Response: Color Blind

28May14

Reading biography and memoir is a great way to learn about people very much unlike yourself, people whose life experiences you don’t share. By spending time with people who are very different from you, you gain a sense of just how diverse people’s lived experiences actually are. You also learn all sorts of things that you had no idea were going on, especially if you’re reading about customs and cultures you don’t share.

Precious Williams was raised by a foster mother in Sussex, England. Her birth mother, a Nigerian princess living in London, placed an ad for foster care in a magazine, and chose the woman Williams called Nanny. While Nanny genuinely cared for Williams, her unconscious, inherent racism profoundly affected the child’s sense of self. Meanwhile, Williams’s mother–by turns affectionate and distant–confused her daughter with long absences, mood swings, and emotional abuse during her rare visits. Stuck between two families that claimed to love her, but consistently bombarded her with abuse, neglect, and complete cluelessness on how to raise a black child, Williams’s struggle to figure out who she was and what she wanted was a long, slow, and frequently blocked process.

Photo obtained at the author's webpage. Click through to learn more about Williams.

Photo obtained at the author’s webpage. Click through to learn more about Williams.

This is not a comfortable read, but it’s not a miserable one either–just Very Gritty. If you’re anything like me, you’ll mostly be astonished by the things you learn, and want to know more. I found myself profoundly disliking both Williams’s mother and Nanny Taylor, wondering how two people could be so clueless, and wholeheartedly rooting for Williams to get herself together and achieve her dreams. I’ve never been that emotionally attached to characters in a memoir; come to think of it, I can’t remember getting that attached to characters in a novel (at least, not since Harry Potter).

The emotional investment comes largely from the way Williams tells her story: her tone is dry and matter-of-fact, with no melodrama, despite the fact that she has survived things that would more than justify its use as a narrative tool (trigger warning for child sexual assault). There’s no feel-good, triumph-of-the-will hyperbole, either. Instead, Williams lays it out very simply: this is what happened to me, and this is what I made of it. It is the clear, sensible prose of someone who has Figured It Out, and was able to turn around and spin the mess into a neat, narrative thread. As a reader, you are able to become emotionally attached because Williams doesn’t inflict her own emotions on you. She simply explains what was, then leaves room for you to think about it and respond.

As an American reader, I most appreciated learning more about what it means to be African and British, a constant tension that runs throughout the narrative. Nanny’s constantly saying that she doesn’t see race, which turns out to be a huge part of the problem: Williams grew up with no sense of what it really meant to be Nigerian, and even a trip there with her mother–in a rare fit of emotional largesse– couldn’t begin to clear it up for her. Though often idealized by American Anglophiles, England is just as racist as the United States, if not more so (people in the narrative tend to say things out loud that most Americans save for the anonymous internet), and as a reader you do start to wonder if there’s any hope for the world at large.

The majority of the racism in the book, however, is clumsy and born of ignorance, not malice. Nanny’s just a little old woman who doesn’t know any better, and who does the best she can with a child she truly loves. Does that make it acceptable? No, but it does make it understandable. White readers have the opportunity here to question their own unconscious biases, and the book has the potential to start great conversations amongst people trying to examine their privilege and be good allies to people of color.

Should you read this book? Yes. Will you enjoy it? Maybe. Will you learn something you didn’t know? Definitely. Recommended for readers open to learning more about racial issues outside an American context, and open to the discomfort they might experience from what they learn.

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