Four star review, originally posted here on May 4, 2021.
Not everyone will enjoy the style of this book, but I sure did! This is a laundry list (a VERY LONG laundry list) of short terrible stories, told very informally. Ruffin frequently intejects with something like “Y’all, this next story is CRAZY!” and reacts to each situation with an explanation like “Guys, he actually said ‘it’s hot in Africa!'” repeating the “punchline” (for lack of a better term) right back at us for emphasis. If this style bothers you, well, you might get annoyed, and this book likely isn’t for you. To you I would say “Dude, lighten up and just enjoy this funnytime racism!”
I listened to this as an audiobook, and it is THE PERFECT AUDIOBOOK. In the print copy, apparently, we are occassionally delighted by illustrations or photographs related to whatever story is being told. We of course can’t see these illustrations in the audiobook, so Ruffin and her sister will say “Okay, what you guys WOULD be seeing here is…” and then they describe it. We also get some bonuses missing from the print copy, like voices, or even, at at least one point, a song (Ruffin’s nonsensical copy of a song from Disney’s Mulan). This is, coincidentally, both the second book in a row, and I believe the second book ever, where I’ve heard the reader openly and repeatedly acknowledge that this is an audiobook. Dying of Whiteness was right before this, and I for the life could not understand why they guy kept telling us it was an audiobook. It was always in the context of the author saying, “When I was researching for this audiobook” or “in this audiobook we are exploring XYZ topic.” WHY??? Just say book! Or even better, don’t talk about it being a book at all; we already know, cuz we are reading it! Ruffin’s audiobook was the polar opposite, utilizing the multiple formats for her book to highlight different elements of her stories and playing up their strengths.
What of the content itself? I think that EVERYONE will be able to personally relate to some elements of this book. And if you can’t relate, then you’re not paying attention. Pay attention!
I personally could relate very literally to some of the early stories about being disrespected by store staff while shopping. When I was a poorly-dressed teenaged tomboy (different from now when I’m a poorly-dressed middle-aged tomboy), I went to the ballgown section of Lord & Taylors or some other similary fancy department store at the fancy mall. The staff sneered at me, refused to come over and assist me even though I was the ONLY shopper in the section and clearly had wandered in for SOME reason, and only started to warm up gradually once my mother showed up. I remember being so satisfied at the smug looks on their faces when, as I approached the counter, they asked if I’d be purchasing one of the gowns that day, and I said “Actually, I’ll be purchasing BOTH of these gowns” and plopped down two. I bought a whole fucking extra ballgown, and those cunts could bite me. I had a very similar experience around the same time when I wandered into Ann Taylor with a gift card and wandered from section to section FOR AN HOUR with no staff bothering to even freet me, let alone offer assistance. It still makes my fucking blood boil TO THIS DAY. Same with the couple of sexist experiences I’ve had at car dealerships. Here’s the thing though, and it’s part of what makes this book SOOOOO effective; I’m all worked up about two mildly bad experiences, but our protagonist Lacey deals with this shit every single damn day. It’s just a constant onslaught of racism at every turn. This book gets really draining because, like, for real, it’s literally just an endless list of exhausting little racist stories. And that’s the whole point. Any one of these stories, even the small ones, is enough to enfuriate and scar. If it’s exhausting just reading about it for a couple hours, then one can only imagine how exhausting it is to live with these experiences every day.
I said before that everyone should be able to relate to some element of this book, and while certainly some white people such as myself may be able to identify with one or two of these stories as a victim, realistically-speaking I think almost all of us should be able to see ourselves as one of the villains. Some of these stories involve very obviously over-the-top super racists, sure. But just as often someone who considers themselves to be prejudice-free is to blame. In the book Lacey listens to a coworker tell a story about the scary situation she was in over the weekend when she was alone in an elevator with “two black guys.” Lacey asked “well, what happened?” and it turns out that nothing happened; that was the whole story. I wouldn’t even know how to begin counting the amount of times I’ve heard “big black guy” used to describe “scary guy” by all sorts of people.
We also hear plenty of stories about people who change their demeanor and humor when talking to black people in an attempt to relate. I went to a comedy show once in a predominately black neighborhood where half the comedians were white, and most of them looked scared shitless up on stage, clearly changing their routine to try to appeal to their black audience and failing miserably. One by one they’d go up and awkwardly try to make some sort of “ha ha, look how white and uncool I am” self-deprecating joke. The only two white people who didn’t bomb were the ones who did their usual act (one guy with autism whose act was about his autism, and my friend), just like the magician in the “Lacey hires a magician” story should have done.
That’s a more extreme example, but lord knows how many times I or others around me may have made some seemingly small joke or comment we THOUGHT was fine but may not be. Ideally, we just wouldn’t ever do this. But well-meaning people fuck up all the time. The key is to listen to people when they say it hurts. I started typing “when they explain why it’s hurtful” but stopped and deleted it. It’s not on black people to have to explain to white people why we are being shitty; instead it’s up to us to just trust them and listen when they say we’re fucking up. Regardless, this book is the perfect vehicle to push ignorant white people in the right direction. It’s light and funny and approachable, but it’s also super fucking exhausting and horrifying. Which makes it perfect.