small island

I just finished Small Island by Andrea Levy, a story of Jamaican immigrants to England during and after WWII. It’s a beautiful book, with clever-but-not-too-clever narration, and explores racism in a new (to me) and really effective way.

To avoid sounding overly historical in this post, I’ll mention this New York Times article about a new book out of Germany that attempts to prove that Muslims are intellectually and otherwise inferior. A fun guessing game for my readers would be to guess the author’s ethnicity.

Just like if you go over to that article and take a look at the author’s picture and perhaps think, as I did, Wow, he looks clueless, I can totally see why he wouldn’t see how he’s using his own position of privilege to keep others out of it in the zero-sum game he’s playing. Levy’s book opens up the perspectives of multiple people, including a white British man whose racism is so ingrained that it seems natural on him. When a black character pretty eloquently calls him out on it, he remarks (rather politely, because he is British) that he ‘just can’t understand a single word that you’re saying’.

Levy articulates the structure of racism through the reactions to a rented room: tiny and dilapidated, it’s first seen through the disappointed eyes of Hortense when she first arrives in England to join her husband, who assures her that all the English live like this. Later, the husband of their landlady (the aforementioned white British man) uses the state of the room as exhibit A to remark that “these coloured people don’t have the same standards”. It’s like Beauvoir noted in her serious book about women, a segment of the population will be relegated to a marginal position in society, and then the fact that they live at the margins will be used to claim that Biology must have put them there.

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