There But For The: Racial Prejudice Through the Eyes of a Cleverist

by Anoukh

Before I start my analysis of There But For The by Ali Smith and unavoidably go off at a tangent, there is something I need to say:

Read. This. Book.

You won’t regret it. Ali Smith is a wonderful writer and her wit will surprise you. So if you’re looking for a good read that is layered and captivating, and you don’t necessarily crave that epic story with reassuring catharsis, then this is your book. As for the story, the plot is set in motion by an unknown guest at a dinner party who locks himself up in the upstairs bedroom of a couple he only just met. When he refuses to come out, the stories of the other attendees and how they are linked begin to unravel. This results in the narrative becoming an intricate tapestry of lives woven together by chance. The stream of consciousness style reveals clever jokes and wordplay that you need to keep your focus on or you’ve missed them. Definitely a book you should read while locked indoors, away from any disturbances: no trains, no other coffee bar guests, and no playful cats demanding your attention in the middle of a chapter.

While I could go on and on about the narrative style and subtle humour, I am going to do something new and focus on one character named Brooke. Or better yet, one aspect of that one character: the colour of her skin. She is black. Normally speaking, I wouldn’t stop to think about a character’s race, but when you read the following quote, you’ll find out why it’s so important. (This part is told by little Brooke as she is describing her surroundings in Greenwich.)

The girl ran across the park, and unless you add the describing word then the man or girl are definitely not black, they are white, though no one has mentioned white, like when you take the the out of a headline and people just assume it’s there anyway.

And lo and behold: if you google "girl running in park", the girl is in fact ALWAYS white. So let's just look at these racially ambiguous leggings and sneakers instead.

And lo and behold: if you google “girl running in park”, the girl is in fact ALWAYS white. So let’s just look at these racially ambiguous leggings and sneakers instead.

That’s how Ali Smith catches you: you initially thought the captivating little girl was white as well, until the book informed you otherwise. She got me anyway. And I would even argue that she knew that at the very moment I realised Brooke was black, I stopped myself and acknowledged the fact that I do always think they’re white unless I’m told otherwise. And then I wondered, if I were black, would I assume she is too? Is this prejudice? Or does my mind simply transform the character I like the most into my spitting image? I tend to always imagine my female protagonists to be blonde with blue eyes. Does this mean I am writing myself into the stories I read, or am I just tediously unimaginative…?

A fellow Gothic-enthusiast (the literature, not the subculture) only recently asked whether people ever ask me if I believe in the mythical characters I study. Or even worse: whether I believe I am that mythical being. (For the record, I don’t believe in vampires, nor do I imagine myself to be one. OK, I might have fantasised about Alexander Skarsgård giving me a monstrous love bite, but who hasn’t?) So this got me thinking… To what extent do we write ourselves into the stories we love? I’m not talking about fan-fiction here, but purely about enhancing similar traits in our protagonists to allow a stronger identification with that fictional character. To give another popular example: Wuthering Heights. I can be incredibly stubborn and uncontrollable at times, but sadly I don’t have Catherine’s wild dark hair and eyes. Therefore, I can’t unify myself with her character and become Heathcliff’s  soulmate. Of course we all visualise the fictional realm differently, which we quickly realise when watching a film adaptation of our favourite book. It’s just never exactly as we pictured it.

So that’s my question: Is thinking Brooke is white until you know she’s black prejudice? Or is it an identification tool? Or just plain lack of imagination?

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