YA fantasy novel The Black Witch has been at the center of a huge online debate since advanced copies first reached readers. A lead title with a large print run, it received lots of praise from professional review outlets, including starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, and was torn apart in great depth by authors and bloggers for being deeply racist.
The Black Witch features an overtly racist protagonist. She's from a powerful family that disdains other races, but she's forced to mix with others for the first time at school, and she hates them. According to the book's defenders, the book is anti-racism, because the protagonist is meant to be unlikeable. She learns, as the book goes on, how wrong her opinions are. The book's critics say it's still full of racist vitriol, and readers shouldn't have to put up with that.
To be clear, I haven't read The Black Witch, and I don't really intend to read it. But it ties into an interesting question about perspective that I've been considering in the context of mental health representation for a while. It's a question, fundamentally, about who stories are for. Who does the book assume is reading it? Someone with experience of the issue it's exploring, or a second-hand observer?
The Black Witch is written from the perspective of a powerful majority character who has been taught to be deeply racist. Viewed in the best light, it's a book that uses the growth of racist character to say that racism is wrong. It's not a book aimed at people who fight racism, but at its potential perpetrators. If a reader sympathizes with the protagonist's perspective, the book can lead them to greater understanding.
But even if we consider the book in that generous light, it's valuing the perspective of the majority, of the powerful, over those who are actually most affected by the issue. It basically assumes a white reader, forcing them to get inside the racist protagonist's head and read all her racist thoughts and opinions. And it can't be a book that's against racism if it's likely to hurt readers who face it in real life.
This isn't a problem that's exclusive to The Black Witch, of course. Most fiction assumes a default reader, and in the case of YA fiction, that default reader is typically a white, straight, cis, able-bodied, mentally healthy American teenage girl. Unless the book is considered "literary," of course, and then the default reader is probably male. This affects stories in all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, but it's especially obvious in novels that explore issues that aren't faced by that default reader.
Take Thirteen Reasons Why. People have defended the show's final suicide scene, arguing that the show doesn't glamorize it, and that it's necessary to show it for the story. But this portrayal of suicide breaks many rules in the Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide, which are specifically designed to protect vulnerable viewers. The show explores the reasons behind the suicide in season-long detail. It shows the act itself and lingers on it. The entire concept of the show is focussing on a suicide note. It’s a story for people who don’t suffer from mental illness and suicidal ideation, one that basically assumes that no one suicidal might be watching, and therefore that guidelines to protect potential suicidal viewers don't apply.
Or consider Inexcusable by Chris Lynch, a YA novel written from the perspective of a rapist. It was a National Book Awards finalist, among other honors, and in the abstract, it might be an interesting literary exercise. But the book does not exist in the abstract. The perspectives of rapists are already almost always given more weight than their victims. Maybe reading a book like that helps some teenagers understand rape better, and that's a good thing. But the book's existence is still upsetting in a context where victims' voices are already often overlooked. It's not interesting and fresh and new. It's just same old, same old, exploring female rape from a male perspective. It assumes that no potential reader may actually be a rape victim themselves. It's a guy talking to other guys about this issue, while the most important voices are ignored.
So The Black Witch is presented as a story about racism from a racist's perspective, but that isn't a radical concept. It's old and worn out. And while it's definitely true that stories with racist or sexist characters are not necessarily racist or sexist texts, presenting a bigoted fantasy heroine has the potential to be harmful to readers. The book's problem lies in its assumption that, without any sort of branding to separate it from other YA fantasy, its potential readers are all white. It assumes that minority teens, victims of racism, are not going to read it, and so their perspectives do not need to be considered. And while it's possible to read it as a critical examination of racism from a racist character's perspective, that isn't a perspective that needs to be given more attention in literature. We need stories that remember that minority readers are also reading. Stories that can be read by anybody, but that create space for the most important voices on an issue to speak.