Last post, I started looking at some of the connections between G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s Ms. Marvel and Tahereh Mafi’s A Very Large Expanse of Sea. Today, I want to continue looking at Mafi’s novel, focusing on some of the way that it highlights white privilege and whiteness. These moments occur most notably when Shirin points out that Ocean never had to think about any of the issues that she has encountered. These moments lead, at times, to centering Ocean in the text, calling out to white readers to engage with their own privilege and perspective.
From the outset of their relationship, Ocean works to get to know Shirin as a person, but the deep rooted perceptions that surround and inform his worldview make this difficult. For all of his genuine interest, he struggles to engage with her as a person and not as, as Shirin argues at certian points, an exotic figure that he will tire of in a few weeks. During their initial messages online, Ocean gropes through the conversation asking Shirin questions that mirrors Zoe’s and Josh’s questions to Kamala in Ms. Marvel. He asks her if her parents don’t allow her to do things after school. He asks her about her hijab.
As he does this, Shirin thinks about other guys who she’d encountered. She says, “I discovered–after a great deal of embarrassment–that it was more like they thought of me as a curiosity; an exotic specimen behind glass. They wanted only to observe me from a comfortable distance, not for me to exist in their lives in any permanent way.” Shirin fears that Ocean is like the other guys she has known. She fears he merely views her as “an object of fascination,” a curiosity, and Ocean’s initial gropings, coupled with her other experiences, play into this feeling.
However, as their relationship grows, Shirin continues to feel that Ocean is not genuine. She wonders when “his fascination would wear off” and he’d “[g]o back to his friends. Find a nice blond girlfriend.” In essence, she wonders when his whiteness will bring him back into the “American” image of himself and the world that exists around them, one where Shirin does not exist. Shirin keeps telling him that they have no future because she knows what will happen once they start dating. She knows the vilifying that will arise. She knows the violence and hatred they will each endure. Yet, they continue to grow closer.
Shirin knows how whiteness functions. She knows that whiteness does not get punished the same way that she does. After classmates see her and Ocean kiss in his car, she relates to the reader the full account of an attack on her after 9/11 that she mentions early in the novel. She details how the as a freshmen some guys in her school pinned her down as she walked home from school and were about to bash her head against the concrete. She says, “It had been a premeditated incident; someone had heard them talk, in class, about their plans to come after me, at tipped off Navid [Shirin’s brother].”
The cops showed up just in time to stop the guys from beating Shirin to death, and when the cops got out of the car, as Shirin sat on the curb shaking and scared, they merely told her attackers “to stop being stupid, and sent them home.” Navid kept yelling at the cops to arrest the guys, but they didn’t. Instead, they let them go. One of the cops approached Shirin and asked if she was ok, and he told her, “Listen . . . maybe you should reconsider this whole . . . getup. . . . Walking around like this all the time? . . . I’m sorry, kid, but it’s like you’re asking for it. Don’t make yourself a target.” The cop blamed Shirin, and rather than seeing her as a person, a victim of a violent hate crime, the cop chalks the white guys’ actions to the complicated world. This is whiteness on full display. Shirin gets blamed for the attack while the guys who beat her get away with it.
Ocean could have been one of those guys. He, as she puts it, “had this quintessential all-American look,” and if we think about Toni Morrison pointing out that American means white, then Ocean is whiteness. He is American in the same manner that Zoe is American in Ms. Marvel. The same way that the white guys who beat Shirin are American. This is important because Ocean does not have to face the same trauma, violence, and hatred that Shirin does. After Shirin rides to school with Ocean and they get out of the car holding hands, she tells him its a bad idea and he tells her, “We’re just two people holding hands. It’s not the end of the world.” At this, Shirin ponders what it’d be like to be inside Ocean’s brain, and she says, “I wondered how safe and normal a life he must’ve lived in order to say something like that, so casually, and really, truly, believe it.”
Shirin knows that as a white, “All-American,” athletic male Ocean did not have to think about her. He did not have to think about the way others viewed her. His whiteness, like the whiteness of the guys who beat her, protects him from ever imagining how she feels and from the attacks that others hurl at her. Once others see his connection with her, though, that naivety gets shattered, but the whiteness does not go away. When they get out of the car, someone throws a cinnamon roll at Shirin and when she goes to the bathroom to clean herself off, a girl comes in and snaps a picture of her without her scarf. Ocean attacks the guy who threw the food, and he only gets suspended.
Ocean’s coach and mother, when they find out about his relationship with Shirin, each corner her and try to get her to break up with him. This infuriated Ocean, and he gets into a fight with his coach at school, and was threatened with expulsion. However, his whiteness and his celebrity as the star basketball player protects him. In the end, “it turned out he was just too well-liked” to receive more than a mere suspension. Even though Ocean beat up his coach, his “all-American” good looks saved him. His star status on the basketball team saved him. His whiteness saved him.
Ocean’s whiteness created an invisible barrier that hindered him from seeing the suffering of those around him. After the cinnamon roll incident and Ocean’s coach and mother, Shirin states, “I tried to tell him that the bigots and the racists had always been there, and he said he’d honestly never seen them like this, that he never thought they could be like this, and I said yes, I know. I said that’s how privilege works.” Ocean never had to consider the racism and bigotry underneath the surface because it never affected him. He never encountered it.
All of this points to Ocean as the focal point of the novel, as the embodiment of the white reader. At the very end of the novel, as Shirin and her family move for yet another time, Ocean stands in the street as they drive away. She turns in her seat, looks back at him, and gets a text message. It reads, “don’t give up on me.” The novel ends with Shirin stating, “And I never did.” These last two lines point to the focus of Ocean’s journey as a central focal point of the novel. He represents the white reader who must confront their whiteness, who must acknowledge the invisible barrier between them and the rest of the world, who must ultimately confront their own white privilege. Of course, this is not the entirety of the novel, but as a white, male reader, it is what stands out to me, especially considering the last two lines of the novel.