The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas follows Starr, a sixteen-year-old Black girl living in two worlds. She attends an expensive and mostly White prep school, Williamson High School, while her family lives in the dangerous lower-class neighborhood, Garden Heights. Starr feels like she has two identities: Garden Starr, and Williamson High Starr. When her Black friend Khalil is shot and killed by a White cop and Starr is the only witness, she finds her identities clashing as she decides whether or not to speak out about what happened.
It’s a great read with memorable, vivacious characters, and hard to put down. It was also notably one of the most frequently challenged books in 2018. The reasons given for the challenges were fairly standard: sexual innuendos, drug references, profanity, things you can find in a lot of YA books. But what made this different from others on the list was because the book was deemed “anti-cop”.
I’m against censorship in general, while at the same time I understand its uses. I don’t think young children should be exposed to gratuitous images of sex and violence, or have the vocabulary of Deadpool. But I don’t like when ideas themselves are censored. Trying to ban a book because it has themes you don’t agree with doesn’t sit well with me. I think it’s insulting to readers that someone else will try to decide for them if they should or shouldn’t have access to a book, or if a reader is mature enough to handle the contents. It also makes me think that those who try to ban books don’t have faith in the people they’re trying to protect. It’s important to give adolescents opportunities to grapple with challenging material. Banning books denies teenagers a chance to engage with it, and limits their ability to learn and think critically about the issue at hand.
The Hate U Give certainly made me do some grappling with myself, starting with Starr’s two versions of herself. This isn’t something I’ve ever had to deal with personally. I have to change my behavior for the setting that I’m in – I don’t act like I do at home when I’m at work – but that’s something everyone has to do.
It made me think of my non-White friends, especially those who weren’t Christian and attended my Catholic high school. Did they feel like they were living in two different worlds? I wondered if I’ve ever said or did something to make them feel like that. I know I’ve said the wrong things in the past, and I’m sure I’ve committed many microaggressions without realizing it.
Other differences between my life and Starr’s life are made clear very quickly. In her narration, Starr says that Black kids get two versions of “The Talk”. First there’s the birds and the bees, and them there’s the cop talk: what to do if you’re stopped by a cop.
I want to tell you a bit about my hometown, so you can understand the attitudes I was taught about the police. I was born and raised in a small, conservative city that was part of the rust belt. Our main industry was our two prisons. Everyone I knew had at least one relative working in the prison system. This meant that many families of inmates came to live in my city, and many ex-cons stayed after they were released. From when I was growing up to graduating high school, crime increased. News stories about meth labs – and meth lab explosions – became commonplace. Shootings became a regular occurrence. The city that had always been regarded as safe was becoming scary.
Seeing that, we loved our cops. The police force budget was always a hot topic in mayoral elections. Hell, even our hockey team’s mascot is a police officer. If a cop was in my school, he was there to warn us about drugs and alcohol, as part of the DARE program. No resource officers, no metal detectors to worry about. I was always raised with the idea that cops are there to protect you. It stayed with me for a long time, even after I heard stories of police brutality and racial prejudice in the police force.
I’ve written, edited, and re-written this entry, because this is something that I still struggle with. To be totally honest, it took me a long time before I was able to figure out why “All Lives Matter” was a phrase my woke (for lack of a better word), liberal friends disapproved of. It was only after learning more about the mantra of “Black Lives Matter”, police brutality, and actually talking to my non-White friends about current events that I was able to figure it out.
I’ve heard of “The Talk” from Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots)” and in podcasts, but it’s something I never had to experience.
I hadn’t paid attention to the Trayvon Martin case when it happened. Part of my privilege, I understand now. But I did pay attention to Tamir Rice and Eric Garner, and watched Michael Brown’s murderer get acquitted on TV.
Then Freddie Gray. Philando Castile. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. It happened again. And again. It was hard for me to accept that the people who are supposed to protect us could be killers.
And if I ever got pulled over, I wouldn’t be shot based on the color of my skin.
This is where Starr’s story really begins: in a car with her friend Khalil, pulled over by a White cop. Khalil is shot and killed by the cop, and Starr witnesses the event. The story then follows Starr as she decides whether or not to talk – to the police, to the media, to her friends – about Khalil’s death. At the same time, she’s trying to live in a neighborhood ruled by gangs while navigating complicated friendships and romantic relationships.
