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Race-reversed fantasy stories have a white empathy problem

How ‘persecution-flip’ stories like Noughts + Crosses erase Black identity

A uniformed Black agent examines a line of chained, shirtless white men in Noughts + Crosses Photo: Ilze Kitchoff/Mammoth Screen/Peacock

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Peacock’s recently acquired series Noughts + Crosses attempts to bring racism to the light by turning it against white people. In the show, which originally aired on BBC One, the Great Britain stand-in “Albion” has been conquered by the “Aprican Empire,” a powerful confederation of West African states which invaded Europe 700 years earlier. Under the thumb of the Apricans, Albion observes an apartheid-like system where white people (“noughts”) live as second-class citizens under their African colonizers (“crosses”). Also, for some reason, everyone speaks English.

Noughts + Crosses (and the Malorie Blackman books it’s based on) puts a frivolous teen-romance spin on a worn-out trope: the race reversal — or “persecution flip”—alternate history. Many films, shows, and books have asked the question “What if history had progressed differently enough that [present-day marginalized group] was the dominant group?” and a good portion of these works center around a reversal of white supremacy, where Black people take power. The vast majority of these stories don’t bring any insights into the state of modern racism; at best, they have the unambitious aim of shocking white viewers into realizing that racism is, in fact, not good.

The cover of the British reprint edition of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses, with a white man caressing the face of a black woman Image: Penguin

Race-reversal alternate histories are silly, and Noughts + Crosses isn’t alone in this regard. Any movie or show that indulges in a twist on white supremacy runs on a level of artifice that the audience can’t escape. Take the 1995 film White Man’s Burden, an unintentional comedy where Harry Belafonte’s wealthy Black character grumbles about the genetic inferiority of whites, while white factory worker John Travolta stumbles through his lines in AAVE. The movie is one of the more blatant examples of how works which use the persecution-flip trope often coast on the premise, assuming that the sheer perversity of the reversal will make up for the lack of interesting characters. It’s hard to create real characters under this trope, because in many ways, power defines culture. So any flipping of power dynamics requires a complete rethinking of the culture these characters are supposed to inhabit — a rethinking that few creators bother with.

Noughts + Crosses gestures toward a complex reimagining of the world in the wake of its alternate-history tinkering, like having the white Noughts adopt distinctly African hairstyles while trying to assimilate. But the extent of its changes are never more than surface-level. “Albion” is broadly identical to contemporary England, with identical social structures, technology, and language, except that now, Black-appearing settlers make up the ruling class.

To begin to see what it would look like if Noughts + Crosses took the implications of its reversal more seriously, Steven Barnes’ Lion’s Blood (and its sequel, Zulu Heart) make for a good comparison. The novel also presents a world where Africa became a colonial superpower before Europe did, but instead of retreading the history of colonialism as we’re familiar with it, Barnes dramatizes the unique problems that would have arisen had Islamic Africans enslaved Europeans and invaded the Americas. Instead of relishing the supposed novelty of the reversal, Barnes honestly follows the relationship between an Irish slave and his Ethiopian master, and the setting is used as a means to explore the creation of race and meaning of slavery.

A white man sits with his arm around a black woman in Peacock’s Noughts + Crosses Photo: Ilze Kitchoff/Mammoth Screen/Peacock

Noughts + Crosses, White Man’s Burden, and the like go with a much more simple approach than Lion’s Blood, and it can be argued the reason they do is to have the same effect as this South African anti-racism ad from several years ago. The image of white people living in slums and attending to Black people who live in big houses and drive fancy cars is punchy and to-the-point, maybe even shocking to some people. Many persecution-flip stories get made with the intent of bringing awareness to certain social disparities and shocking the dominant group into empathizing with the marginalized, so maybe that’s where their merit lies.

The problem with awarding race-reversal stories an “anti-racist” designation can be found in Saidiya Hartman’s critique of a certain style of 19th-century abolitionist rhetoric. While analyzing the writings of John Rankin, a prominent white abolitionist who often shocked his readers with vivid imaginings of white people being subjected to slavery, Hartman explains the limits of his approach:

“[T]he effort to counteract the commonplace callousness to black suffering requires that the white body be positioned in the place of the black body in order to make this suffering visible and intelligible … [I]n making the other’s suffering one’s own, this suffering is occluded by the other’s obliteration.”

