White Teen’s Burden

I take back everything I’ve ever said about others being the worst SVH ever. This one is beyond infuriatingly awful. Let me also say right up front the the strong upchuck reaction I had from this book are from my own personal thoughts on racism. So I’m totally using “I” statements here. I can imagine many will disagree, but let’s me respectful, eh? I’m taking about with each other. Feel free to belittle, insult, and rip all the characters to shreds. Photobucket The really really sad thing here is that some ghostwriter perhaps really thought they were doing a good thing. That in one book, they would nip the moral problem of racism in the bud. Some editor probably told Francine that she needed to address the race issue again, she argued that she already had an interracial romance and a Mexican Festivals, and some compromise was reached where they would release a book that would solve racism.

Some of you may say “but at least it was addressed, and may have got some people who read this thinking about it”. I argue that this makes it worse. This book includes some of my major pet peeves about how white people deal with racism. Look, as a white person, I am FAR from perfect in this arena. I do not claim to have the answers, but I know what this book shows ain’t the answers either.”But they are only teenagers!” you night say. Yea, well, for teenagers that solve crimes, and generally in other instances act like they think they’re 30, I’d expect more. And if the author(s) were seriously really trying to send a message about overcoming racism, they did a piss poor job.

Enough of my soap box (sorry I got all Liz on you) let’s get into it.

Pet Peeve #1: White people think that racism doesn’t exist if they don’t directly seeing it play out in their own lives.

We know trouble is brewing because Liz decides to do a survey for the Oracle on what people would change about Sweet Valley High….Liz is all stoked to write about how people would prefer  “more soft drink machines in the cafeteria and shorter classes”  but is all taken aback that some people at SVH think the school has issues. Liz gets all pissy when Penny suggests that the school get rid of Pi Beta Alpha. I hope that Lois Walker knows about this survey and that she goes to town with it. Also, shut up Liz.

Pet Peeve #2 White people pat themselves on the back when they have a friend of a different race.

Neil Fremount (who used to dry hump Jessica at the drive-in, and is now dating Penny Ayala) has a bff Andy Jenkins. Andy is really good at science, and is just like a regular guy! Neil loves talking to him! And it doesn’t even bother him that Andy is black! isn’t Neil so progressive? He has a black friend! He can’t be racist! And, Andy is just a “regular” guy, and is just like all the other white people!

Meanwhile, Neil’s dad works for Andy Jenkins’ Dad at some power plant or something. Mr. Freemount insinuates that Mr. Jenkins got the job because he’s black. Mr. F also works with Mr. Cashman, who is lucky enough to have that outstanding Charlie Cashman as a son. Mr. C is totally spouting off to everyone, and Charlie also gets these ideas from his dad and decides to give Andy a hard time because their dads are having a work feud.

Pet Peeve #3 White people get annoyed when people of color won’t accept their help.

Neil is pissed that Charlie’s crowd is giving Andy a hard time, and what makes him even madder is that Andy doesn’t want to do anything about it. Andy’s locker gets defaced and his tires slashed and wants to just ignore it.

“Listen,” Neil began hesitantly. “Try not to let it get yo you.” He groped for the right words but couldn’t find them. “Think-think of how Martin Luther King Jr would react to a situation like this.”

Yes, yes, Andy does give him shit for saying that, and explains how when something like this has happened before, a teacher told Andy just to ignore it. Neil, however, is pissed that Andy is pissed at him for trying to help. This makes Neil so pissed off!  He is trying to help out his black friend, don’t you see? He’s such a good guy! And Andy is making it so hard for him to be the progressive white guy! And it is just so hard for him! And we have to hear how hard it is for him for several chapters! You know who’s perspective I’d like to hear on this? Andy’s. But he is really just a contrived plot device so the school can learn about racism. We don’t have opne single chapter or paragraph told from Andy’s point of view. He’s not a character, he’s a plot device.

One day in the parking lot of the movie theater, Charlie and his gang  jump Andy and beat the crap out of him. Neil comes out and tries to stop them, but Charlie offers to let Neil have a swing at Andy. Neil looks at him and suddenly realizes how AWFUL Andy has been to him, and how Andy won’t take his sage white advice all the time, and decides he needs to take his advice out on Andy, and TAKES A SWING. Neil is all shocked at himself and calls the police after Charlie and his gang flee the scene.

