‘Little Fires Everywhere’ and the Color Line
“I thought of them as people of color, because I knew I wanted to talk about race and class, and those things are so intertwined in our country and our culture…But I didn’t feel like I was the right person to try to bring a black woman’s experience to the page.”
The above is a quote from Celeste Ng, author of Little Fires Everywhere, taken from an article concerning casting two of the novel’s central characters as Black in the Hulu adaptation. I had to read that quote several times before I could read the rest of the essay; I dragged it along through the sentences and white spaces between paragraphs.
It’s an interesting, troubling quote. It frames the entire essay, gives it structure and context. It also contextualizes a feeling I’ve been having about this label, ‘person/people of color’, as something less inclusive and more a polite, evasive descriptor for Blackness, without having to say it.
Reading this quote in and alongside the article in which it is featured, I realized I had a severe misunderstanding of the term ‘person/people of color’. It was disorienting to learn that the label only applied to Black people, and not to any non-white person or group. It did not apply to the ‘and Brown’ portion of the new 21st-century lexicon centered on inclusivity. More than that, I realized it is likely a majority of non-white people do not consider themselves a person of color, and that the term itself has not been modified for solidarity purposes, but retains its original purpose as a term exclusive to African slaves and their descendants (or ‘colored people’ for the 21st Century).
It’s good that this elucidation comes through the interchange between a novel about race and class from an author who is Asian-American, and a television show adaptation helmed by a white showrunner, Liz Tigelaar. In wanting to talk about people of color, race, and class, but being limited by perspective, Ng sees that race and class are synecdoches for Blackness and white privilege, or whiteness. If the opposite were true, then it would occur to her that her identity as an Asian-American also puts her outside the white majority, that her own hyphenate experience can be used to explore the tensions…