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Can someone break through the boundaries they are subconsciously taught to place on other people?
Ivy wants more from life.
She wants more than her double-wide trailer, more than her dead father and drunk mother, and more than her clearance rack clothes. Her one comfort is the quirky and unpredictable Magnus: childhood best friend and member of the Dead Parent’s Club.
New student Alex might be her ticket to graduation.
Alex has it all: an award-winning neurosurgeon for a mother, a world-famous athlete for a father, brains, and brawn.
When Alex and Ivy get stuck as Chemistry partners, Ivy rejoices. Alex is her ticket to an easy semester, maybe even college.
But high school isn’t enjoyable for any of them. Magnus is misunderstood, Ivy is poor, and Alex is the first black student in the entire school system.
By graduation, their lives will completely change. One will learn who they really are, one will come to terms with their past, and one won’t make it out alive.
How to Talk to Black People is an honest and challenging look at how we subconsciously teach those in our community about race and what we’re willing to believe about ourselves based on those lessons.
I received a free reading copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to the author for the reading & reviewing opportunity.
Rating: 3 stars
Oh my god I am dreading this review so much. In fact, I had all but decided that I wasn’t even going to write it but you what? Here I am. Writing it.
Let’s talk first, OK? Things are gonna get a bit sensitive. I don’t know how else to approach.
My name is Brittany. I am a white woman who grew up in a slightly diverse town, by which I mean that, last I looked, about 60% of the population is white. The remaining 40% are people of color, with a large chunk of that being Hispanic (25%) and only about 12% being African American. So, I guess when I say “diverse”, I just mean that I wasn’t like the main character in this book who had never met a POC before. However, I still cannot (and absolutely will not) ever try to speak for the experiences of anyone from another race than I. So, usually, going into books like these offer people like me the opportunity to view life from someone else’s point of view; someone who has not been given the societal benefit of the doubt that I have, someone who has felt scared, targeted, judged, threatened, and so much more because of the color of their skin. If you live in the US, you see what’s going on, and if you are one of the people who still stand behind the systematic racism that has been so disgustingly targeting the black and brown people of this country for literal centuries, then you should go ahead and click off of this. I don’t often make statements on this blog that can be strewn any kind of way because this is a happy place where I talk about books… but I believe that standing up for human rights is too important to not say anything.
So, with all of that being said, I went into this book with a lot of excitement. I love reading books that call out racism, that show myself and other white readers the side of things that we’ve never seen, and give the people of color who are reading it the feeling that they are being rightfully represented and heard. The Hate U Give was one of my few 5 star reads in 2017, and Dear Martin was among them in 2018. I think that those two books, and many others like them, offer so freaking much. I am always on the look out for similar novels. I thought, genuinely, that that was what I had come upon with How to Talk to Black People.
From the beginning note to readers, I was pulled in. The author tells us that they have decided to remain anonymous in an attempt to keep the story about the injustices happening in the book, instead of allowing critiques or readers to shift the focus to the author and their life. Next, they share that, point blank, you will hate the main character, Ivy (a white teen girl). She is written to be this way, but the author promises that every single racist thing that was written into Ivy’s story is something that they have seen be done by their friends or family on social media. Ivy was not meant to be toned down, because the author wanted to portray reality:
“We can’t continue to lighten our fiction so people don’t feel guilty, or lighten serious problems so they seem like an easy fix.”
So, I went in expecting to despise Ivy. And let me tell ya… I did. Alongside her constant emotional manipulation of her “best friend”, Ivy said extremely racist things repeatedly to Alex, the black teenager who had moved to this town with his genius, rich parents. Ivy is “poor” and for a reason I cannot decipher, thinks that this fact allows her to be an absolutely hateful human being to literally everyone who attempts to speak to her. I knew that she was written to be so despicable, so I obviously can’t say that it’s a fault in the book. There are plenty of people out in the world who still hold the beliefs that Ivy held. However, it was still really hard to stomach the type of things that Ivy said. I’m not going to repeat any of it here, but I’ll just tell you that she’s one of those, “It’s just a joke. Why can’t you take a joke? Stop being so sensitive” types. You know the type. I know you do.
Honestly, as disgusting and heavy as the racism was, it was (unfortunately) realistic and allowed the story to open up into conversations about why it’s so disgusting. The messages that the author attempted to include in this book are the main reason I’m still giving it three stars. Some pretty important conversations happen between Ivy, Alex, and Leticia, including the history of African Americans, the fear that a young black teen feels when face-to-face with a police officer, and the importance of not forcing your guilt over your biases and stereotypes onto the shoulders of the POC around you. Ivy has to learn that it is no one else’s responsibility to teach her how to treat black people like human beings.
“People are asking you to be responsible for your own education and understanding.”
That was what was good about this book. And if other things had gone differently, I really feel that I would’ve loved this, because I wanted to. But the issue was… everything else.
The writing in this fell short often, but I honestly think it’s because the plot was so… all over the place. There was little rhythm to the story. A lot of the social situations felt awkward and forced. In the beginning of the story, Ivy and her mother are practically at each other’s necks, and then one day they just… say they love each other and things are good again. There’s no build to the reconciliation or the time spent on the scene to properly play it out. Likewise, Ivy has a best friend named Magnus who ***Spoiler Alert*** randomly proclaims his love for Ivy, kisses her, and then claims immediately afterwards that the kiss was in fact so bad that he was no longer in love with her. After “chasing” her for years. Years, people.
The entire story felt rushed in all of the wrong places, and then drug out in even worse places. It was hard to not constantly roll my eyes at what was happening on the pages because beyond the racism, so much of it felt unrealistic. To be honest, I felt like the rest of the book was so chaotic that it often shadowed the importance of the societal messages the author was trying to get across. The timing never felt right, the pacing was frustrating, and the dialogue was not realistic of teenagers.
The ending was done in a way that was very confusing for me as a reader, though I eventually understood what was going on. I was of course glad to see that Ivy was owning up to her actions and finally taking responsibility for her own education and understanding of other races and backgrounds but I’ll go ahead and say… too little, too late, Ives.
Overall, this was just not what I expected it to be, sadly. I’ll give props to the author for continuing an important conversation and including the hard stuff; refusing to tone down reality to fit into shameless fiction. There is a lot of importance in a novel like this, and I’m glad it exists because I know there are readers out there who are far less critical than I and could still get a lot from this novel. The writing of it fell short for me, but I think the messages stand strong and prevalent.