How the Other Half Lives

There’s something in humanity that makes us split ourselves into groups, don’t ask me why. Yesterday, people in my state split into groups for a football rivalry that sometimes resembles a blood feud. When we’re not divided over sports teams, we split apart over divisions like politics, gender, or income.  And too many of us still divide into groups based on ethnic background and/or  skin color. Those divisions still run so deep populations coexist side-by-side as strangers, wondering how the other half lives but too afraid to reach out.

Then someone like Randi Pink comes along, brave enough to speak the truth.  That’s what she does in her debut Young Adult novel, Into White.   It’s the story of LaToya Williams who calls herself Toya; a black girl in a mostly-white high school. This kid knows a lot about alienation and fear. It’s not bad enough to be treated like the Invisible Girl by a fair percentage of the students and teachers. It’s not just anxiety about her parents’ marriage.  When one of the few grounded black students picks on her, Toya utters the same prayer every miserable teenager has made: “Please turn me into somebody different.”  The kick is, her prayer is heard.  When she wakes up, Toya is white.

Randi Pink
To everyone outside of her loving, flawed family, Toya now looks like she has Nordic ancestry and right away she sees some changes. Pants fit a bit better, some teachers are nicer and she’s no longer Invisible Girl. On the other hand, visibility means becoming a target of those who never saw her before. The “popular girls” praise and then undercut her, suggesting she’s fat because she wears a size 6.  (For the record, a size 6 is small, but that’s another thing Ms. Pink gets right. In the world of competitive, adolescent, mean girls, it’s good to be thin and popular but no one is ever good enough.) And some who knew Toya when she was black now react to her with mistrust.  In other words, it can suck to be white as well.
Any writer good enough to carry the title can develop a nuanced hero or villain, but an author’s true talent shows in creating interesting minor characters. Through exposition and suggestion, Ms. Pink deftly sketches a secondary antagonist named Aunt Evilyn and then illuminates the lady in a small but key scene.  In the family, Toya’s aunt may be tactless and bossy but there’s a whisper of scars in her untold back story.  In defending her aunt, Toya finds the voice that will carry her into the future (which is good). I want to learn more about Evilyn and her past.
In her TED talk, Ms. Pink talks of how we limit ourselves by fear and how confronting fear helps us transcend those limits. Perhaps that same fear is why we wall ourselves into groups.  If so, a courageous voice can knock holes in those walls.

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