Today, Kirkus decided to respond to the hundreds of comments on their review of The Black Witch. Most of them linked to my review or other similar reviews, denouncing Kirkus for not only missing all of the blatant racism in the book, but for giving it a starred review.
If you haven't seen the response, here it is.
Dear Kirkus (specifically, Vicky Smith),
I was hoping that by commenting on your review, that Kirkus would be willing to have a nuanced conversation that took into account the harm done to marginalized readers. Your review and this repsonse only illustrates how far behind Kirkus is on the discourse surrounding diversity.
Your first issue is that you decided that your opinion was more important than the voices of marginalized people. I get it. You get paid to write for one of the most prestigious literary magazines, so it's hard to hear that your opinion doesn't actually matter, but it's true. Someone who is affected on a daily basis by racism is more qualified to talk about race than someone is not. Someone who is dealt out homophobic comments is more qualified to identify what is homophobic.
Additionally, your response ignores the fundamental issue with the book: it centers whiteness. It centers the narrative of the white savior, learning that "hey, maybe people of other races are people too." That narrative is inherently problematic. The book is written specifically for white readers who think they're not racist because they voted for Obama, or whatever. We're supposed to sympathize and root for Elloren, but when you're a biracial teen who has been called a half-breed before, when someone tells you that you should be locked up for having a mental illness, when you've been kicked out of your home for coming out to your parents—these readers don't need to read the unfiltered bigoted thoughts of a white character. They live this bigotry every day.
It is entirely possible for there to be racism, sexism, ableism, etc. on the page in a book without that book being problematic. When you put this kind of bigotry on the page, it needs to be addressed in the text, especially when the book is geared toward teen readers. I've read multiple books, mostly by marginalized authors, that do this well. Not so in The Black Witch. There is no point where Elloren is directly challenged by a character for her bigotry, nor does she reap any consequences for it. When she is abused by the Kelts, we're meant to sympathize with her because the other races are just SO mean. I've said this before: it's only once people of other races are nice to her that Elloren starts to learn.
This is harmful because it teaches young teens of color that they just have to be nice, and people won't hate them anymore. Respectability politics are brought up often when it comes to issues of race. Just this week, an Asian man was assaulted and dragged off of a plane, and people still said if he hadn't been upset about being kicked off the plane, it wouldn't have happened. When a young black teen is shot by police, people say that if he had just been non-threatening, he wouldn't have been shot. Time and time again, this mentality has been proven wrong. Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old child, was killed by police. In what universe would a 12-year-old be threatening? Today, I saw a video of a white cop assaulting a black man for jaywalking. Elloren's narrative perpetuates this idea.
Fiction does not exist in a vacuum, and to imply that it does is not only blatantly wrong, it gives authors a pass for weaving their personal prejudices and -isms into their books.
It takes immense privilege to be able to "disagree" with bigotry and racism, and your response illustrates that. The authors, agents, booksellers and readers who are talking about this, who are pointing out the issues, who are telling you from their personal experience that the bigotry contained in the book is harmful, it's YOUR responsibility to listen. Publishing is finally having conversations about diversity, which is wonderful, but Kirkus has illustrated that it's less interested in listening and more interested in talking over marginalized readers and writers.