“Our pride is our survival and the white wounded ego does not get to ooze over our excellence anymore”: Redefining identity development for minorities Analyzing Sour Heart and The Hate U Give’s insight on identity development within Chinese-American and African-American communities By: Preeti Merchant and Sarah Kline
A common theme among coming-of-age narratives is the exploration of identity by the protagonists as characterized by the growth from adolescence to adulthood. Sour Heart is a collection of short stories written by Jenny Zhang from the perspective of different Chinese-American girls. In the book, Zhang details the struggles of girls defining their identities amongst the pressures of racism, their dual personas as immigrants and Americans, and the overarching obstacles of female adolescence. The Hate U Give is the debut novel by Angie Thomas that was recently adapted into a film. It tells the story of Starr Carter, an African-American female teenager who witnesses the fatal shooting of her innocent friend at the hands of a white police officer. The worlds of her poor, black neighborhood and her privileged white private school collide as she learns to find her voice. Each protagonist in Sour Heart and The Hate U Give experience a degree of identity dysphoria throughout their stories. Due to the juxtaposition of their lives at home and lives at school, the female protagonists struggle with developing a sense of identity as their changing environments are plagued with racism, the presence of differing cultural backgrounds, and different uses of languages and dialects.
Starr from The Hate U Give and the protagonists from Sour Heart often find themselves alienated from their communities due to their race. As a result, these characters debate within themselves on how crucial their race is to their identity. In Sour Heart, a narrator named Christina emphasizes the divide between the white population and the Chinese as she explains that a family acquaintance works hard “to deliver Chinese food to rich white people who hated us but loved our food” (Zhang 35). Although Christina is a child during the story, she can already pinpoint the prejudice against her culture. Zhang emphasizes this seclusion from white society again in the story “My Days and Nights of Terror.” Mande, the speaker in this chapter, relates that her parents “had to have names that were pronounceable to white American English speakers because they already had faces that were considered vile to look at” (Zhang 212). This type of racism causes Mande to view her Chinese side as inferior because she witnesses her parents changing a part of themselves to fit into the white world. She now has a Chinese name and an American name, marking the transition from Chinese to Chinese-American. This also marks a point where Mande has the opportunity to redefine herself and whether she wants to assimilate to judgmental American culture, maintain her Chinese self, or fall somewhere in the middle.
Similarly, Starr is subjected to racial stereotypes in the film, The Hate U Give which establishes the theme of duality in identity. The Starr who resides in Garden Heights, a poor black neighborhood on the outskirts of the city is different from the Starr who attends the posh private school, Williamson Prep, in an affluent neighborhood, as shown in the picture below. At home, Starr is someone who loves her family and her community, but she believes that this cannot be the same Starr that attends Williamson Prep. The color of her skin subjects her to random police check ups, punitive looks from strangers, and threats of violence from neighborhood gangs. For instance, the movie begins with the unsettling conversation called the "Talk" where Starr's father, Maverick, explains to his children how to deal with police brutality. The habitual nature of the conversation exemplifies how common police brutality is in the lives of young African-American kids. At Williamson, Starr puts up a facade where she tries to stop all the preemptive thoughts that her color insinuates. By keeping her head down and altering her personality, “Williamson Starr doesn't give anyone a reason to call her ghetto." (Tillman Jr, 2018). Therefore, Starr is unable to find a version of herself that is universal across all environments. She feels uncomfortable acting the same in both places and her satisfaction with her identity decreases which is known as identity dysphoria. While protagonists in Sour Heart struggle with the expectations their altering identities offer whether it is at home or at school, Starr is conflicted with how her identity functions in different environments.
In addition to the effect of race on selfhood, the culture and history associated with each race also changes the speaker's self image. In Sour Heart, the Cultural Revolution is a driving force that causes the Chinese diaspora in America, but the young narrators do not fully comprehend this refuge. Their naivety to their diaspora displays a generation gap between their parents and themselves. As the narrators are the first in their families to grow up in America, they have no basis whether they should be more American or Chinese. For instance, most of the narrators have a strong attachment to their parents, but they cannot relate to them on a cultural level. On a road trip, Mande’s family listens to old Communist chants and “[her] parents sang along in the car, their voices so different from what [she] was used to- clear, booming, and deep” (Zhang 231). She is not familiar with this version of her family, people who still sing along to the nationalism that forced them to flee. Mande is quick to mimic her parents and sing along in hopes to connect with their Chinese background. Therefore, history, even if traumatic, plays a significant role in the development of a person.
