by Kat Smith
“Noughts & Crosses wasn’t so much a book I wanted to write as a book I needed to write.”, says Malorie Blackman in the introduction to her 2001 novel. Nineteen years on, we still need it.
When the BBC adaptation of the bestseller premiered, my first instinct was to see what the complex and unpredictable world of Twitter was saying. On one hand, there were people elated with the representation and grateful for the story. But, this wasn’t every tweet – as expected, the bigots came out to play. One accused it of being an attack on the white working class, many criticised it as being ‘woke s**t’ and Malorie Blackman has been accused of being ‘anti-white’.
I wish I could say that I was left shocked and surprised at the comments left by the baby boomers armed with Union Jack emojis and furrowed brows. But in the current political climate, it’s pretty much come to be expected.
I remember my older brother explaining the book to me over a decade ago, floored and deeply affected by the message. It’s almost comical that young teenagers can read and watch the show and understand the significance, while fully-grown adults throw their toys out of the pram whenever they are asked to wise up to their own privilege. At least, it would be comical if it wasn’t so infuriating.
But negative reactions to it only serve to show how much it is needed. As a white woman, it is easy to be blind to privileges when you have them. I can easily go and buy a ‘skin-coloured’ plaster that matches my skin. No one ever pronounces my name wrong. I have never had to worry about how the police might treat me. I have never felt that the colour of my skin leads to particular perceptions of my character.
“It’s almost comical that young teenagers can read and watch the show and understand the significance, while fully-grown adults throw their toys out of the pram whenever they are asked to wise up to their own privilege”.
White people need to engage with this story, no matter how tolerant we think we are. It is not an attack on white people, and to think it is, is to completely miss the mark. By subverting the narrative and putting white people as the oppressed, Noughts & Crosses confronts us with these things many probably haven’t even considered. It gives some exposure to experiences of oppression white people will never go through. You don’t have to be racist to engage with Noughts & Crosses and be changed by it, but it is ridiculously ignorant to think it’s nothing more than an attempt by the BBC to be ‘woke’.
This is not to say that reading or watching Noughts & Crosses makes me or any other white person completely understand the experience of people of colour. Research and empathy, no matter how extensive and genuine, are no substitute for real experience.
And, I hope that no one pretends that centuries of systemic racism will be solved by a six-part BBC One drama. If only it was that simple. I know that many of the internet users in question are stuck in an echo-chamber of hate, ignorance and self-pity, but I have hope that the younger generation will continue to absorb the intended, important message of Blackman’s masterpiece.