white discomfort and seeing no color

and omg I keep looking at this cover only seeing the watermark OR the forefront and it goes back and forth and is just brilliant and omg

!!!!!! I have been so excited for Shannon Gibney’s See No Color [IndieBound] and the publisher sent me a copy and it’s the best thing ever. It’s rare that a book that is really Important to highlighting an experience that rarely gets examined in literature is also just a Good Book, and this one is.

Description from GoodReads:

Being a biracial girl adopted by a white family didn’t used to bother Alex. All that mattered was being her father’s baseball star–until that status slips. Now she’s questioning her identity. Black or white–where does she fit in?

I have zero interest in sports stories, but that didn’t stop me from finding a lot in this book. I can think of a handful of adoption books I’ve read in my life: Real for Sure Sister; Find a Stranger, Say Goodbye; Year of Mistaken Discoveries, Abby, and only two those were about brown people and only one about a brown person in a white family (Ann Angel’s – incidentally, when I met Ann, I learned it was based on her real life AND the baby in the book and I have the same birthday. So I had A LOT to identify with, and the book should totally be back in print. Anyway, See No Color is a book that I think a lot of people will find to be one of those This Book Is Everything And I Finally See Me titles, and plenty others will be like, “yo, romance and baseball! Sweet!” Check off many boxes.

A thing many parents in books and in real life do harmfully and badly – but with good intentions – is tell their biracial children that race isn’t real and the only thing that matters is love. That is patently untrue. Say all you want that race is a construct, but it’s also real (and even biological, to a point) because we made it so. The interesting thing in this book is that Alex’s dad (the parent of consequence in this book – she has a mom, too, but the story centers primarily around her relationship with her father) tells her such things but also clearly wishes to “validate” her blackness in appearance by reminding people that she’s half white. Mixed people whose makeup includes white and who grow up in privileged social spaces (whether that’s around mostly white people, in an educated class, or whatever else) probably all know what this is like. White people feel more comfortable around us because we’re not true people of color to them, tell us they don’t think of us as X other thing because they consider that a compliment, welcome us (somewhat) into their whiteness. Alex’s father obviously doesn’t care that she’s biracial or they wouldn’t have chosen to adopt her, but he also feels uncomfortable when confronted by other members of white society and feels the need to lapse into that belief that partial whiteness adds status (hey, that’s kind of true – privilege is a nice thing to have).

Then you have Alex trying to discover her blackness, which is hard to do when you’ve been raised to see yourself as white. And she feels like an imposter there, too, getting to know her boyfriend’s family and worrying that they won’t see her as legitimately black when she so desperately wants to be accepted and to just see what being African American is all about.

I know what that’s like. I’ve been black my whole life by virtue of appearing that way and by having medical reasons to identify that way, as well as social reasons like being eligible for certain scholarships. But I’ve only really been African American since meeting my birthfamily. Ethnicity and culture are not at all the same things as race. Hence the distinction. Hence the harmfulness of telling your child their race doesn’t matter just because your unacknowledged race, your whiteness, doesn’t.

I guess I haven’t told the internet this because I have been a lot less on the internet since moving, but I’ve sort of unofficially started my doctorate by TAing a class that the university wants me to teach next fall. It’s on adolescence itself, but we’re studying and understanding it through YA literature. The syllabus is great, the topics are interesting, and the class as a whole is enthusiastic, but it’s frustrating to see them not being willing to try to access privilege and use it to understand their readings – and their reading processes. That, right there, is white discomfort (also hetero discomfort or [insert privileged identity here] discomfort by extension). Not understanding the difference between talking about race and enacting racism is something that many white, self-identified liberals have trouble with, and it’s exemplified well in this novel.

It’s a thing I bring up again and again during internet discussions on diversity* – we can do all kinds of good work, and it’s important that we do, but no lasting change can be brought about with people afraid to own their whiteness. Being white is not bad. It’s not evil. But not understanding that being white comes with social advantages is very bad. Alex’s parents, while trying to provide her with the social advantages that come from having a settled, nuclear family with adequate income, education, etc, fail to understand that providing her with such things does not erase the fact that she still lacks the privilege they all have as white people.

It’s a macro/micro thing. On the day to day? Yes, tell your child of color that race doesn’t matter. It doesn’t, not in the case of your family and love. But that’s micro. On a macro level? Yes, race matters. Race happens. And institutional and structural racism occur because people with privilege fail to see that their personal convictions and micro-beliefs, which they express when prompted but do not enact actively at all times, do not do anything to overturn a macro system.

And that’s how a simple book review turned into a diatribe about things I am fed up about. You should still read this book. It’s a really great book. It comes out in November, but you can preorder it and then get right to it when it arrives at your doorstep/on your internet-enabled reading thingie.

*That’s just obnoxious shorthand now for all of the problems in publishing and literature surrounding privilege, equity, racism, etc. We’re all just going to have to deal with it.


7 thoughts on “white discomfort and seeing no color

  1. I love your macro/micro comparison. It crystallises a lot of things that can be hard for someone not in your position to understand.
    I wonder if you might be interested in reading Black by Design, a memoir by Pauline Black, lead singer of the British Ska band, the Selecter, which deals with many of the issues you are discussing here.

  2. Pingback: SEE NO COLOR wins more praise | Shannon Gibney

  3. Pingback: Recently Read: ONE by Sarah Crossan and SEE NO COLOR by Shannon Gibney

  4. Just finished it. The book, and your review of it, are amongst those things I’ll carry in my head and heart.

  5. Pingback: See No Color – Adoptee Reading Resource

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