We may imagine that young people are innocent of the implications of race and class in American culture, that they can grow up in a kind of bubble of protection, safely insulated from the vexed and terrible realities of injustice. But young people know better. Children see race as a category before they learn to talk; children, as early as five years old, recognize their own implication in racial categories, with youth of color feeling the weight of racial stereotyping and white children demonstrating pro-white bias.1 Children are born into systems of power.
Therefore, A. S. King’s new young adult novel, Dig, appears extraordinary. Not only does it discuss the way whiteness operates, but it interrogates the silence (common in children’s books) around racism and white privilege. Best of all, it offers pathways for a young reader to critique that silence. A white writer, King is deeply invested in unsettling her reader, through both narrative technique and subject matter. As she says in her acknowledgements note, “This book is supposed to be uncomfortable. I’d apologize, but I’m not sorry.”
The novel focuses on the branches of a white family in a Pennsylvanian town, with each chapter shifting point of view, from the grandparents’ to that of each of their five teenage grandchildren. The teenagers do not fully understand how they are related; only late in the novel are they revealed to each other (and to us) as cousins. Importantly, at the outset King offers proper names for just two of the teenagers—Malcolm, whose father is dying of cancer, and Loretta, who lives in an abusive home—and refers to the remaining three using labels that others might attach to them. “The Shoveler” is newly relocated to the town by his itinerant mother, and he carries a snow shovel with him wherever he goes. “CanIHelpYou?” works at the window of an Arby’s, where she dispenses fast food and deals drugs, in part to spite her affluent parents. “The Freak” pops in and out of the narrative, a mysterious character who appears suddenly to each of the others, traveling across time and space.
The five teenagers contend with family legacies of racial bias and neglect, coming together in the last sections of the book to investigate the disappearance of “The Freak” and to galvanize their commitment to combatting their family’s traditions. A surreal, cagey, engrossing novel, Dig pushes its readers to excavate buried histories and submerged ways of thinking.
Power, Poison, Pain, and Joy
King’s novel is important. But is its ability to confront and discuss whiteness really so uncommon?
Children’s books have long been a socializing force, responding to the realities of children’s racial experiences. Across the 20th century and into the 21st, books by writers of color have often been quite direct in countering stereotype and racial bias. Some have expressly refuted racism by embracing beauty, like Derrick Barnes’s Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut (2017); others have explored the history of racial oppression, like Yoshiko Uchida’s Journey to Topaz (1971), a narrative about Japanese American internment camps.
Yet children’s books by white writers about white characters rarely engage with whiteness, be it in terms of its social advantages, its systems of perpetuating power, or its history of discrimination. This limitation becomes especially distressing when we consider that the field of children’s literature continues to be populated largely by white writers. In 2018, for instance, only 21 percent of books were authored by African / African American, American Indian / First Nation, Latinx, and Asian Pacific / Asian Pacific American writers.2
White characters still dominate children’s literature, and most books are nearly silent on the advantages that whiteness confers in American culture. In fact, one could consider this silence around whiteness as actually contributing to the myth of childhood’s racial innocence. Seen in this light, books that don’t discuss whiteness contribute to that bubble of protection, which thrives on the idea that children don’t see race or that racial critique corrupts children.
This is what makes King’s Dig not just unique, but useful. In exploring the way whiteness operates, Dig allows us to see that privilege relies on denial. It is Malcolm and CanIHelpYou? who offer the most salient critiques of the invisibility of white privilege. When returning from a visit to Jamaica with his father, Malcolm says:
I’ve never understood white people who can’t admit they’re white. I mean, white isn’t just a color. And maybe that’s the problem for them. White is a passport. It’s a ticket. The whole world is a white amusement park and your white skin buys you into it. A woman in economy argued with me about this once. She said, “I’ve heard this idea and it makes me uncomfortable.” “It probably should,” I said.
The passage makes clear that the woman who argued with Malcolm had retreated from her own implication in the privileges of whiteness. Of course, Malcolm himself is remembering this conversation while flying on a plane back from Negril, in Jamaica. Even while saying these words, he possesses a literal ticket that allows him to pass back and forth across nations and ethnicities. As a middle-class white person, Malcolm is as implicated as the woman passenger, though his awareness of others appears a first step in acknowledging inequity.
Malcolm’s cousin CanIHelpYou? is also aware of the limitations of the adults around her. This is especially the case with her mother, an outright racist who justifies her use of the N-word by saying that rappers use it, so she should be able to do so as well. Her mother’s denial leads CanIHelpYou? to see her home as suffused with racism:
It’s not just a passing comment or a racist quip in the hallway. My whole house is wallpapered with hate. My dinner is made with hate. My Christmas gifts are bought with hate. I started doing my own wash when I was ten just so my clothes can feel clean when everything else feels dirty.
