Racial Indoctrination for High School Students?
DISCLAIMER: THIS REVIEW IS NOT SANITIZED. This review reflects the language and tone of the book itself. I did not water down the content to make it easier to read. If this language is being used with our kids, parents and leaders should understand this, and should hear what they are hearing. If you find it offensive, imagine the impact such language will have (or may have already had) on your children.
The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, is a young-adult novel that can be found in many high-school classrooms today. The story follows the experience of Starr Carter, a sixteen-year-old girl who lives in the fictional inner-city neighborhood of Garden Heights. On the surface, the novel pulls back the curtain on some of the realities of inner-city life. Having spent most of my childhood in the inner city, I can attest the story does hit on some very valid issues.
But the novel doesn’t just tell a story. Through the narrative of Starr, Thomas presents a world in which black people and other minorities are oppressed at the hands of both white people and the police. This oppressor/oppressed dichotomy is a major theme in the critical social theories, including Critical Race Theory (CRT), and it is a major theme in The Hate U Give. In drawing the reader into Starr’s world, Thomas advances a CRT–fueled mindset, one that looks to potentially violent activism as the solution for the “hate,” or the oppression, forced on minorities by society.
The Setting and Story: Two Worlds
Garden Heights is a lower-socioeconomic area filled with gangs, drugs, drive-by shootings, alcohol, and many people just trying to survive—in other words, your typical ’hood. Even though Starr lives there, she doesn’t fit the “typical ’hood kid” mold. She’s from a decent, hard-working family; her father is an ex–gang member who runs a community grocery store, and her mother is a nurse who has conquered her own past challenges. Starr and her brothers also go to a private school across town, where their parents sent them after Starr’s best friend was killed in a drive-by shooting years before.
Starr finds herself caught between two worlds: that of her inner-city home, and that of Williamson Prep, her wealthy, predominantly white private school. Early in the story, she observes that “There are just some places where it’s not enough to be me. Either version of me.” (pg. 3) Thus, from the very beginning of The Hate U Give, Starr is looking for the place where she belongs. She doesn’t feel like she belongs with the ’hood crowd, though a part of her wants to; she watches them closely and learns to imitate them. She also doesn’t feel like she can be herself at Williamson Prep, where she plays up her learned character as a ‘hood kid:
“In Garden Heights, I learn how to be dope by watching. At Williamson, I put my learned dopeness on display. I’m not even that dope, but these white kids think I am and that goes a long way in high school politics.” (pg. 294?)
The novel’s opening scene is a ’hood party, which Starr has gone to alone, without her parents’ permission. She’s feeling nervous and out of place: “I’m not even sure I belong at this party.” She’s aware that she doesn’t look like any of the other girls there, who “wear their hair colored, curled, laid, and slayed. Got me feeling basic as hell with my ponytail.” (pg. 3) She tries to take a drink but spits it back out: “I knew there would be more than Hawaiian Punch in it, but this is way stronger than I’m used to. They shouldn’t even call it punch. Just straight-up liquor.” (pgs. 3-4)
She’s self-conscious and reflects on how she fits (or doesn’t fit) in to either of her worlds, and how she has to adopt a kind of double-consciousness to function in either:
“People glance over at me with that ‘who is this chick, standing against the wall by herself like an idiot?’ look. I slip my hands into my pockets. As long as I play it cool and keep to myself, I should be fine. The ironic thing is though, at Williamson I don’t have to ‘play it cool’—I’m cool by default because I’m one of the only black kids there. I have to earn coolness in Garden Heights, and that’s more difficult than buying retro Jordans on release day. Funny how it works with white kids though. It’s dope to be black until it’s hard to be black. (pg. 11)
Double-consciousness, as explained by W.E.B. DuBois, “a peculiar sensation, … [a] sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” It’s related to “code-switching,” or changing one’s behavior in order to blend in with the surrounding culture. Both of these experiences are common to many African Americans, and Starr is no different—only she must learn to adjust to both of her worlds in different ways. And she does: “Being two different people is so exhausting. I’ve taught myself to speak with two different voices and only say certain things around certain people. I’ve mastered it.” (p. 300)
Back at the party, Starr is talking with a childhood friend, Khalil, when shots break out. The novel makes this seem typical for a ’hood party: “Always some shit,” Khalil says. “Can’t have a party without somebody getting shot.” (pg. 16) Starr escapes with Khalil, who offers to drive her home. In the conversation between them that follows, she criticizes Khalil’s musical taste, and then he educates her about rapper Tupac’s term “T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E.” In doing so, we start to understand the title of the book:
“Pac said, ‘Thug Life stood for The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.’ The Hate U—the letter U—Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody. T-H-U-G L-I-F-E. Meaning what society give us as youth, it bites them in the ass when we wild out. Get it?” (pg. 17)
Moments later, sirens. They get pulled over by a white police officer. Kahlil acts a bit insolent when responding to the officer. (Note: insolence or impudence is not justify being killed.) When asked where he’s coming from he responds, “nunya,” and arrogantly asks why he was being pulled over. He didn’t get out of the car when initially asked by the officer, but he eventually cooperates, as ordered. When he reaches back into the car for a hairbrush, the officer thought he was grabbing a gun and shot him three times. Khalil died by the side of his car. This traumatizing event spurs the rest of the story, which follows Starr’s journey through her personal moments of fear, double-consciousness, regret, and a search for her identity—all while working to understand what it means to be black and to stand for social justice in a world positioned against black people.
Will Starr be a voice for justice against personal and institutional racism and police brutality in a white-dominant society? Or will she remain silent and safe, perpetuating the hate given to her by the society she was born into? These are some of the choices that Starr must make.
Oppression in The Hate U Give
Starr’s struggle to fit in is realistic and believable, and the world of Garden Heights has authentic and compelling details. But I believe the author’s objective reaches far beyond giving readers a view into the life and struggles of blacks in the inner city. Looking at the book’s major themes, I’m convinced that the author’s intentions are to perpetuate an oppressor/oppressed worldview and to encourage young people to engage in knee-jerk advocacy against the “oppressors.” As the story progresses, we are expected to join the characters in decrying racial injustice, even before evidence has been released. Doing anything less is seen as undeniably racist.
The book’s themes, and the basic foundational beliefs of Starr’s ’hood community, include the following:
Systemic black oppression is an ever-present reality in a white-dominant society, and the true cause of poverty, gangs, and drug abuse is the oppression, or “hate,” given to black people by society.
There is one black identity.
Blacks cannot trust the police.
When hate is fully manifest, activism is the way forward.
Other themes include double-consciousness and code-switching, whites’ emotional fragility, the normalization of sex and LGBTQ ideologies among teens. However, I will only look at the four listed above, and how the author uses them in Starr’s story to encourage readers to respond to a world in which blacks are oppressed by society.