You may recall a great deal of outrage several months ago over a horrible-sounding self-published YA novel, Save the Pearls, about a future in which black people (Coals) rule and white people (Pearls) are oppressed, and also must wear blackface in order to protect themselves from the now-deadly sun. (Blackface shown in a truly ill-conceived video promotion on the author’s website.) From what I gather, the black hero grows a tail at some point. And no, I’m not going to review it, not even to mock, except to say that I read the first two chapters free, and they were pretty hilariously bad. It’s self-published, so any attention is good attention. Let it die the death of obscurity.

However, it did remind me that the “racism flip” idea had been done before, and not just in slush piles. I wondered how a better writer might handle it.

In Noughts and Crosses, a YA novel by a black British author, white Noughts have been oppressed ever since black Crosses colonized the world. Nought Callum has always been best friends with Cross Sephy, the daughter of the wealthy family his mother works for. Though his mother is unjustly fired and the kids are forbidden from associating, they continue to secretly meet, and eventually begin a romance. But their innocence ends when Sephy coaches Callum into passing the tests to get into her Cross school, setting into motion a series of painful reminders of just how separate and unequal their lives really are.

The world is a very literal racism flip: everything is the same, except that the social positions of black and white people are reversed. (No other races are ever mentioned.) I would have preferred a real alternate history with cultural changes, but though simplistic, the raceflip does work to drive home its message: magazines only use dark-skinned models. Band-aids only come in brown. The history books never mention any white scientists or explorers or inventors.

For most of its length, it’s an anvillicious but fairly well-written problem novel (problem: racism is bad) about the travails of a teenage interracial couple. Their travails do get increasingly melodramatic as the story continues, and hey, it’s obviously retelling Romeo and Juliet, but I was still not expecting the accidentally hilarious swerve into jaw-dropping melodrama that occurs near the end.

Spoilers make a terribly dramatic choice )

Moral: Don’t have unprotected sex with your kidnapper. It is possible to write a racism flip novel which is not itself racist. But it is very difficult to write one which doesn’t paint in very broad strokes of black and white.

More seriously, these oppression-reversal stories come out a lot better when the author belongs to the real-world oppressed group - the author is more sensitive to how oppression actually works, and can appreciate and explore the wish-fulfillment and "take that!" aspects. When written by the real-life oppressing group, they tend to be accidentally racist, sexist, etc.

Noughts & Crosses

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