Othering and Empathy in Such a Fun Age

side by side series of the cover of Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Like many, I have spent a good chunk of my adult life, and particularly of the past year, assessing and analyzing my own racial biases and behavior, and looking for and finding new ways to be a better ally to people of color. When one begins this process identifying with being liberal, socially aware, and relatively informed, it is easy to wrongfully assume there isn’t much work to be done—read some anti-racist literature, donate to a few organizations promoted by the Black Lives Matter movement, and pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Black people in America are constantly being overlooked, discriminated against, disenfranchised, injured, and murdered, but it continues to be easy for white folks to live in willful blindness of this reality—until highly visible events, like the lynchings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, or the protests, which were met with violence by the police and the national guard, take place. Then we claim to understand and feel that the actions we must take seems clear: march in a protest, write to our legislators, donate again, read some more. All too often, however, I and people like me have failed to take a close look at the actions we take and the words we use when we’re living our day-to-day lives.

Such a Fun Age (2019), Kiley Reid’s debut novel, delicately and insightfully examines the naiveté and smugness exhibited by people who consider themselves allies yet only understand how to speak and behave as allies in times of clear and immediate strife—and who, even then, are only familiar with the performative aspects of the task. The novel kicks off with a pivotal event: Emira, a mid-twenties Black babysitter living and working in Philadelphia, gets an urgent call from her white employer, Alix, who asks her to come and watch two-year-old Briar late at night while Alix and her husband, Peter, deal with a family crisis. At a high-end grocery store where Emira takes the child, she is stopped and questioned by a security guard as a few other shoppers look on, all suspecting that she is a kidnapper. The security guard detains her, refusing to release her until she can prove her innocence to him; Emira defends herself but fails to provide what her white interrogators would consider sufficient proof. Finally, out of options, she calls Briar’s father, who comes to her aid, then informs the security guard that he can relax: a middle-aged white man is on his way to make everything all right again.

This trauma serves as a lens through which we can examine several relationships in Emira’s life. The events at the grocery store are filmed by Kelley, for example, a white man in his thirties. While Kelley agrees to delete the recording from his phone at Emira’s behest, he insists on emailing it to her first. When the two of them begin a romantic relationship, Kelley continually pressures Emira to make the footage public and speak out about her experiences, even after she repeatedly explains how badly she wants to avoid the kind of attention doing so would bring. Kelley’s quick response to the racist event at the grocery and the outrage he expresses afterward, as well as his many Black friends, seem to frame him as the perfect ally. But his refusal to put himself in Emira’s shoes, along with the occasional cringe-worthy comments he makes about his upbringing, make her feel that he doesn’t get it as much as he would like to think.

Alix, Briar’s mother, feels guilty and remorseful about what happened to Emira but is nevertheless fixated on the event’s effect on her own life and image. Will she have to find a new sitter? Will her friends and colleagues—some of whom are Black—view her empathy and outrage as supportive enough? Will this create even more backlash against her family? We learn that her husband, Peter, a newscaster, has recently been accused of making racist comments on television. As a woman who has built a career around encouraging women to speak up for themselves and who has a Black best friend, Alix talks herself into believing that she understands Emira’s predicament, but her initial desire to get closer to Emira and be available to her as a friend quickly evolves into an obsession, with Alix trying to force a friendship, searching for clues in Emira’s phone, and finally breaking Emira’s trust completely when she steals files from her email account. Proving her worth as an ally is much more important to Alix than actually being one.

What Kelley and Alix don’t understand is exactly what many of us so-called allies fail to see: while fighting racism is crucial, we must never forget that it is not about us. By reducing the Black people in our lives to their struggles or to symbols of resistance and protest, rather than seeing them as individual human beings with needs, wants, and desires, we objectify them, just like those who reduce them to ignorant stereotypes. Just like those who denounce the existence of racism or otherwise demonstrate their bigotry, this reduction reveals that we see Black people as Others—as foils to ourselves. White people, one character in the book says, act “like we’re all the same, as if we can’t contain multitudes of personalities and traits and differences.”

