On Carve the Mark’s Racism & Ableism and Not Getting Off the Hook

Originally posted 1/17/17

I don’t know how many times people have to say this, but being part of a marginalized group does not exempt one from criticism. If a work that someone produces reinforces, trivializes, or ignores very real issues that affect people in real life, regardless of the intent or of the creators status, the consequence will be criticism, as it should be. This is something that Veronica Roth and her defenders seem to have forgotten when Roth revealed in an interview for USA Today that she suffers (or suffered) from chronic pain. This after she received criticism for an ableist comment made by an NPR reporter as well as the ableist content of her newest release entitled Carve the Mark.

Let me be clear that this is not a complete, comprehensive timeline of events, but merely my understanding of the discourse around this book.

I first became aware of the problematic elements within CtM when I came across author Justina Ireland’s (@justinaireland) notes on the book, which she posted on her blog after people demanded she “show her work” subsequent to her publishing a negative review of the ARC she had received. In it, she notes the racial coding of the primary female protagonist Cyra as black and some possible parallels to African cultural practices. The full post is here. That in and of itself was no real cause for concern (if you ignore the rather skewed, minimal understanding of African cultures, because this is YA) but, as Ireland and several other folks on Book Twitter noted, the same racist tropes that Keira Drake’s The Continent was criticized for made an appearance in this novel as well. The aggressive and violent fictional races of fantasy and science fiction are more often connected to African, Native, or Islamic cultures than any other, especially when contrasted with intellectual,peace-loving, lighter-skinned fictional races, which are typically coded as either European or East Asian. It’s a very common, insidious trope within all forms of entertainment, and CtM is just the latest in a long history of narrative cliches that are predicated on dehumanizing and debasing people of color as ruthless savages that only want to harm others because they can’t control themselves.

With the official release of the book today January 17, another criticism that has arisen about the book is the ableist nature of Cyra’s currentgift – the name of the magical power within CtM – which has her enduring near-constant pain and being able to give that pain to others. As both Ana Mardoll (@AnaMardoll) and Tess Sharpe (@sharpegirl) noted in their respective threads here and here, this is a poorly conceived idea that has serious ramifications on how people with disabilities are perceived and treated. We already have ingrained ideas about what it means to have a disability: that being born with a physical or mental disability is somehow the fault of parents, accruing a disability later in life is the fault of the afflicted, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, the idea is that there’s blame to be placed for having a disability and not that it’s due to happenstance majority of the time, so to have the concept of the currentgift be linked to personality, thereby equating Cyra’s pain as “you brought this on yourself” (because black women and our damn attitudes) is not only maddening, but also disgusting.

At this unfortunate intersection, Roth is also reinforcing the fatal myth that black people are capable of enduring greater pain than white people, and that idea has real world consequences, noted by a study that found that medical students believe false biological concepts about black people and therefore provide inadequate medical advice to their black patients. [1] [2] [3]

The survey also asked them whether they believed certain statements about whites and blacks were true, e.g., black people age more slowly than whites, black people have less sensitive nerve endings and black people’s blood coagulates more quickly. Surprisingly, over 100 students [out of 222 white medical students and residents] believed these fallacies to be factual.

– Alexandra Samuels, “U.Va. report: Med students believe black people feel less pain than whites” USA Today College, 5 April 2016

Going all the way back to the beginning of this post, Roth revealed in a USA Today Life interview (at approx. 10:02 to 12:28) that she suffers or has suffered from chronic pain. Almost immediately afterwards, several people tweeted how sorry they feel for Roth and how she may have felt “pressured” to out herself and her struggle with chronic pain, which is understandable to a degree until you realize that Roth could have just been upfront about the fact that she wrote some of CtM from her own experience. As Aleksei Valentin noted, this revelation now comes across as simply trying to save face in the face of criticism.

Claiming a marginalized status when faced with critique and admonishment has not ever and will never excuse perpetuating harmful stereotypes, intentional or unintentional, which is why such phrases like “internalized ableism” exist. If I wrote a novel set on the South Side of Chicago about a young black man that joins a gang literally for the LOLz, me being Black (and also, I’m not from Chicago, so there’s that) would not make that concept any less of a dangerous and racist oversimplification of the causes of gang violencewhich are numerous, so Roth is not getting a pass (at least not from me).

aleksei

That may not at all have been Roth’s intention, but as Sharpe said, “[i]t’s not just hurtful [,] [i]t’s carelss [and] tells me that you probably didn’t think very deeply about the parallels and consequences” and no amount of “it was never my intention” will change nor negate the impact that CtM and Cyra will have.

If we want to dismantle these egregious concepts we have to hold people accountable when they sustain them, whether through what they write, what the say, paint, draw, or excuse from others, accountability is key.

She wrote it, now she’s gotta own up to it.

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One thought on “On Carve the Mark’s Racism & Ableism and Not Getting Off the Hook

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