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Bezi Yohannes

The Trouble With “Non-White”: Passing, Power, and Complicity in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s Trouble the Saints

My Blackness has always felt a bit like playing catch-up. Growing up in sheltered suburban spaces and a mostly white private school, I was aware of being “non-white” long before I understood Blackness. All of the “non-white” kids existed in an uneasy collective. Some of us were friends; many lashed out at each other, resentful that we were lumped together—resentful that “non-white” defined us by what we were not.

My immigrant parents encouraged me to assimilate, but assimilation wasn’t enough. Twelve years of flat ironing my hair went to internalizing white beauty standards. A decade of dedication to the white literary canon went to internalizing a white literary voice. Achieving what they called excellence could help me prove I wasn’t just their “Other.” I wanted self-empowerment within assimilation.

Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson takes an eerie and suspenseful noir approach to a long line of Black literature about passing and assimilation, most notably from 1920s novelist Nella Larsen up to recent releases like Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half.

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