Hollow Representation: A Critique of Holly Black’s Tithe

I often think about the issues of inclusion and exclusion in fiction, particularly as it applies to the socially marginalized, along ethnic or sexual lines or some intersection thereof.  Growing up, exclusion was the norm, so much so that I didn’t even notice that there were so few characters that carried my likeness, or those of people I knew.

The hegemony of the “mainstream” – here I mean white, heterosexual, and most often male – was so powerful that I even found myself arguing with people that the inclusion of people of color was inconsequential.  Now inclusion and/or exclusion, and how the marginalized are treated within a given story are enough to shape my opinion of the entire work, and the author.

That is to say that exclusion or stereotypical characters are enough to ruin a story for me, and inclusion and sensitive portrayals are enough to make an otherwise dull story more interesting.

Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale, by Holly Black, presents an interesting case. The first description of Kaye Fierch comes early as she brushes back her “ragged, blonde hair”, sealing the expectation that the character will be white.  But then, shortly afterwards, we learn something new:

“What flavor of Asian are you?” Marcus asked.

“I’m half Japanese.” Kaye touched her hair, blonde as her mother’s. It was the hair that baffled people. [p. 12]

Indeed the hair does baffle, because never in my life have I seen a naturally blonde Asian person, and for good reason, as blonde hair is itself a recessive trait, and doubly unlikely to manifest in a person who is only half-European.  I wondered at this point why there was even a need to make Kaye blonde at all.  For all intents and purposes – and by that I mean how Kaye speaks, behaves, for what she knows about her Japanese heritage, and for the non-role her Japanese father plays in her life and in the story – she is mostly still a white character.

This cursory acknowledgement of her ethnicity seems only an excuse to point it out, rather than any real examination of the Asian-American experience.  But if her Asian-ness is not really a factor, then why include it at all? Just for the sake of doing so?  Ordinarily I wouldn’t have a problem with this, because as I’ve said, the dearth of protagonists of color is something that hampers my reading of speculative fiction, and I revel in their relatively rare appearances.

However, it seemed that, all things considered, Kaye’s “Asian-ness” was a mere concession against the hegemony of whiteness across the rest of the characters, human and fairy alike.  Marcus, the only other person of color in the story, is at best a tertiary character. It isn’t lost on me, either, that the black man would be the only one to care about Kaye’s background, because race and ethnicity only matter to people who aren’t white, right?

Honestly, though, because of my expectations that characters of color will be left out of mainstream fiction, I have learned to adapt, to try to read beyond the exclusion.  Tithe, however, would not let me forget it, because just as it held up Kaye as a rare protagonist of color, it snatched that minor concession away soon afterwards, when it is revealed that Kaye is not in fact half-Japanese, but a fairy.

There had been a half-Japanese girl named Kaye Fierch, but she had been stolen away years earlier, and replaced with a fairy made to think that that girl’s life was her own.  The real Kaye Fierch does not factor into the story really at all, save a brief appearance about three-quarters of the way through the book.

So again I was left wondering, what exactly was the point of introducing a “half-Japanese” character, only to strip her of everything Japanese, make her improbably blonde of all things, and then decide that she’s not even human at all.  Was this an attempt at what those on the right would hideously call “political correctness”?  I take issue with the very idea that it need be some sort of marketing or political strategy, some sort of acquiescence to irrational demands that someone represent or treat people of color with sensitivity and respect.

Yet in the case of Tithe, I am left wondering if that was not exactly the point.  As if it is just “enough” to include the likenesses of people of color, without incorporating their unique experiences, perspectives, or to even truly write them into the story.

I do not think Holly Black meant any malice, but therein lies the rub: white privilege – in this case, the privilege of always having your likeness represented in mainstream fiction – is benign in its tyranny, all about blissful – and sometimes willful – ignorance and indifference.  Regardless of Black’s intentions – and let us be reminded of what paves the road to Hell – this strange rhetorical inclusiveness is actually a different form of exclusion.

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