title: Into White
author: Randi Pink
date: Feiwal and Friends; 2016
main character: Toya Williams
I could go with the premise here. I can believe that young people are often willing to exchange their racial identity for one that seems more appealing. Isn’t that what Rachel Dolezal tried as an adult? So often when teens are trying to figure themselves out, they think they don’t want to be who they are: that fat boy or that Black girl or that Native American braniac. Yet, they are who they are.
Toya Williams doesn’t want to be Black. She attends a predominantly white high school in an affluent suburb of Montgomery, Alabama and has accepted every negative stereotype about being Black. She never speaks up for herself and is an object of ridicule. She’s convinced that life is better for white girls, so she asks Jesus to make her White. And, he does. While the ending is predictable, not everything in the story is.
Pulling off the transformation from black Toya to the transformed white Katerina was as clunky. Toya’s not missing at home because her family sees her as they always have. But at school, Toya’s gone and there’s a new student. How would you explain that? Not easily. As Katerina, Toya experiences life as a stereotypical spoiled, rich white girl.
The stereotypes that fill Toya’s head are never challenged and this is a weakness in the story. These stereotypes, unfortunately are written into the narrative, giving a poor representation of the African American experience, communicating that it’s woeful to be a black teen. Toya’s family is much less affluent than the families of her white peers. While her classmates can afford to give new cars as presents, Toya’s family cannot afford to furnish their home. Toya’s mother and aunt are vocal, “strong” black women. Toya’s father derails her mother’s dreams and embarrasses the family with his broke down cars. While his heart is in the right place, he does a poor job of providing for his family. White characters are seen as narrow-minded, privileged teens whose parents can buy them out of any situation. Without giving away too much, it’s the guys who save Toya, who get her to draw some conclusions. It’s too often the guys who save the girls!
I really wanted to like this book. I expected something that would truly explore racial identity as today’s teens experience it. This book unfortunately relied upon the same trite stereotypes that permeate our culture with regards to African Americans. The problem isn’t that the stereotypes are in the book, it’s that they’re never called to question. Casually relating that black girls are heavier that white girls would give readers reason to believe it must be so, when it truth young black girls are as aware of and likely to practice healthy lifestyles as are whites in the same income group. Relying upon such predictable characters doesn’t allow the story’s theme to shine through.
And Jesus. When you call on Jesus to be a significant part of the story, you really need to go a bit deeper into matters of faith, belief and justice and a few church scenes do not do that.
Into White is Randi Pink’s first young adult novel.