Victoria Foyt is the (white) author of a new young adult book series called Save the Pearls. The book chronicles the adventures of Eden Newman, a white woman, or a “Pearl,” whose entire race has been enslaved by the dominant race of “Coals” — or dark-skinned people. Hoping to capitalize off of the popularity of dystopian young adult novels like The Hunger Games, Foyt constructed a narrative in which, she explains, “Solar radiation has wiped out most of the white race whose lack of melanin causes them to succumb to the Heat. The survivors, called Pearls, suffer from oppression under the new majority of dark-skinned Coals.” In the new world, Eden must rely on Bramford, a Coal. As Foyt describes it, Pearls is “a Beauty and the Beast story in which both parties must find self-acceptance before they can discover true love.”
In an essay on Huffington Post, presumably meant to publicize her book, Foyt prides herself on receiving mostly positive reviews for her story. She marvels at the way Pearls‘ “interracial love story” is being so positively received by the audience. She writes:
Not too many years ago, I can imagine that this story might have generated heated comments about the sexualized fantasies about black men. And yeah, there was one. And having checked out that blogger, I strongly suspect that he belongs to a much older generation than young adults.
Otherwise, I’m happily surprised to say there has been not a blip of protest.
And while yes, it’s great that an “interracial love story” is received without protest (yay! progress), I’ve got bigger fish to fry with Pearls — and Foyt.
First off, while she may want to pat herself on the back for creating a story that turns on its head stereotypical tropes about the social value of whiteness and blackness, the very names she chooses to use say that Foyt may still hold those tired tropes dear.
“Pearl” as a term for whiteness ascribes high value, rareness, beauty and worth. And Coal as a term for dark-skinned? Low value and dirty. And as blogger Nnamdi Bawse points out, it’s a tried and true racial slur. But even without the shameful history of the slur, choosing such wildly divergent names, holding wildly divergent values, implies a positive value judgement on whiteness and a negative value judgment on blackness.
Then let’s take the “Beauty and the Beast” analogy. To refer to a dark-skinned man as “beastly” carries with it negative notions of blackness that are rooted in a historical portrayal of black men as sexually savage beasts. As Dr. David Pilgrim, professor of Sociology at Ferris State University writes, “During the Radical Reconstruction period (1867-1877), many white writers argued that without slavery — which supposedly suppressed their animalistic tendencies — blacks were reverting to criminal savagery.” So essentially, the construction of black men as “beastly” was used to justify slavery. So, awesome. Yeah, NO.
Finally, witness this video Foyt made to publicize her book, featuring a white woman in blackface. Memo to the world: Blackface is not okay. Like, EVER. Blackface is rooted in bygone minstrel shows, where white actors would play outrageously offensive stereotypes of blackness. As the website Black-Face.com explains, blackface is more than simply the application of dark makeup to a white face. Blackface “originated in the White man’s characterizations of plantation slaves and free blacks during the era of minstrel shows (1830-1890), the caricatures took such a firm hold on the American imagination that audiences expected any person with dark skin, no matter what their background, to conform to one or more of the stereotypes: the coon, the mammy, the Uncle Tom, the buck, the wench, the mulatto and the pickaninny.” These racial stereoytypes are all highly negative and delimiting.
Oh, and also? White people don’t get to decide if blackface is no longer offensive and when it’s acceptable. As historical perpetrators of racial stereotypes against black people, it’s patently ridiculous to say that “black people should just get over it.”
Further, Foyt pats herself on the back because her dystopian novel where whites are the disadvantaged race just mirrors her own teachings at home. “I have endeavored to raise my children with a color-free mentality. My son once mentioned that his color was white while mine was tan. This was said with no more feeling than if he’d been describing the different colors of our bedrooms.” Here’s the thing: Teaching kids not to “see” color, denies the fact that people of different racial identities experience life very differently. Only a person living from a position of racial privilege would ever say that they don’t “see” color. It’s a way to avoid dealing with the very real truth that people’s skin color does in large part define how they are perceived by the world. It denies a very real part of someone’s life and being, and it also reinforces the construct of Whiteness-As-Norm. Further as SF Gate blogger Bruce Reyes-Chow writes, “When one says ‘I don’t see color,’ then we no longer have to acknowledge the realities of our own prejudice and privilege as well as the real experiences of the others. We stifle conversations that must happen around race in the US and squelch the possibilities of discovering together the one of the greatest gifts of U.S. culture … our diverse racial and ethic backgrounds.”
So it seems that however well-intentioned she might have been, Foyt needs to do a bit (a lot) more research on race politics, and the history of racism before writing a dystopian novel about it.