So now Neil is the big hero, and the halls of SVH are buzzing because the school just had their first hate crime! Yay! Where’s the cheerleaders and the band? maybe Winston can do some stand-up to commemorate the occasion. Neil goes on for a while and lets people think he saved Andy, but is ALL TORN UP INSIDE about his secret. Yea, because NEIL is the true victim here, folks. Finally he goes over to Andy’s to tell him what he did (apparently Andy was beaten unconscious and didn’t know it was Neil that hit him) and Andy apologizes to him for being distant to him and not taking his advice and Andy tells Neil that HE’S THE RACIST FOR NOT LISTENING TO HIS WHITE FRIEND. And Neil still doesn’t tell him about what he did. God, this is sooooo hard for NEIL!

The twins get their airtime by having a serious discussion about inequity and privilege.  Liz is all torn up because she keeps getting answers to her “what would you change about SVH” survey and not every answer coming back is “Nothing! SVH is perfect! Except that we should have more dances!” and tries to engage Jessica in a powerful dialogue about privilege and system of oppression in America.

“So in other words, people who are good-looking and rich get extra, is that what you’re saying?” Elizabeth demanded hotly. “I know it’s not fair” Jessica said. “But hey, I don’t make the rules.” Elizabeth stood up, threw the pillow on the bed, and began to pace. “Then I want to talk to the person who made the rules,” she said fiercely. “We need some new ones.”

Ah, Jess, our very own Social Darwinist. And watch out entire system and history of oppression, Liz Wakefield wants to talk to you.

Pet Peeve #4 White people claim to know what discrimination and hate is like because of (what they think) are similar instances. AND Pet Peeve #5 Teachers/facilitators use trite and insulting exercises to simulate discrimination (see also: making people walk around with a blindfold all day so they can understand the plight of blind people)

After Andy’s beating, Jessica does get a bit pissed about inequities. So she decides to START A PETITION! Yea, that will show ’em. Meanwhile, in her sociology class (they take sociology in high school? as if that’s the most messed up thing in this book) and Mr. Jacobi tries to teach them a lesson about discrimination by dividing them into Light-Eyes and Dark-Eyes. And the Dark-Eyes get to treat the Light-Eyes like crap and there is nothing they can do about it. Oooooo, burn! Jessica gets all upset.

This is what is feels like, she told herself. This is what is feels like to be discriminated against.

Wow! In a 30 minute period Jessica is transformed and feels the entire plight of people of color! Thanks trivial exercise.  I also want to mention that people are talking about discrimination, but Andy’s situation is beyond discrimination. He was flat-out almost KILLED.

Oh yea, so what’s going on with Andy? He’s back at school and up for a prestigious science award/scholarship. The school has an assembly for it, and everyone rushes to be the first into the auditorium to show their un-racism. When Andy accepts the award there is thunderous applause and a standing ovation. I think it is great to support him and he had been through a lot, but before the “incident” did anyone even know who he is or give a shit that he was good at science?

See Pet Peeve #2

Elizabeth falls all over herself and makes a big show of inviting Andy and his girlfriend over to sit with the gang at lunch.Because, you know, she likes black people! And she can’t be racist, because she hangs out with black students in the cafeteria! Except that she never talked to Andy before this incident!

Elizabeth felt a surge of warmth when she looked at her friends. They all wanted to reassure Andy that they liked him. And it wasn’t just because of his race. That would be reverse discrimination, which was just as bad. They all genuinely liked him because he was a likable guy, and he seemed to recognize their friendship for what it was.

Sure, Liz. Inviting someone to eat with you because you want to get to know them better is JUST AS BAD as beating them in the parking lot. Also, Liz stop patting yourself on the back for being so accepting.

Charlie Cashman and his gang taunt Andy as he is walking across the football field and Neil sees this and stands up for him. Andy thanks him but tells him it doesn’t mean they are even, and walks away. The only redeeming thing about this book is that Andy doesn’t automatically forgive him. But he does, however, walk off alone. So Andy still feels isolated and alone in in uber white Sweet Valley, loses his only friend, but Neil makes up with his girlfriend and gets his friends back SO ALL IS WELL!  He does some serious soul searching and groveling, and finally Penny forgives him, and things seem to be back on track for him. For NEIL.  Thank god. What about Andy? Oh, there wasn’t enough time on the book to do his epilogue because the pages were needed for the contrived lead-up to the next book.

Pet Peeve #5 when someone tries to shove resources down your throat.

This one applies to me! No, seriously, as you all know, I love pop culture, and one of the reasons I love it is because it reflects the dynamics of society. I find it interesting to dissect pop culture in terms of its depiction of the the non-white, non-hetero, non-rich, non-able-bodied. I wouldn’t say I ENJOY it, because I wish I didn’t have to point out how it represents some fucked up stuff. Anyway, some great blogs I read and recommend are Stuff White People Do, not to be confused with the blog Stuff White People Like, which although is a humor site, is still a social commentary. And, one of my very favorites, Racialicious: the intersection of race and pop culture.