Centering white trauma — fictional or otherwise — in any narrative about Black oppression has the adverse effect of erasing the Black people from the story. And race-reversal stories are guilty of this ad infinitum. In a series like Noughts + Crosses, where history has been rewritten so the Transatlantic slave trade never happened, Blackness can’t even exist the way we see and understand it, so neither can Black people. The show is about Crosses, who have all the physical traits which connote Africanity, and Noughts, who suffer under police violence from an imperial regime. Both groups represent a different simulacrum of Blackness, but neither bring any specificity or insights about the Black experience. Just like what Saidiya Hartman said, by replacing Black suffering with white suffering, this kind of story obliterates recognizable Blackness.

The ahistorical nature of most of these race-reversal stories should disqualify them from advancing the conversation on racism. When it comes to Black people, the legacies of slavery, colonial oppression, Jim Crow terror, apartheid, and so forth can’t be separated from our identities and struggles. Cute analogies aren’t enough to make audiences understand the American Black experience: brave storytelling which addresses these issues head-on are. Only after that’s established as the baseline can stories explore power and multifaceted forms of racism in a meaningful way.

The entertainment industry has so much to learn from science-fiction author Octavia Butler. Her most famous novel, Kindred, deservedly keeps winning praise for marrying a historical story about American slavery with creative speculative elements. And her five-book Patternist series carries the same qualities. Beginning in 17th-century West Africa, the Patternist books follow an alternate history where small groups of mutated superhumans make families, enslave each other, and war with each other, while America rises and falls as a nation. Butler presents characters of diverse backgrounds as they learn to cope with their mutations and supernatural abilities, but she saves her most complex developments for the series’ Black characters. The Patternists and their alien adversaries, the Clayarks, struggle with their immense power and the way it compels them to control the people nearest to them. Instead of telling a simple allegory of slavery, racism, and sexism, Butler takes a world where those things already exist, and twists it just far enough to investigate all the reasons why people control each other. In the process, she wrote one of the most cogent science-fiction treatises on power that will ever be published.

The cover of Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, with a Black woman with snakes tattooed on her face holding up her hands and cupping vines Image: Open Road Media

So with creators like Octavia Butler, Steven Barnes, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, and Tananarive Due setting so many new precedents for ways to think about and address institutional racism in speculative fiction, why does the basic, “what if?” race-reversal story keep cropping up in media? There might be a sinister reason, which again can be summed up in a Saidiya Hartman quote:

“The pretensions of high culture and the society of manners were lampooned by focusing on black buffoonery and the ridiculously impossible aspirations [of Black people] trying to improve themselves-that is, putting on airs and trying to be white… Within this economy, the bound black body, permanantly affixed in its place, engenders pleasure not only ensuant to the buffoonery and grotesqueries of Cuff, Sambo, and Zip Coon but above all deriving from the very mechanisms of this coercive placement; it is a pleasure obtained from the security of place and order and predicated upon chattel slavery.”

Hartman is describing how, in the 19th century, audiences were fascinated by dandy minstrel stereotypes like “Zip Coon” because the character played up the perversity surrounding the “impossible” concept of free, autonomous Black Americans. Today, audiences of race-reversal stories seem to have a similar fascination, only the frontier for what is considered perverse has moved from Black freedom to Black supremacy. But while Black freedom was a legitimate prospect among Black Americans which all Americans eventually had to contend with, very few people want (and even fewer people expect) Black supremacy to become a real phenomenon anytime in the future.

The “pleasure” engendered by Noughts + Crosses’ Black supremacist fantasy comforts white privilege by showing all the ways white privilege could never be infringed upon in real life. Octavia Butler’s Patternist books, on the other hand, confront the idea of privilege by showing all the ways power can be harmful to itself. One work uses science fiction to imagine entirely new societies, while another can’t see past the settler-colonialist status quo. Which is more useful toward envisioning and building a brighter future?

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