This book is superb. I finished it in a single Sunday afternoon sitting, it had me laughing, cringing (oh god the cringing) and examining white privilege, race, class and inequality. It comes at a time when the majority of us are looking within ourselves, realising it is not enough to not be a racist we have to act, stand up for change and equality – at least I hope that’s what people are doing.
This is Kiley Reid’s debut novel and I am looking forward to following her career. I enjoyed the dialogue and interactions between the characters, especially the friendship groups; how they spoke to each other felt real to me. About two hours after finishing this book, I saw a tweet criticising Reid for her use of language in it, particularly the ‘F bomb’.
One, I can’t say it registered on my radar (I admit I use it a lot).
Two, it is how people talk to each other, especially friendship groups, it’s when we’re at most comfortable and when we drop our heirs and graces.
Anyway, back to the book, the story starts at an upmarket grocery store. 25-year-old black woman Emira Tucker is accused of kidnapping the white toddler she’s babysitting. The whole exchange is filmed by a bystander. In the wake of this, Emira’s boss, Alix Chamberlain, resolves to ‘make everything right and get to know Emira’.
Emira, is aimless after leaving college, she can’t work out what she wants to do and becomes wary of Alix’s sudden attempts to become friends. Now, I half expected that the video would be posted and go viral straight away, I’m glad this book didn’t go down that obvious route and instead examined the relationships between race and class divides in a different way.
It’s about Emira figuring out who she can trust and standing up for herself in a world where the people around her are intent on speaking for her. Kelley, the guy who filmed the grocery store incident (and eventual boyfriend) is desperate for her to share it, she doesn’t want to, she’s humiliated but it’s private. Alix is intent on pointing out to Emira that Kelley is bad news, Kelley keeps telling her she can’t work for Alix because she’s racist. I’d have lost my shit with the pair of them constantly telling me what to do.
It’s this concept that intrigued me most, the white saviour complexes of both Kelley and Alix. They both in some way want control over Emira, they’re both well-meaning but both overstep the mark, both invade her privacy and actually make her life harder.
Alix is desperate to be seen as relevant, she doesn’t want to be thought of as the middle-class white woman. She wants Emira to know “that one of Alix’s closest friends was also black. That Alix’s new and favorite shoes were from Payless, and only cost eighteen dollars. That Alix had read everything that Toni Morrison had ever written.” She never looks to herself and her own prejudices, she just wants a pat on the back and crucially she doesn’t want her babysitter to quit. This woman’s behaviour really made me uncomfortable, she essentially stalks her babysitter and is quite positively, mad.
Kelley, isn’t much better. He appears to fetishise black people. He wants to be seen as helping Emira but doesn’t actually listen to her, he will not let the subject of the video drop, despite her obvious discomfort with it. It’s almost like he knows what’s best to do without taking her feelings into consideration. It’s like he knows how it feels to be discriminated against because of the colour of his skin, he can’t possibly know how that feels, something Emira recognises but doesn’t say out loud:
Are we really gonna do this? How are you gonna tell your parents? If I’d walked in here when they were still on screen, how would you have introduced me? Are you gonna take our son to get his hair done? Who’s gonna teach him that it doesn’t matter what his friends do, that he can’t stand too close to white women when he’s on the train or in an elevator? That he should slowly and noticeably put his keys on the roof as soon as he gets pulled over? Or that there are times our daughter should stand up for herself, and times to pretend it was a joke that she didn’t quite catch. Or that when white people compliment her (“She’s so professional. She’s always on time”), it doesn’t always feel good, because sometimes people are gonna be surprised by the fact that she showed up, rather than the fact that she had something to say when she did. Kiley Reid
Emira eventually makes decisions for herself despite Alix and Kelley trying to push her in a direction of their choosing, she ends by knowing what the right thing to do is.
It’s an easy read, the writing is fast paced, I enjoyed the twists and loved the relationship between Emira and three-year-old Briar. It’s a story that stayed with me and made me think about race and white privilege, I’ll never know how it feels to be discriminated against because of the colour of my skin, this book reminded me of that, now there’s a message.
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