And special thanks to my friend John for making the book cover graphic above.

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33 thoughts on “White Teen’s Burden

  1. Jen S. says:

    Yay, things worked out well for NEIL! Neil Neil Neil! Thank God for white people and their kind hearts, yes?

    I will say Jessica seems to be a bit honest in the “Yep, the rich, pretty and white get the most cake” discussion. Hey, she’s rich, pretty and white, the system works for her, and she’s not gonna lie about it. It’s the most un-sociopathic we’ve ever seen her.

  2. gnatalby says:

    Truly, if I never hear the term “reverse discrimination” again it will be too soon. Fucking Liz and Brandon Walsh are each like two drinks away from a Michael Richards incident.

  3. seahag says:

    What would Jesse Ramsey say if she read this book? Oh, and in case you wondered, Jesse is black. Not that it matters one bit to her bff Mallory or the BSC. Some people are racist but not them. (see pet peeve #2)

  4. maybeimamazed02 says:

    Wait, Jessi is BLACK? You just blew. my. mind.

    I never read this book because even references to it in other books pissed me off. Ugh. Thanks for taking one for the team, ihatewheat.

    That ghostwriter should be beaten.

  5. Rio says:

    I can’t help but wonder if the ghostwriter was tempted to make Liz think: “Even I don’t care that Andy is black, and I have perfect Aryan looks! But I guess other people can’t be as open-minded as I am. I wish there was another version of me so I could pat myself on the shoulder. Maybe I’ll get Jess to do it. We look exactly the same, after all, except for the small mole on my right shoulder. But we’re soooo different . . .”

    Also, the cover artist made Andy look about 45 years old. And Neil looks like he’s wearing a denim muu-muu.

  6. nikki says:

    Fantastic post. Have reposted it in various places. Definitely one of your best, very thoughtful, and still funny too. You deserve a Racialicious link for this one!

  7. Janelle says:

    Wow- lots of intense stuff going on with this book. I just wanted to point out that the light eyes/dark eyes thing is actually an exercise that is used in schools and professional meetings to teach people about racism and that it can be very powerful. People get really caught up in it and are usually astonished by their own reactions (either as a member of the “better” group or of the other group). It was originally created by a teacher named Jane Elliott if anyone is interested. I’m actually kind of impressed that the ghost writer actually knew anything about this technique.

    That being said- I read this book not too long ago and completely agree with most of what was said in the recap- I think it’s probably a good thing that Andy’s perspective was left out because I can only imagine how horrendous those segments would have been.

  8. bazu says:

    thank you, gnatalby, for the liz/brandon walsh comparison. they are both sanctimonious morons, so true!

    also, I had sociology in high school! and my teacher’s name was Mr. Jacobsen! But he was not an ass like SVH’s Mr. Jacobi, so all is well.

    great review!

  9. Rachel says:

    Great recap! I never read this book and I’m really, really glad that I didn’t. It’s awful, even by Sweet Valley standards. I think there was a SVT book where they tried to deal with the Holocaust and it’s pretty much as bad.

    I never had issues with the whole “White people think they deserve a medal because they have black friends” thing when I was in high school, mainly because our school was about 98% white and there was a disturbingly large minority of people in my year who thought that saying “I’m a racist” was the same as saying “I’m a Liberal” and considered it part of their right to “freedom of speech and opinions.” (I know, how Liz Wakefield of them). It was like a little Scottish ghetto, to be honest. I was probably one of the few kids who had family in – shock, horror! – England.

    Being mixed race myself, it’s been interesting to read about how teen literature tries to deal with the issue of racism. The thing I’ve noticed the most is how the white kids NEVER comment on the black kids appearance – it’s as if they try to pretend that they’re white. Anti-racism isn’t about pretending that the non-white people are white; it’s about accepting them for who they are. When I was staying in Germany, I hung out with an Kenyan guy from our youth group and because we were like negatives of each other (despite my grandfather being Indian, me, my mum and my brother got no colouring whatsoever) and we made jokes about how often I had to use suncream compared to John. He told really bad British jokes about black people. We dicussed whether my hair was too fine to go into cornrows, and how awful I would look with an afro. SVH would be so much more realistic if Liz went shopping with her generic black friend and said something like “This dress would look so nice with your colouring. I look totally washed out in orange, but you can pull it off.” Anti-racism is not about ignoring the other person’s race; it’s about embracing it!

