Alright y’all. Here I am, writing an article about The Black Witch. Specifically, about the claims of racism surrounding it. I know, creative right? Only a million other people have written on this topic already, but I just finished reading it and figured, why not be the millionth and first person to write about it?
BUT IN CASE YOU DIDN’T KNOW, here is a BRIEF explanation of the controversy I’m discussing (and if you’re familiar with it, just skip this paragraph). Essentially, before this book came out, a book blogger by the name of Shauna posted this review, which I’ll discuss more later. In said review she called The Black Witch sexist, ableist, homophobic, and most prominently, racist, with examples from the book to back up her claims. In response to this many others who HADN’T EVEN READ THE BOOK went on Goodreads and one starred it because of Shauna’s claims. Of course, this led to claims of censorship, and the whole thing became one big mess.
AND ONE MORE THING BEFORE I DIVE IN, I think it’s important to throw some of my demographic information out there to give you an idea of where I’m coming from because as a 23 year old, white female, that affects my experience with racism. I am also Mexican, but I present as white and thus, I rake in white privilege. In addition to my race I am cisgender, heterosexual, thin, and have no mental or physical disabilities.
Alright, now that we’ve got THAT out the way, let’s dive in, and answer that question that has been plaguing this novel.
Is The Black Witch racist?
The simple answer: No
The complex answer: No, because….
And here come the reasons I don’t think The Black Witch was racist.
Reason #1: A racist character does not equal a racist novel.
I think this is where so many people got caught up. Elloren is racist at the start of the novel you guys, that’s unavoidable. In fact, there were many statements that made me as a reader feel very uncomfortable. But here’s the thing, just because a character in a book is racist doesn’t make the book itself racist. In fact, I’m sure there are many books with racist characters that have not been called racist. I’m willing to bet that the difference between those books and this one is that in those books, the racist characters were probably the villain, not our MC. Not our supposed hero.
Not only THAT, but guess what? Elloren (the MC) was not portrayed as evil due to her racist beliefs! *GASP* Instead, she was portrayed as a complex individual who came to be the way she was due to her environment. She was shown to not be wholly good or evil, but a mix of the two. I know. HOW DARE LAURIE FOREST PORTRAY A COMPLEX MC WITH FAULTS. THE NERVE OF HER.
But seriously, I think that’s where the trouble began. It wasn’t just any character that was racist, it was the MAIN character. Surely, that can’t be ok. And you know what? It wouldn’t be ok it the book condoned Elloren’s racist views, and if it carried a message that racism is ok. But here’s the thing: it didn’t.
And that brings me to Reason #2.
Reason #2: The Black Witch did not carry messages supporting racism.
You’re going to get a lot of disagreement here, so I think it’s important for me to explain why it is that I believe this.
For one, the evil characters (Fallon, Marcus Vogel, Aunt Vyvian, Lukas) are the ones who hold most of the racist beliefs in the novel. The other characters, the good characters (Yvan, Rafe, Uncle Edwin, Professor Kristian) are the ones who don’t hold these racists beliefs, but instead are critical of the system of oppression at play. By placing these characters at odds with each other and framing the racist ones as evil and the not racist ones as good, Forest very clearly (in my opinion) sets up a dynamic that does not condone, but instead looks down upon racism. In fact, she sets it up fairly simplistically.
Evil = racist characters
Good = not racist characters
Elloren = complex, in the middle, journeying from racist to not racist.
But enough on that, let’s move on.
Reason #3: A racist world where bad things happen does not equal a racist novel.
Similar to Reason #1, but not the same, and this is where I got most annoyed with some of the reviews claiming there was racism in this novel, particularly the one that started this all from Shauna on her blog, Book Store Babe. If you want to see her review (warning, it’s long) you can check it out here.