All of these people in Emira’s life care about her. They all like her. Some of them even love her. Kelley and Alix, specifically, are both so appalled by the scene at the grocery store that they cannot begin to fathom Emira’s desire to put it behind her rather than publicize and decry it. To Emira, however, both the event and attempting to prolong or capitalize on it would amount to extending her humiliation. “I don’t need you to be mad that it happened,” she tells Kelley. “I need you to be mad that it just like . . . happens.” But neither of them is able to truly see her and what she wants and cares about. Because their empathy is limited to people whose experience they can directly relate to, they subconsciously perceive Emira as an Other—someone whose life is smaller than theirs, whose existence feeds theirs. They see her through their own self-involved filters—or, rather, they see through her and end up mostly seeing themselves. In spite of their good intentions, they very seamlessly co-opt Emira as an instrument in the build-up of their own characters.

Things get more complicated when it turns out that Kelley and Alix had a high school relationship that ended badly. Though at first Emira does not derive much meaning from their high school drama, the two begin bombarding her with sweeping, partly-accurate accusations against the other. Kelley accuses Alix of being racist, saying she exclusively employs Black women and belittles them after her position of power is cemented, as well as of damaging the future prospects of a Black classmate. Alix accuses Kelley of fetishizing Black women, dating them exclusively and using them as a form of social currency and self-aggrandizement. Both Emira’s employer and her boyfriend truly believe that they are being selfless and have her best interests in mind. But their behavior is misguided at best. Not only do they purposefully leave out crucial information about each other’s behavior, they fail to consider Emira’s circumstances, emotions, and need for stable employment. They stop seeing her as a person and begin to see her as merely a Black symbol. As a result, they stop seeing her altogether, turning her into a mirror reflecting their social consciousness.

Such a Fun Age does an incredible job of creating complicated characters who are at once sympathetic and deplorable. Nobody, perhaps with the exception of little Briar, comes out unblemished. Even Emira confounded me on occasion, with her apparent indifference to the emotional turmoil of those around her—an indifference likely born of discomfort. In other words, all of the characters are people. Their weaknesses are so exposed that readers can’t help but feel a certain level of empathy for them. No one is entirely a villain or entirely a saint, and all of them misstep in ways that feel embarrassingly familiar. I know that I, for one, have made all sorts of faux-pas born out of the best intentions—awkward jokes, unnatural politeness, forced friendliness. I know I have been so aware of someone’s race and so eager to make everything okay that I ended up making everything weird, wanting so badly not to be offensive that I ended up offending. In short, I put my self-image as an anti-racist over the simple fact of someone else’s self.

Yet, for all the complex identification it inspires—at least for this white reader—the book does end up taking a clear stand on the morality of each character when footage of Emira’s detainment at the supermarket is released. While Emira immediately blames Kelley—the only person besides her who had possessed access to the footage, she discovers that Alix had, in fact, accessed her email to find and leak it. Alix explains the move to her friends as her effort to bring justice to light and prove her devotion and support for Emira. But the truth is more complicated, of course. Not only does this scenario lead to Emira and Kelley’s breakup and to Emira’s strengthened commitment to Alix and her family, but, when Alix arranges for her and Emira to be featured on her friend’s morning news show, it places Alix at the apex of performative allyship. While many people in the book utilize Emira to prove their own self-worth, Alix takes the objectification of Black people to an extreme when she tampers with Emira’s property, privacy, relationship, trust, and self for the sake of her own gratification. Unsurprisingly, her choices and behaviors throughout life are exposed as more selfish than they had originally seemed. It is Alix that is on Emira’s mind when, “Deep into her thirties, Emira would wrestle with what to take from her time at the Chamberlain house. Some days she carried the sweet relief that Briar would learn to become a self-sufficient person. And some days, Emira would carry the dread that if Briar ever struggled to find herself, she’d probably just hire someone to do it for her.” In other words, Emira is left to wonder, years after the fact, if Briar, like her mother, would attempt to use a Black person to give meaning to her own life.

The compounding pressures and injustices, along with some rude awakenings about how the people around her have attempted to control her life, eventually push Emira to the brink. She comes to the realization that she must make some extreme changes. Forced to become a public victim, a symbol of injustice to be flaunted by white people aching to prove their own social awareness, Emira finds that, even though she continues to be a Black person in a world ruled by white people, her path to a life of stability and fulfillment—a life in which she can be a whole person—lies in a detachment from those who choose Othering over empathy. Now, I believe, it is up to people like me, who have begun to do the work of examining and dismantling the racist ideas instilled in us since childhood, to force open our own eyes—so that we can see racism every day and make sure we aren’t mistaking the self for the symbol.

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