    And now I’ll get off my soapbox…

    And no, I never told anyone that my grandfather was my cleaner. I promise 🙂

  10. Laurel says:

    I thought I had never read this book (I didn’t like reading books about the boy characters, except of course for coffee-eyed Todd), but when you mentioned the light eyed/dark eyed bit I actually remembered. I never forgot that experiment, and when I was a kid (a naive middle-class white kid, mind you), I thought it did sound like an eye-opening experiment. Thinking about it now, not only is it an insultingly gross over-simplification of discrimination. I think an important lesson in it should be how quickly the majority of the class was willing to relish in discriminating against randomly chosen “inferiors”. It sounds like a very mild version of the Stanford Prison Experiment to me (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_prison_experiment). The whole town has this bizarre, latent sadistic sociopathy where they’re willing to turn against people, even those they’ve known for a decade, on the flimsiest of evidence (see “Todd’s Story,” “Double Love,” the Suzanne Devlon book, etc). What a creepy quality I never noticed before (accept in Jessica, of course).

  11. Becca says:

    I had stopped reading SVH by the time this one came out and good thing. It sounds really horrible. Liz sure is a self-righteous little cow, isn’t she? I hate when she says something “fiercely” – you know she’s on her high-horse then.

    Also, I’m pretty sure Andy’s shirt on the cover is from the Gap. I had a pink and white version in high school that I loved.

  12. RollingStone says:

    So what WOULD actually be a good way to have people know what it’s like to be discriminated against? The light eyes/dark eyes exercise may not be terribly deep, but what else is there?

  13. gnatalby says:

    @RollingStone: There’s always the classic listening to people and believing them when they tell you about their experiences. It’s not as if they couldn’t have just *talked* to Andy if they cared about more than just appearing to be good white people.

  14. Magpie says:

    I totally agree that the “at least it will get kids thinking about racism” argument doesn’t cut it with this book. As adults, we can look at the book critically and reject it as problematic, but you can’t expect the average kid in SVH’s target age range to view it like that. Also, part of the problem is the way that the twins are characterised throughout the series – generally speaking, it’s expected that readers regard Elizabeth as sensible and intelligent, while Jessica is selfish and scheming. In other words, follow what Liz says, not what Jessica does. Unfortunately, in this case, Jessica is the only character who actually says anything worth thinking about (she might be revelling in her privilege, but at least she acknowledges it exists, which seems to be some kind of newsflash to Liz). All Liz teaches kids is how to derail and bury racial tension. This is like the one occasion in the entire series that Jessica says something socially relevant, and nobody is listening to her!

  15. RollingStone says:

    Just to clarify, I was talking about doing the experiment in real life, not in the book. I agree that it’s totally unrealistic to have Jessica change her mind after just one class period. Having the other characters actually talk to Andy about it and actually give him a voice (!) would have been much better. And I’m all for class discussion, I just think that sometimes you need some “doing” in addition to just talking. But I’m not an actual victim of racism, so I could be wrong.

  16. FormerElizabethWannabe says:

    IHW–Great job with this post and thanks for the links. I’m on Stuff White People Do right now and finding it a very thought provoking read.

  17. Millie says:

    Bravo for writing a persuasive essay on a great artifact on how the attempts of the majority trying to “help” the minority are vastly inappropriate. I often read this blog to laugh at my favorite YA novel of yesteryear…it’s wonderful to have this post of social commentary nestled within all of the humor. Thank you!

  18. Millie says:

    Also, just as an aside, many of the ghostwriters completely exoticized members of other races. Characters such as Jade Wu, Patty Gilbert and Rosa Jimenez were foils to the size-six, California dream girls Liz & Jessica Wakefield. The twins were always seen as the ideal where as the other characters were always described as different; they were foils to the twins. Any efforts at including other ethnicities was lost as being foil immediately meant you were different. And we all know what happens to different people in Sweet Valley.

    It was also disgustingly effective. After being weaned on SVH from age 10, to this day, I still think of size six as being “perfect”.

  19. Neek1981 says:

    I like how you point out that we don’t get a chapter from Andy’s perspective. I would have liked to know what he felt during all of this. I think the only Sweet Valley books I’ve read that got into the heads of minorities were Maria Slater in the Unicorn series and maybe Nina Harper in SVU. I’d like to point out that something slightly similar happened in SVU. Nina Harper and her boyfriend were harassed and beaten up because they were black. SVU was like a different universe in the first couple of books, then as it progressed it became completely implausible and everything went willy nilly back to the old SVH world. Liz lost the weight she gained during the first few weeks of college, Todd came crawling back to Liz, Jessica had her marriage annulled.

  20. Olivia says:

    “they take sociology in high school? as if that’s the most messed up thing in this book” Belive it or not but I actually took a sociology class in highschool, in fact we didn’t even have a psychology class. It was really messed up.
    I remeber learning about that experiment with the dark eyes and light eyes and only being able to think about how they did that in Sweet Valley High. I am such a dork!

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