That is exactly the case with Victoria Foyt's book Revealing Eden, the first in what she calls the "Save the Pearls" series. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12393909-revealing-eden
I'm sure it seemed like a wonderful concept in the beginning. Hey, let's make young white women imagine what life would be like if they walked a mile in someone else's shoes! What if their blonde hair and blue eyes and thin figure weren't the beauty standard we all aspire to? What if things were turned upside down so that they were the ugly ones? Gosh how could we do that? I know, let's use global warming to make it so that black people are now more adapted to the climate and therefore on the top of the social ladder! How cool! I mean, their skin makes them impervious to sunlight, right?
I'm guessing that Victoria doesn't know that black people can get sunburns just like white people. They aren't magically immune to solar radiation. Sure melanin makes a sunburn take a little longer but they can still get one and they can still die of cancer. In the world she posits where white people die of solar radiation poisoning, black people and brown people would die alongside us in similar numbers. We'd all be living in domes as well as underground if solar radiation were that strong. Other factors involved in global warming such as temperature and extreme weather will also affect people of color the same way they affect white people. I'd like to explain to Victoria that biologically speaking, there are no races, plural. There is only one race--the human race. These divisions she writes about are social constructs, not biological differences so extreme that a changing climate will kill us off selectively.
Bad science, always a huge flaw in a science fiction book, is the least of Foyt's problems but it feeds into the rest. The overwhelming flaw in the book is the (presumably unintentional but no less offensive) racism. I am guessing that not a single editor or advance reader of this self published book was a person of color. I don't even have to be a person of color to understand why this is extremely offensive.
Before you try to portray racism in the future, you must first educate yourself about racism in the present. It is not enough to simply be aware that there is this thing called racism that still exists and affects other people in a negative way. You need to know how it affects people. How does it manifest? Is it always obvious or overt? Can it be subtle? Can the people who are discriminated against sometimes wonder if a particular interaction was truly racism or not? Might they wonder, did this potential boss not hire me for some other reason? Was I really pulled over while driving for having a busted tail light or did they notice my skin color first and then look for a reason to check me out? Is that nightclub really refusing to let me enter or kicking me out because of my skin color or are we just having a misunderstanding? If I am arrested for a crime I didn't commit, can I expect to be judged fairly or will my lawyer tell me that I should plead guilty to a lesser crime because I can't get a fair hearing from a jury of my so-called peers? (Yes this truly happens.)
Racism isn't always overt and in your face, though it can be. Sometimes it's like the death of a thousand cuts.
When a writer who hasn't done her homework decides to "...turn racism on its head..." in a dystopian book for young adults, what she achieves is a caricature rather than a true representation of how racism affects people's lives. Not only is it a caricature, it is a shockingly cruel one. I am truly astonished at the lack of empathy involved in protraying black people of the future both individually and collectively being as maliciously racist as anyone in the Jim Crow or antebellum South. While the author states in an article she wrote for Huffpo that "I don't harbor fears that the existing minority races are waiting for the day they can take revenge on whites. I hope that we are as a whole more evolved, and have learned vital lessons during the Civil Rights era," the world she portrays is a world in which they do just that--take revenge. I'm just flabbergasted that she doesn't realize that would offend actual black people who coexist with her today in a world where they are handed indignities and discrimination every day without taking revenge on anyone. It is also a false assumption that as soon as we reach the point of white people such as myself and this author being in the minority we will no longer have power or privilege. South Africa was a prime example of that.
As white people we have the responsibility to do whatever we can to help shift the culture towards equality for all--not out of fear of the future but out of a desire for social justice. The fact is, having experienced racism first hand, black people are the least likely to ever want to dish it out. Why on Earth would they want to become just like the people who have hurt them? I'm not saying every black person on the planet is angelic or is never angry at clueless white people, mind you, just that the majority aren't dreaming of the day they can get payback.
Aside from the black characters who don't behave like any black people I've ever known in my whole life, the world-building and plot is blatantly racist. I gather the author is not conscious of the long history in our culture of protecting the white lady at the expense of any and all black people who are imagined to have harmed her or have the potential to harm her. I can only guess she does't know about the lynchings of many a black man because he even thought about looking at a white woman--or, rather, was IMAGINED to have done so, much less for actually being with a white woman. The precious little white girl's or woman's purity must be preserved at all cost in a racist world. So it's hardly making a huge difference in the subject of racism when she posits an endangered white girl of the future who must be protected from the mean, mean black people.
Note the derogatory term used against this precious white girl who we must worry about and desire to see protected from those black racists is pearl. Pearl? If she wants a derogatory term for white people might I suggest maggots? What kind of logic is it that suggests the mean, racist black people would choose the derogatory term "pearl" for white people which isn't really derogatory, while the poor oppressed white people choose the negatively-loaded term coal for their black overlords? None. There is no logic here. Look elsewhere.
I will note that each racial group of the future gets their own brand new, derogatory racial slur. The whole thing turns my stomach.
