Mixed Messages

Recently, I’ve read a couple books set in fantasy worlds that reverse the skin-tone power dynamic of our world: where dark-haired and dark-skinned people oppress and discriminate against paler, blonder folk. Both are fine books—The Shifter by Janice Hardy and Stealing Death by Janet Lee Carey—and neither oversimplify race relations or relies on our constructs of black and white in describing their characters and ethnic groups, but it does make me wonder about the message we’re sending to minority kids through books like these.

There are, of course, reasons for presenting a world that flips our racial structures on their head—to help white children identify with the oppressed, to remind people that our racial dynamics are historical constructs rather than natural truths, or just because that’s the way the author pictured it—but it also says to dark-skinned readers that they are always somehow wrong. In our world they are fighting an uphill battle against racism, stereotypes, and generations of economic disparity, but when they turn to the escapism of fantasy, they are faced with worlds in which people who look like them are the overseers and the oppressors, and, as usual, the hero is white. They are good books, but the message these books have for white readers is different than the message they have for people of color, and both messages are important to consider.

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