It’s not like they burn crosses, no. And people still do that around here. But they wouldn’t go out of their way to put the fire out.
Both Malcom and CanIHelpYou? consistently note the way denial is a form of power, a means of maintaining the invisibility and normativity of whiteness. As Robin J. DiAngelo explains in White Fragility, “It’s uncomfortable to be confronted with an aspect of ourselves that we don’t like, but we can’t change what we refuse to see.”3
The genius of King’s approach is that Malcolm and CanIHelpYou? are not purely anti-racist thinkers, yet they nevertheless reckon with their own limitations in relationships with people of color. For example: for much of the book Malcom imagines Jamaica as a site of escape from living with his racist grandparents, with the bonus of a love interest in Eleanor, a girl who sells bracelets to tourists and plans to be the island nation’s prime minister someday.
His romance with the idea of Jamaica dissipates when he recognizes that he, as a white person, has work to do at home: “I’m needed here because this is where the ignorance is. Even my own.” But his final words are open-ended in terms of his perspective on race and romance: “I thought maybe I didn’t love Eleanor, but I do. … I know I’m white and she’s Jamaican. And I know that it all seems like I’m chasing a culture and not a person, but I love her. I really do.” The reader has to decide whether this pledge of affection can be extricated from the way Malcolm uses Jamaica throughout the novel as a site of escape from various kinds of pain. In some ways, one might read these words as revealing Malcom’s need to continue excavating the implications of his attitude toward people of color, rather than simply to act differently.
denial is a form of power, a means of maintaining the invisibility and normativity of whiteness.
Analogously, for CanIHelpYou? the romance of color verges on exploitation, which, however, she ultimately recognizes. Her best friend since childhood, Ian, is a biracial honors student who endures racism at school and in his work. The relationship between him and CanIHelpYou?, as far as she is concerned, is shadowed by the memory of her grandmother telling her at nine years old that she should not be friends with Ian: his blood is different than white blood and carries disease, she asserts.
In response, CanIHelpYou? intensifies her friendship with Ian, and as teenagers they share an erotic exchange when under the influence of drugs. During that episode, CanIHelpYou? receives a text from her mother: “When u get home we have to talk about spending time with that boy.” Together they laugh at the text, but ultimately that message is a breaking point for Ian.
When Ian avoids CanIHelpYou?, she starts to think about the nature of their relationship and reflects on the photographs of Ian she displays on her dresser mirror: “I like to think I left them up because Ian’s been my best friend for so long. I like to think it’s because I’ve always been a little in love with him. Really, I left them up because I knew my mother hates that my best friend is black. Even in two-dimensional form, I’m using him.” Ultimately, Ian ends the friendship with CanIHelpYou? in a scene that uncovers the costs for Ian of this friendship: he talks about laughing at her mother’s text in order to reassure her, rather than responding honestly about the pain it caused.
CanIHelpYou? recognizes Ian’s explanations as emotional labor piled on top of his experience of exclusion: “This is work. He’s doing work now. For me. He’s looking for small words so I will begin to understand something too big for me to know.” This profound scene unpacks the costs to people of color of educating whites about the effects of racism. It’s a refreshing move for a white writer to focus not only on her characters’ desires to engage with biases (even their own), but also on her characters’ ignorance.
Dig not only uncovers white privilege but also interrogates the silences that give it power. This astonishing thrust of the novel takes shape in the various metaphors of excavation and exposure, of “digging up” the ideologies that shape racist perspectives and acts.
Racism hides in plain sight, as language conceals and evades: teenagers threaten and harass their classmates from vehicles bearing Confederate flags, and the school dismisses the “incident” through “freedom of speech … traditional family values … heritage.” CanIHelpYou?’s mother won’t identify why she dislikes Ian, merely referring to “a boy like him” and “that boy.” The same mother keeps a bell in the shape of a mammy figure on her coffee table, even as she denies being racist. Such details are uncomfortable, pointed, and effective.
But it is the novel’s use of metaphor that is especially powerful, particularly in terms of the idea of digging up racialized meaning and history. The potato, in particular, stands in for submerged lineages of racism. Malcolm and CanIHelpYou’s grandfather, Gottfried, comes from a family of potato farmers, and, across the text, discussions of potatoes accrue meaning. Early on, The Freak pops in on a college lecture about the potato, in which a white professor discusses the toxicity of the plant: “Who would have thought Northern Europeans would rely so much on a plant so poisonous? … If you ask me, it’s ironic that our ancestors were able to avoid poisoning themselves on the plants, and yet rose to poison the whole world with themselves.”