Eden, the main character, seems to only think of her black oppressors in terms of their derogatory label. At first I thought this is just what they were called, period, she uses it so frequently in her every thought about them. Then there is a scene where she utters it as a racial slur and I realized that it's the reverse equivalent of honky or cracker. I can only assume from this that Foyt imagines this is how black people think about us all the time. I mean, she is supposed to be reversing racism in the future, right? So Eden is simultaneously the precious white girl that must be protected from mean black oppressors, and also her idea of how people in the present day afflicted by racism must think and feel. Eden is just seething with anger, resentment and feelings of inferiority in every scene in the beginning of the book. I have to conclude that Foyt, imagining herself to be in the position of an oppressed person suffering the effects of racism, pictures herself reacting like that. No wonder she envisions the angry black people of the future who just HATE white people to the point that an early scene shows them as ready to pounce on the poor little white lady, who's been lied about by one of them, and do her bodily harm. I guess the guy who tries to defend her, Jamal, is a race traitor? If I ponder this for too long I fear my head will explode.
One of the other nice black characters is turned into a beast-man. No I'm not kidding. I wish I were. An experiment gone wrong is turning him into a jaguar-man. He's also the hot love interest. So the stereotype of the black beast man (who rapes white women) is combined with the stereotype of the Mandingo slave that titillated many a white housewife of the 60s and 70s. [I actually had relatives who read those books and overheard their fantasy-laden conversations.]
Eden's father is an exceptionally brilliant "pearl" who gets to work directly for the rich black man (Uncle Tom?) on a scientific project to alter DNA and save the Pearls. He even gets black assistants for his work! (Tell me again how the future is reversed?) Either the "coals" don't need saving or they aren't part of the humanity that needs to be saved. UGH.
Last but surely not least, the blackface cover. Seriously? I won't even link to the thing but imagine, if you will, a stereotypical blond chick of our time who is thin and conventionally pretty and make half of her face and hair black. Same limp hair but black. There are even video promotions of an actress playing the main character, Eden, in blackface. No, she's not really trying to pass (although that term is used) in the book. Everyone knows she's a white girl so it's pointless. Supposedly this also confers some protection from the sun--except that the character wasn't expecting to go to the surface and be exposed to the sun unless she got exiled and she's looked like this for years at the point the book opens. So there is no logical reason for her to be in blackface, really, except to make an exaggerated idealogical point about body image that could have been made far more subtly and convincingly. This is what happens when you sacrifice the quality of your storytelling to make a point.
The cover is a visual slap in the face to every black person who sees it and any thinking person who cares about how our culture marginalizes and demeans people who are not part of the dominant class. The author tries to argue that what she is portraying is not the same as blackface. I can see she didn't intend for it to be--but it is. I guess the author missed the controversy generated on Saturday Night Live when President Obama (then a candidate) was protrayed by Fred Armisen. The question was asked then, is this use of blackface--or any use of blackface--ever ok?
In the case of SNL there were a lot of factors to question--the low number of black actors generally, resulting in the need to choose a multiracial actor to play Obama because the one black actor didn't have remotely the same body type, the history of blackface, the dearth of roles generally for black actors, the continuing use of white actors to play black or other ethnic roles (I recently heard that white men were cast in the roles of Khan from Star Trek and Tonto from the Lone Ranger). Before one chooses a device like blackface for a character, one should be thoroughly acquainted with all of these issues.
Again, Foyt should have done her homework. The author might be interested to read Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold for yet another example of how and why not to do this. Reading it at least could illustrate some of the same major pitfalls (and I say that despite being generally a Heinlein fan--even as a child reader I could see why it was offensive). But if one must do this, for God's sake do the homework and have some beta readers who are people of color.
Victoria Foyt has been posting articles on Huffpo as a marketing effort for this book. In one of those articles she writes:
Would you speak up against prejudice, any kind? Or fight for a more diverse student body, perhaps with a higher scholarship rate, at your kids' school? Or go out of your way to befriend that minority kid on scholarship?
I like to imagine a caramel-colored future where racial lines are indistinct and issues of prejudice a thing of the past. Where inner beauty and character are valued over a pretty face. Perhaps, because I'm in the majority, I can ponder such issues with what some may say is naïveté. I would call it hope.
This fantasy may be the crux of Foyt's problem. The only way she can seem to imagine racial equality is if one can no longer determine any external signs. The only way she can think to motivate white people to do the right thing is with a scare tactic implying that you'd better treat black people fairly now or else suffer retribution. I won't go into detail on her childhood story about being mistaken for a black girl and called the n-word. The implications are obvious and even she cites it as an influence.
In this caramel-colored future I guess we'll all have exactly the same culture and completely forget who our ancestors were and what they suffered. White people like us will be off the hook then and people of color will be neatly erased and subsumed along with their very real grievances. No thanks.
Finally, may I refer you to the excellent post of Shannon Barber about this book. Her discouragement is a very real consequence of a lifetime of exposure to "unintentional" racism. If we lose her voice to mainstream literature completely it is our loss.
See RaceFail '09 for links to long discussions about people of color in literature (specifically sci fi/fantasy in this case) both as writers and readers, cultural appropriation, marginalization, stereotyping and related issues. It is a good place for any writer to start who would like to represent people of color as characters in their writing. Foyt would be well advised to read through some of these discussions before she inserts her foot deeper into her mouth or onto the faces of black people who may encounter her work.
I'm saddened that a lot of white reviewers (from assorted blogs) didn't notice or remark on the racism inherent in this book. I hope in the future they will read more critically and take care to educate themselves.