Thursday, December 3, 2015

Reviewing While White: "An Invisible Thread Christmas Story", aka, "A White Savior Christmas"

by Allie Jane Bruce

In 1986, then-six-year-old Maurice Mazyck stood on a Manhattan street, asking strangers for money and food.  Laura Schroff, who worked in advertising, bought him a meal.  She continued to buy him meals every week for the next three years.  The two formed a mutually-valued relationship.  Forth they went, together.

In 2012, Laura published their story in a book for adults called An Invisible Thread (Simon and Schuster, co-authored by Alex Tresniowski).  An Invisible Thread was a #1 New York Times bestseller, is available in 12 languages, and is on its way to becoming a film.  I have not read An Invisible Thread, but apparently Mike Huckabee liked it a lot.

And in 2015, An Invisible Thread Christmas Story (Simon and Schuster, extracted from An Invisible Thread, written by Schroff and Tresniowski, illustrated by Barry Root) appeared in my office.  Joy to the world.

Here's a bullet list of what I caught in An Invisible Thread Christmas Story:

  • It's a White savior story.  A White Lady Bountiful (Laura) swoops in and saves a poor, hungry Black boy (Maurice) from the wicked, wicked streets.  White savior narratives are inherently problematic because they erase the fact that White people are at the root of the oppression of people of color and First/Native Nations people in the first place.  There is a supreme irony in telling a story, even a nonfiction story (based on an isolated event), that inverts the larger truth and portrays people of color and First/Native Nations people as unable to fend for themselves and White people as generous saviors.
  • The story purports to be first-person ("I/me/my") from the point of view of Maurice, yet all three of the book's creators are White.  In a time when we're engaging in debates about #ownvoices, cultural appropriation, and authenticity, this feels beyond wrong.
  • The text never names the fact that Laura's ability take Maurice to meals, have him over at her apartment, and bring him on a family vacation--without fear of being misunderstood or arrested--is afforded to her by her Whiteness. If a Black man approached a six-year-old White girl on a Manhattan street and said “Can I take you to get something to eat?”, as Laura does to Maurice, he would very likely end up in jail.  By contrast, Laura's actions are held up as the epitome of kindness (so much so that the book includes backmatter on Small Acts of Kindness, eg "If you have a chart of family chores, add 'kindness' to the list.")
  • It's really, really materialistic... Four pages are devoted to presents and wrapping paper...
  • The text never names the fact that Maurice is Black and Laura is White, nor that their races are linked to their unequal socioeconomic statuses and the inequitable amounts of wealth and resources to which they have access.

Feel free to add anything I missed in the comments.

In my research into An Invisible Thread (which, again, I have not read) I learned that Laura Schroff also comes from a troubled family.  But, Laura's troubled family is positioned differently in our society's power structure than Maurice's troubled family is positioned, because Laura's is White, and Maurice's is Black.

When he arrives at Laura’s sister’s big, beautiful house, Maurice thinks “This has to be the luckiest family in the world.”  Yes, we White folks are very lucky.  Nothing else.  Not smarter.  Not more moral.  Not more capable.  Not more deserving.  Just luckier.  And the creators of An Invisible Thread Christmas Story capitalize on that luck.  They choose to ignore the systems and structures that keep White people “lucky”, and they profit on a narrative that portrays a lucky White person as a generous, loving, savior and a Black person as a grateful recipient of White generosity.  This is no act of kindness.  This is, quite simply, an act of racism.

The only thing that White dominance requires to keep on chugging is for White people to do nothing to interrupt it.  Let’s interrupt it.  Let’s recognize this White savior story for what it is, and reject it.

4 comments:

Steve Burby said...

Outstanding article. White Savior stories are ubiquitous and pernicious in our culture.

Erica Siskind said...

If it's a true story, I'd like to hear the reasons Maurice chose to not be a part of writing or illustrating it. Or if he was not offered the opportunity to collaborate.

Unknown said...

Let's split some hairs here. A man of any color approaching a six year old girl of any color is going to be seriously scrutinized or arrested. But yes, a black man with a white girl more so. A black woman approaching a white six year old boy is not going to be arrested. So some of what protects Laura is the fact that she is a woman.
Second hair -- an act of kindness is an act of kindness, regardless of the social and institutional causes which created the situation in the first place. Would the reviewer have a person turn away from a child in need and turn away from his/her desire to reach out simply on the basis that it is not "politically correct"? Let all of us help those in need in front of us, every opportunity we get, and at the same time, advocate for change and reform in issues of racial injustice, both in the personal, social, and institutional arenas, and be willing to keep the dialogue open through all of these venues, and also in our personal lives, with our friends of all races.

Sam Bloom said...

Unknown @ 9:20, speaking as a man who once worked at a child care center and was not allowed to change diapers because of my maleness (theoretically because they could do background checks on all their employees, but male employees still couldn't be trusted?), I still think that the biggest reason Laura is "protected" in this situation is her Whiteness. But you admit that you're splitting hairs, so I will agree that a VERY small part of what "protects" her is the fact that she is a woman.

I do wonder about your second example, though. While the world has admittedly become a pretty cynical place and I'm as big a fan as anyone else when it comes to acts of kindness, I think you're making a Grand Canyon-sized leap when you infer that criticism of this book is the same as turning away from a child in need. Bookmakers are going to make bad books about good deeds... it happens. But that doesn't mean we can't question the decision-making that led to it being a bad book. (And I'll tell you, this book is pretty bad.)

I'm with you on your last sentence, though!