist) this usage of “them” reminded me of nothing so much as the extreme anti-immigration rhetoric we’ve been hearing more and more of in the US over the past few years. It’s not a huge stretch to see this novel as a cautionary tale describing the inevitable downfall of white America once whites cease to be the racial and ethnic majority in the United States, a day that is rapidly approaching -- Beware, white people, for when you lose your dominance they will trod you into the ground. CLOSE THE BORDERS! Panic, etc.

The flipped racism in this book fails because in the author’s efforts to make the reader identify and sympathize with the oppressed white protagonist, she (inadvertently or otherwise) reproduces a lot of incredibly negative language and assessments about her black characters, who are often cruel, mysterious, and distant. Eden refers to her “haughty” (seriously, I’m surprised the author didn’t just go with “uppity”) black coworker as simply “the bitch” as often as she identifies her by name. In a nod to the post-Civil-War South, there is mention of the fact that Coals sometimes kill Pearls who “seduced their kind." 

None of this actually interrogates negative stereotypes and racist horrors; it merely reproduces them, bizarro-style.

PROBLEM: IT’S RACIST.

“Eden lowered her gaze in a submissive gesture all Pearls used... Don’t look a Coal in the eye unless requested.” 

Hey, so it’s just like interacting with mountain gorillas. Good thing THAT’s not racist at all. As if this weren’t enough, Eden’s eventual love interest is a black man who literally transforms into a “beast,” a move that recalls a hundred years’ worth of racial stereotyping against black people as out-of-control savage animals whose humanity can never be fully trusted. This idea was, in fact, a central principle under which slavery was justified -- by asserting that being put in chains actually helped black people by hindering their “natural” barbaric inclinations. 

Many defenders of this novel have argued that the author obviously didn’t MEAN to be hurtful or offensive. I got really excited by this, because it provides me with an opportunity to trot out one of my favorite metaphors for these sorts of situations. Say I elbow you in the face and break your nose. It’s probably going to hurt. If I then turn around and say, Oops, I didn’t MEAN to break your nose, that’s not going to make your nose not be broken, and it’s probably not going to make it hurt any less either. At most, you will be able to carry on broken-nosed without thinking I’m some kind of asshole intentional elbow-throwing monster, but the fact remains that your nose is busted and it’s my fault.

It may well be true that it never even crossed Foyt’s mind that this novel could be problematic for some people. Indeed, an article expressing her joy at the lack of criticism over her novel of “interracial romance” on The Huffington Post does not read like the thinly veiled assertions of a xenophobic Tea Party activist, but rather like the musings of a somewhat clueless Nice White Lady who tries to raise her children with a “color-free mentality," even though this type of forced colorblindness does nothing to address racism and instead attempts to erase and ignore different lived experiences at the expense of those dwelling on the margins.

I almost feel badly for Foyt at this stage, as the book's reviews on Amazon have taken a serious hit with all the negative attention. But whether she intended this book to be damaging and problematic does not change the fact that it is these things -- and whether Foyt herself is viciously horrible or merely accidentally offensive does nothing to mitigate the harm she may have done.