Review: Colorblind by Leah Harper Bowron

Review: Colorblind by Leah Harper Bowron

32446958Genres: Historical Fiction, Children

Main themes: Bullying, Racism 

Rating: 2 stars 

Note: I was sent a copy of this story by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Both Lisa and Miss Loomis are anxious about the upcoming school year ahead, and it’s not hard to understand why.

When Lisa was a baby, she had an operation to remove a cleft lip and palate. The operation left a scar, as well as one side of her nose being slightly flattened. Now, 11 year old Lisa’s appearance is the reason why she’s bullied by two cruel boys in her grade. Alternately, Miss Loomis is the first African-American to teach at the all-white Wyatt state school. However, she becomes a victim to the very same boys who bully Lisa. Not only that, Miss Wyatt is treated as an outcast by practically everyone, and is subject to overt and covert racism.

Colorblind follows these two characters, both victims, as they try to survive the school year.

Lisa was a likeable protagonist; from the beginning I felt the need to fight in her corner as her self-esteem and confidence was at an all time low because of bullies who made fun of her appearance, and her mum who put quite a bit of pressure on her. She lives with constant anxiety which is an upsetting reality for an 11 year old; and so it’s not hard to want to see Lisa overcome her struggles. I think many children who are able to see a part of themselves in Lisa can be inspired by the courage that she shows throughout the book.

However, from the book description I did think that the audience would be reading an in-depth narrative from Miss Loomis also. Lisa and Miss Loomis had been juxtaposed throughout the story  but a lot of Miss Loomis’s story was very much on the surface and for this reason, I couldn’t help but feel that her character’s purpose was to be used as an analogy that would help to highlight the severity of Lisa’s struggles.

This leads onto why I don’t think Lisa and Miss Loomis should have even been compared so closely. It’s true that both were united in that they were targeted by bullies; treated unfairly because of the way they looked (to a certain extent for Miss Loomis as racism isn’t just about the colour of one’s skin). But comparing two types of discrimination is problematic in itself; when you begin to say X is the same as Y or vice versa, you start to erase that person’s unique experience, and all the underlying fundamentals that come with that, and that’s not okay.

We need to really consider what racism towards black people in the deep South actually meant, and where it stemmed from. For example, the N word isn’t just an offensive name for black people. It’s a complete insult that holds numerous derogatory connotations about black people. Being called “nigger” meant you were illiterate, that you were nothing more than a piece of property that could be sold onto the next slave master, that you were lesser than a human being, that you were a slave and should never be granted freedom. When Miss Loomis was called the N word, can we really say that Lisa understood what that felt like?

This isn’t to say that Lisa’s experiences weren’t valid or significant in their own right. It was upsetting, knowing that her bullies had free reign to call her offensive terms, and make her feel inadequate. But there is no competition or ranking of whose discrimination is worse or less valid, we just really need to recognise that it’s not okay to say anything is like racism. Just like it’s not okay to say anything is like ableism, sexism, xenophobia… different types of discrimination are too complex to compare to one another. These articles from Teen Vogue about Emilia Clarke’s comparison of sexism to racism, and the Guardian about comparing fat-shaming to racism provide realy helpful commentaries on this. 

And so this was quite a big thing for me when reading Colorblind. This probably wasn’t the intention of the author but nonetheless, this was how the story came across to me… it’s what the story meant to me and I think we all interpret or are able to pick up on different things based on who we are. Because of who I am and my identity, I had a lot of hopes for what this story would portray. It would be looking at important, real life issues for a range of characters. It would be telling the perspective of a black woman who was brave enough to become the first African American to teach at an all-white school in the deep South. Seeing this kind of diversity, and potential to tell an inspiring story was what had pulled me in to read this book, and so I can’t help but feel underwhelmed by Miss Loomis’s development, and the fact that she wasn’t given the opportunity to be the hero of her own story, as Lisa was the hero of her own.

I mean I did like that Lisa was the champion of her own story, and I applaud this immensely. I was happy that she found her inner strength, started to accept herself, and was able to stand up to her bullies. But then I think things went too far when Lisa also fought and won Miss Loomis’s battle for her. By this, I mean that at the end of the school year, Lisa was the one who was awarded a medal by an esteemed member from the Board of Montgomery,  who was able to stand up in front of the whole school and read her essay on why Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s death was for the worst. Ultimately, this was a triumph over the racists at Wyatt school who had made Miss Loomis’s life a misery. It was all because of Lisa- and Miss Loomis was supposed to live through that success. There’s nothing wrong with Lisa’s actions but this side of the story was about Miss Loomis; about a black teacher’s battle with racism that was prohibiting her from doing her job. This should have been about her thoughts and her feelings… in literature, we need to give black people a voice and hear what they have to say on the issues that are affecting them.

This is why I think there were undertones of the saviour complex in this book, and it’s not really uncommon to see this happening with white characters, and characters of colour. To me, it added to the idea that Miss Loomis was completely helpless, and that she needed Lisa for strength, support and development.

What also strengthened this complex, was the fact that Miss Loomis had no help or support from her community. The only people who seemed to be heroically fighting for Miss Loomis was Lisa, and her dad who often stepped in to save Miss Loomis from racial abuse, or speak up against racist comments.

Initially, I applauded Lisa’s dad for promoting equality and instilling this teaching within Lisa. This is exactly what we need, and shows that fighting for equality isn’t just for people of colour to do. But I think the circumstances under which this was done is really important to think about here. When you consider that the only other significant black character was the Reverend, who came across as someone who only saw Miss Loomis as a tool to use in advancing the civil rights movement, this became extremely questionable to me.

To my knowledge, black communities are actually quite close knit, and always have been. Particularly during the 1960s… When your people are being racially oppressed, when the country you’ve worked and fought for is segregating you, robbing you of your rights… black communities stuck together. We had to, the support of our people was something that we could nearly always rely on because it’s all we had- our unity to remind us of our strength and to keep us fighting each day. And so coupled with the fact that Miss Loomis was also a part of the church community who no doubt would have offered moral support for Miss Loomis, I thought it was unrealistic to portray her as not having any substantial support in the racism that she was facing.

So to have Lisa and her father display on numerous occasions throughout the novel how they’re advocates for the fight against racism and to unrealistically not give this opportunity to anyone in Miss Loomis’s life helps to illustrate why I believe the ‘saviour complex’ was at play here. 

To wrap things up, I finished the book feeling slightly disappointed. I just think that in literature, people of colour are highly underrepresented and so I just thought that Colorblind would have been an incredible opportunity to beautifully show how both Lisa and Miss Loomis could together, help each other beat the battles they had been facing. Instead, I was left feeling that Lisa was the dominant character, that she was stronger and was able to grow and become successful, whilst Miss Loomis seemed beaten into the ground by the racism, and the pressures from the movement it seems. She persevered and went on to teach the following school year but even that triumph was short lived.  

And so ultimately, Colorblind didn’t turn out to be the inspirational and progressive novel I was hoping it to be. But I am glad that I read it because I think it’s important to encourage yourself (and others) to truly reflect on and discuss the way complex topics are discussed in novels. By doing this, we can hopefully challenge the way we and others view the world.

If you’d like to give the book a try for yourself, you can buy a copy of it on Amazon UK by clicking here.

If you’d like to talk about any aspects of this review then I’d be more than happy to do so- just comment below or send a message through via the contact page.

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