The novel uses metaphor to insist on the need to dig up and expose white privilege and racism. King deploys this technique in many instances, from the Shoveler who pushes away white snow, to CanIHelpYou?’s and The Freak’s futile escapes into imaginative tunnels of depression, to a kind neighbor’s concealed “100% White Power” tattoo. With all these moments and more, the novel propels the reader to think about the ways in which the poisons of racism and white privilege suffuse the ground beneath our family lives and communities.
“Dig” not only uncovers white privilege but also interrogates the silences that give it power.
But the teenagers in Dig are different. Through their stories, and through innovative narrative strategies, King is able to offer young readers a sense of their own pathways toward combating white privilege and racism.
One narrative strategy King employs is to continually estrange readers from the narrative, whether through naming that pushes readers to think about the character types that structure social relations, or through intensive and quickly shifting first-person chapters that ask a reader to juggle characters and plot points. It makes for a dizzying read, but the way King weaves the threads together also thrills. The process of reading permits us to understand better the careful process of excavating the “roots of our family,” putting together the pieces of the characters’ lives in relationship to one other and to the ideologies that formed them.
King also uses theatricality as a means to disrupt an easy reading experience. This approach lifts the narrative out of the immersive experience of the novel and into a space in which readers can see the teenagers both as embodying ideas (as types) and as characters one could play in real life. For example: Loretta, the abused child who imagines herself as a ringmistress of a circus, foregrounds the idea that there is an audience for her story—an audience that might be us, the readers.
A more important moment of theatricality occurs when the characters come together in the end. At this moment, late in the book, the narrative style shifts to a script. The characters reconnect through memories of their early childhoods:
Malcolm, to CanIHelpYou?. Your mom. I remember the last time we came to Easter and she used the N-word and my dad argued with her.
CanIHelpYou?. I remember that! I hid under the table. So embarrassing.
Malcolm, to CanIHelpYou?. She still using the rap music excuse?
CanIHelpYou?. Yep. So dumb.
Shifting in and out of a theatrical script at the end of the novel, King enables readers to step into the roles of the characters, to speak their lines in our minds. This strategy helps young readers see this story as something they can inhabit. For them, this makes the book read not as an escape or as wholly immersive an experience as a novel but, instead, as a roadmap to excavating buried family histories and confronting racism.
The Freak confronts the reader at the novel’s conclusion, as King daringly urges us to take action in our own lives. After offering a surprise revelation about The Freak’s identity and fate, the character says: “DON’T LIVE UNDERGROUND FOREVER! … The Freak knows this sounds corny because you’re so used to looking at hateful shit, right? … DIG YOUR WAY OUT!” She urges readers to think critically about their lives and to take action: “CHANGE YOUR MIND! The Freak knows everything now. She knows some days you try to make sense of your life and you fail. She knows you are not taken seriously. … The one thing she can’t do is change the minds of the living.” That is our job, she exclaims.
The book ends with the idea that we are all invested in the ideologies that have shaped racism and white privilege, and that we are called to excavate and combat destructive family and cultural legacies. No wonder that King has set her novel around an Easter dinner, a celebration of the dead rising from the earth and the possibility of spiritual renewal.
The YA Resistance
Whiteness has been interrogated in books for adults for years, including in Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark (1992), David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness (1991), Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color (1999), and Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People (2010). For the field of young adult literature, King’s Dig leads the way toward a critique of racism and white privilege that must be undertaken by all of us.
M. T. Anderson recently described this new turn in the field of young adult literature as a move away from denial of our nation’s inequities and exploitations and toward activism. He stated, “We are a nation galvanized and ready for revision. The young are right with us on the front lines.”4 King’s novel seizes on this sense of urgency and deeply held hope, concluding, “This is the beginning of something. Something good. Something new. Something you can’t paint over.”
This article was commissioned by Marah Gubar.
- Erin N. Winkler, “Children Are Not Colorblind: How Young Children Learn Race,” PACE: Practical Approaches for Continuing Education, vol. 3, no. 3 (2009). ↩
- See the statistics offered by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin: “Children’s Books by and about People of Color and First/Native Nations Received by the CCBC—US Publishers Only, 2015–” (accessed November 6, 2019). ↩
- Robin J. DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Beacon, 2018), p. 42. ↩
- M. T. Anderson, “‘Today, I’m Going to Talk about Hope’: M. T. Anderson Accepts the 2019 Margaret A. Edwards Award,” School Library Journal, August 15, 2019. ↩