In contrast to Mande and Zhang’s other characters, Starr knows what culture she belongs to, but she is afraid to publicize it. She loves her Garden Heights neighborhood because “[her] people are here” (Tillman Jr, 2018). However, the burdens of African-American stereotypes compel Starr to question if her identity of being black is worth being represented. For example, when she changes into her preppy school uniform, she keeps her Jordans on as a reminder of herself yet she hides every other visual indication of her neighborhood. When Starr’s friend, Khalil, gets shot, the media labels him as a drug dealer looking for trouble. Thus, Starr denies knowing him attempting to distance herself from this image of black youth, ashamed by this generalization of her people. In the Carter household, Maverick has trained his children to know the Black Panther Ten Point Program and view Malcolm X as their God and this upbringing influences Starr to reveal the truth about Khalil’s death. At one of her weakest points, Starr’s dad makes her recite Point Seven: “We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of black people” (Tillman Jr., 2018) which inspires her to stand up for what is right. In this moment, she escapes from her dissatisfaction with her identity because she finally takes pride in who she is and the culture her father raised her in. She goes even further to assert to her peers at Williamson Prep that “if you don’t see my blackness, you don’t see me” (Tillman Jr., 2018).
The exchange in personas for Starr and the young Chinese-American girls demonstrate the effect of language on the composure of each character and their development of identity. For Sour Heart, code-switching functions on a literal basis as Zhang transitions from writing in Chinese to English. Meanwhile, Starr alternates in her use of slang or African American Vernacular English (AAVE)- the sociolect. In an interview with the Literary Hub, Jenny Zhang describes the purpose Chinese text serves in Sour Heart. Zhang wanted to replicate how the young Chinese-American characters “see themselves and in the way that their loved ones experience them” (Zhang) which required the dialogue to be effortlessly incorporated into the text of the novel without being separated formally in any manner. Furthermore, she used the interlingual transition to build authenticity into her narrative as first-generation kids associate different mannerisms and personalities with the languages they switch between. For example, most of the girls in Sour Heart spend their early years learning Chinese alongside their parents or grandparents at home. Upon moving to the United States, they have to take ESL classes to polish their English before entering a traditional classroom setting, leading one character, Christina, to believe that "[she] was stupid again" (Zhang 13). Feeling uneducated in school despite succeeding in ESL year after year causes her to feel dissociated and inferior to her peers so she chooses to remain with her parents all day. Overtime, Christina identifies with the version of herself that is free to code-switch and exist carefree rather than the student who is subjected to annual torture for speech.
On the other hand, Starr switches between slang to formal English when she leaves her poorer neighborhood to her private school. Starr fears that using vernacular specific to African-Americans will diminish her into someone perceived as ill-mannered or less educated. She insists her drifts within the English language is essential to keeping her identities separate and functional. Although Starr wishes interlingual code-switching wasn’t necessary as “Williamson Starr doesn’t use slangif a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her ‘hood’” (Tillman Jr, 2018). During an interview with WBUR news station in Boston, Angie Thomas, the author of The Hate U Give, admits to code-switching herself when discussing the novel. She details how the shift from ebonics to standard English serves as a “survival tactic” for most African-Americans (Thomas). However, Starr’s cycle between identities breaks as she witnesses a crime tied to the color of her skin. Starr realizes the implications of her race and how she can no longer separate her language and race from her identity. For the rest of the film, Starr undergoes a journey to find her voice common to entire self rather than living through divided experiences.
In conclusion, the characters try to find themselves throughout the course of their stories despite racism, their different cultural backgrounds, and different usage of language as a marker of identity. Authors of minorities in America such as Zhang and Thomas are striving to write more stories to bring representation to their respective subgroups. As representation increases, the authors hope their narratives will include more storytelling rather than the pressures each minority face. Prior to publishing Sour Heart, Zhang wrote an essay with Buzzfeed and proclaims “I want to read more books by Chinese-Americans that are not bound by the trauma of white supremacy, immigration, and imperialism. I want to write books like that” (Zhang). Although Sour Heart uses these limitations to define the personalities of Chinese-American girls, Zhang changes the plot by detailing the normality of these girls’ lives. Thus, Zhang is able to emphasize that the conversation of Chinese-American communities in America is still restricted and needs to be continuously improved upon. On the other hand, The Hate U Give draws on people’s similarities in identity above race to give power to the unification of the American people rather than a focus on the differences that divide us. Starr and the girls in Sour Heart experience identity dysphoria due to the differences in their upbringing compared to others. However, each character develops self-confidence against the expectations of their socioeconomic status or race demonstrating how a someone has more depth beyond their ethnicity. The authors of these two novels push the conversation forward questioning why characters of minorities must be always be portrayed one-dimensionally or inauthentically in media.
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