In case you don’t want to read the nearly 9,000 word review, I’ll sum it up for you (you’re welcome). It doesn’t include much actual reviewing. In fact, it’s essentially a guide to every “racist” incident in the book and explaining why that incident is racist. In Shauna’s defense, many of the things she points out are racist. But as I stated earlier, that doesn’t mean the novel itself is racist. Why? I’ll give you one word: Context
Let me give an example of why this is the case, not relating to racism, but homophobia. MINOR SPOILER: Elloren learns her brother, Trystan, is gay. In response she tells him that he can’t be gay. On the surface, that looks bad. Shauna cites it as one of the many incidents of homophobia in the book, and honestly, that kind of annoyed me, because it completely ignored the context (there’s that word!) Elloren’s statement occurred in.
So, without further ado, let me shed some much needed context on the situation.
If Elloren had said Trystan could’t be gay because she believed it was wrong, and that he was bad because he was gay, well that would be homophobic. But that’s not why she made the comment. She said it because she was worried for his safety, worried that he would be harmed or killed because of his sexual orientation. She didn’t want him to be gay not because she believed it was wrong, but because she was worried about the danger it would put him in. Shauna, however, does not mention that in her review, which is why it’s worth reading the book for yourself, because in my opinion, many of the examples of racism, homophobia, and sexism were taken out of context. Even the examples that weren’t taken out of the context of the moment they occurred in were taken out of the context of the novel as a whole. To explain that last statement, there were some instances in the book where racist things were said that weren’t challenged in the moment, HOWEVER, they were challenged later on in the novel as Elloren’s character grew and her views changed.
But it’s more than that. You guys, the world WE live in is racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, and so much more of those bad things. It sucks, it does. But does that mean every books need to reflect a world that is none of these things? NO, ABSOLUTELY FREAKING NOT.
For me, I loved that this world parelled our own. I loved that it had problems. I enjoyed the fact that racism and sexism and homophobia were depicted because that gives the characters a mission. It gives them something wrong to pit themselves against. Without any of that this novel would be bland (seriously? Who wants to read about a perfect world with NO problems? Where’s the story in that?), and suggesting that novels can’t have any of those things in them or they are evil…I mean, that seems ridiculous to me. Of course, we shouldn’t have novels condoning those bad things, but this novel doesn’t condone that. In fact, this leads me to my next reason.
Reason #4: Not only was this novel not racist, it was actively anti-racist.
At its core, this book was about overcoming negative beliefs that you’ve adapted from your environment and learning to think for yourself. It was about moving past those harmful beliefs, about the importance of interacting with people different from you, and more. Over the course of the book, Elloren went from making racist statements to actively questioning beliefs the adults in her life had passed down to her, searching for information that specifically contradicted her beliefs, forming her own non-racist opinions, and preparing to fight for what is right. If someone can explain to me how that’s racist, please, be my guest.
I titled this article as I did for a reason. I don’t think The Black Witch was racist, but instead that there was a HUGE misunderstanding behind it. A book is racist if it not only depicts, but also condones racism. It’s not enough just to have racism present. This book depicted, but did not condone racism, an IMPORTANT distinction. The examples of racism in this book were, in my opinion, taken out of context. Just because the depicted world and characters are gritty, evil, and fucked-up doesn’t mean the author is supporting that. Instead, she actively seemed to be supporting a message of anti-racism, and the importance of interacting with people different from you.
And I will say that yeah, some of the content in this book is disturbing, but you know what? NEWS FLASH: the world we live in is disturbing. And while some people may read books that are all sunshine and rainbows, I don’t. I like books with grit, and with an evil to overcome. To me, that’s just interesting. And if you don’t like depictions of disturbing worlds? Then just don’t read them.
I’ll close with this, something that should go without saying. You should always, always, always, read a book before forming an opinion about it. Us reviewers, we’re here to help you figure out what you want to read, and it’s our job (well, hobby) to be honest. Always take what we say with a grain of salt, and more importantly, remember that just because we reacted a certain way to a book doesn’t mean you’ll react the same way. We’re just here to give you an educated guess on whether or not you’ll like a book. But to one star a book before you’ve ever read it? That’s shameful. So don’t do that, instead, go out and READ, and then form your own opinions. Basically, do what Elloren did in the novel, and educate yourself!