Since writing characters of colour seems to be the topic du jour (both by White writers and Writers of Colour), I want to spend a little time looking at WHALE TALK, by Chris Crutcher. As some of you know, Mr. Crutcher is white, and male. He writes believable, multi-dimensional characters of colour while exploring issues of race head-on. In this YA novel, the protagonist is a young man of colour navigating teen life and school, and exploring the concepts of identity and family. In the same novel, Crutcher also takes a brutal look at how racism affects the life of a young biracial girl (white mother, black father).
What makes Crutcher's portrayal of characters of colour so effective in this book is quite simple: he gets it. Mr. Crutcher's background is in social work. He was a therapist and child protection advocate. He directed a "last chance" alternative school for at-risk K-12 students for almost ten years. I have no doubt he would agree that among the first steps to self-actualization are self-acceptance and self-love. And isn't self-actualization what we're trying to do? To fulfill our highest potential? To shine our light -- to be as great as we are capable of becoming?
Mr. Crutcher has obviously been around young people of colour and knows, quite intimately I'd imagine, the issues they face in school and at home. As anyone who has worked with or been around young people of any colour knows, they are working out issues of--among other things--identity. Young people of colour are working these issues out with the added element of race.
Obviously, all teens face issues of self-esteem at one point or another. But teens who fall outside of the social power hierarchy (teens of Colour, LGBTQ, and working class teens, as well as teen girls) are particularly prone to bullying, alienation, ostracism, and plummeting self-esteem because of the added layers of oppression.
Crutcher doesn't skirt around the topics of neglect, abuse, racism, and class. He slams into them without fear, picks them apart and looks at the way they function on a micro level. He connects all of them and brings them home, to the personal.
In one scene, the young biracial girl scrubs her skin raw because she is trying to "wash the black off." This is heart-breaking to read for so many reasons, but specifically, 1) what a devastating place for any child to be; and 2) this is, tragically, not uncommon.
Most PoC know what it's like to be compared to a beauty ideal that is often not only unrealistic, but completely impossible. White skin and/or light skin are ideals in countries where brown people live the world over, including countries that are predominantly non-white. "Non-Asian" eyes have become a beauty ideal for Asian women, and the practice of blepharoplasty (surgery to create a double eyelid fold) has become a profitable venture for many plastic surgeons. Women everywhere struggle to accept body shapes that deviate from the Vogue and Cosmo norm. Magazine, film, and television images featuring one idealized type of beauty affect the self-esteem of PoC and women, and are tremendous obstacles to overcome when working toward self-love and self-acceptance,* and thereby impeding self-actualization. In children, these types of self-hatred work themselves out in the most devastating ways.
Crutcher not only displays an understanding of the fact that all teens struggle to accept themselves, but that this battle is exponentially amplified for teens and children who are on the margins of mainstream society (as depicted in the "reality" of television, books, and mainstream media).
WHALE TALK shows a grasp of two critical elements: 1) all teens (and people) are essentially the same; and 2) all teens (and people) are not operating on a level playing ground. In other words, yes, on a personal level we are all the same. We have the same emotions, similar struggles, and want the same basic things out of life. But on a systemic, political, and economic level, we are not all the same. And this reality affects our personal lives -- advantaging some over others, with the advantaged never having to acknowledge or be aware of their unearned privilege.
These two elements are not only beautifully incorporated into Crutcher's fiction, they allow his characters to breathe on the page. Combined effectively, they create life-like, believable characters who are "other" to Crutcher's experience, without "otherizing" them. He is with them as an insider, not looking at them as outsiders. And when we read them, we experience them as intimate as family; we rejoice in each character's triumphs as we would our own family, and we share in their pain as we would with our own loved ones.
This is an accomplishment for any writer, indeed. WHALE TALK is believable, it is compassionate, and it is a must-read, IMO. I'm also thrilled to note that the cover now features a model who is more obviously multi-racial, to reflect the main character. Here is another review for this book by teen blogger, Miss Attitude, who runs the blog, Blackteensread2.
I'm hoping to feature more writing of the "other" that is multi-dimensional, layered and nuanced, and effective. I want to explore what the author did that worked exceptionally well where other writings may fall flat. It helps us all understand what makes us different and what makes us the same. It helps us all understand, period.
*For those of you still insisting that not all White people experience white privilege, this is yet another of the unacknowledged benefits of being white. It is part of the "knapsack" of white privilege that Peggy McIntosh describes in her most excellent essay, though she does not list "beauty ideal" specifically -- the closest her list comes is with numbers 6, 26, and 50, which, to me, are along the same lines.