A popular argument splashed across social media feeds and bars and dinner tables is that “this is not about that.”
After Mike Brown was shot and left for dead in the street in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, half of America tripped over itself to say it was because he was not complying with police orders—not because he was black. When a New York senator proposed a bill that would ban people from using food stamps to buy steak and lobster, supporters insisted it was about avoiding abuse of the welfare system—not about deep-rooted discomfort with social services.
In other words, we do not like the suggestion that things might be about other things, particularly when those other things would force an admission that other people’s stories might be different—and harder—than our own.
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So to avoid that argument, and to be quite clear: Swing Time, Zadie Smith’s latest novel, is not about racial or economic inequality.
It is not about anything, per se. It is a novel and a work of art, and those needn’t be about anything other than the book’s narrative plot: Two half-black, half-white girls grow up together in Northwest London and grow apart. One, Tracey, is an innately talented dancer, but she was not born into the sort of existence that makes it easy for her to make a living from those talents. The other, the unnamed narrator, has the chance to go to university and become the personal assistant to a white pop star, a grueling job that nevertheless means she gets to travel the world and see how the one percent of the one percent live. The novel is an exploration of female friendship and black womanhood and personal growth and dance—a number of things that are not inequality, exactly. Because it’s not about that.
Except that inequality informs all of that.
Early on in the book, Tracey suggests that things are different—and harder—for her because her father is black, and in and out of jail. Tracey’s story is not about that—her father—but it is shaped by him. Just as it is shaped by the reality that her mother is raising a daughter on her own, and that her body develops differently than other girls’ bodies, and that her school system does not know what to do with her, and that she herself becomes a single mother. None of that is about racial or economic inequality, exactly—but it is intertwined with it.
The narrator’s pop star boss’s story is not about the reverse side of inequality—not exactly. But the pop star is able to pay people to work out every detail of her life and never tire (because she is tiring others). She can assume that because she made it out of Bendigo, Australia, everyone else can escape the confines of their hometowns and backgrounds, too. She can navigate the bureaucracy of an African country without getting to know much of anything about it, and open up a school for girls there without worrying what problems doing so might cause. None of that is about inequality, exactly—but neither is it free of it.
The narrator herself is torn between these two parts of her life. She has to leave her racially-mixed neighborhood—and her black mother, and her mother’s way of looking at the world—when she goes to university and out into the working world. She has to make professional compromises—has to support a white woman while she sets up a school in Africa that might do more harm than good, and has to watch her practice a performance that almost certainly constitutes cultural appropriation—even though, because of who she is, she knows better.
Even as she struggles, the narrator remains painfully aware of the ways that inequality shapes the world. “There is no case I can make,” the narrator confesses toward the end of the novel, “that will change the fact that I was her [Tracey’s] only witness, the only person who knows all that she has in her, all that’s been ignored and wasted, and yet I still left her back there, in the ranks of the unwitnessed, where you have to scream to get heard.”
And what abandoned Tracey in those ranks—and left her screaming and made her friend feel it was her fault—if not inequality?
Swing Time is a book well worth reading. It’s beautifully written, and Smith’s prose dances like her characters. She moves across decades and oceans to create characters who are neither heroes nor villains, but humans.
There are non-fiction books one can read that are explicitly about inequality, but this isn’t one of them. This isn’t about that.
Except that, yes, of course it is.