After Khalil is killed, Starr doesn’t tell her prep school friends that she knew him. Her Garden friends, though, are frustrated by how Starr doesn’t want to talk about it. She doesn’t trust the police force to handle the investigation well. She does eventually agree to give the police a statement, because her uncle is a cop. She trusts him, if not the police force as a whole. Starr’s decision to talk the police, to give witness testimony, and to appear on a national news program about the killing are a major part of her internal conflict, and so much of that ties into her two different identities.
The people that Starr surrounds herself with factor in to which Starr she’s going to be. Most notably, there’s her Dad, Maverick.
I love how supportive Starr’s parents are. I’ve talked about how parents in YA novels are usually unimportant, out of the picture, or totally incompetent. In The Hate U Give, Starr’s family play a huge role in her story. They offer her advice, protection, and endless love when she needs it most. Maverick is a proud Black man, and understands how discrimination and prejudice affects him and his family. He’s a powerful figure throughout the book, that Starr and her brothers look up to.
There’s also her mother, Lisa, who supports Starr through the hardest times and offers Starr advice about a troubled friendship. She’s a momma bear, incredibly protective of her kids. Her marriage hasn’t always been perfect – Starr’s half-brother is the product of Maverick’s infidelity – but she is able to forgive him and set boundaries. That implies a depth of their relationship that you don’t often see in YA fiction. Lisa helps Starr navigate the aftermath of Khalil’s death, supporting her choices and advising her when she’s conflicted.
The book’s relatable in a lot of different ways, and it was definitely written from a teenager’s point of view. Starr and her friends quote vines, fangirl over Drake, and the book’s full of pop culture references. I have to wonder how well those references will hold up in years to come, like mentions of The Beatles and Elvis in The Outsiders, or the out-of-date maxi pads in older editions of Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.
One of the things that really struck me was the character Hailey. Hailey is one of Starr’s White friends from Williamson Prep, but they’re drifting apart before the book begins. It started with Hailey unfollowing Starr’s Tumblr after the latter posted a picture of Emmett Till.
Hailey drops some timeless classics when it comes to justifying racism. She tells Starr to pretend a basketball is fried chicken, and asks her Asian friend if her family eats cat at Thanksgiving. When she gets called out on it, her defense is, “it was just a joke! Why are you so sensitive?”
I’ve heard that one a lot, most recently when I heard someone say, “Ugh, Jews,” in reference to a Jewish person who’d missed a bill payment. money. A glance and a “Wow” from me, and the speaker immediately jumped to this. “It’s a joke!”
However, discerning students of comedy will note that (a) it’s wasn’t actually a joke, and (b) “jokes” like that are usually scratching the surface of a deeper held prejudice. Humor is a powerful tool. It helps make things that are ugly or scary palatable. We use humor to let out things that aren’t always socially acceptable to let out: fear, or self-esteem issues, or our prejudices. It’s a tactic I use a lot to deal with things that I’m worried about, or to defuse tension.
Hailey also drops a good, “it’s not about race”, another argument I’ve heard far too many times. Once, I heard someone absolutely livid over the story about two Black men being arrested at Starbucks…for the exact wrong reason. “You can’t go into a store and not buy anything! But they had to go and say it was all about race!”
Which is funny, because I can sit at coffee shop and wait for my friends to get there before I order anything, and miraculously not get arrested.
Hailey’s final insult comes when she says that Khalil deserved to be killed. She says Khalil was a “gangbanger” and drug dealer, and the cop did the world a favor by shooting him. This is a narrative that’s easy to get caught up in.
In Psychology, there’s something called cognitive dissonance, and it’s something you’ve probably experienced. In short, it’s when our behavior or values clash with new information. It’s an uncomfortable place to be, so we try to relieve some of that dissonance through changing our thoughts or behaviors.
I’ll give you an embarrassing example from my life, when a production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show came to my university. If you’ve never been to a live performance, you’re known as a “virgin”, and go through a ritual to pop your Rocky Horror cherry. I’d gone up onstage to get de-virginized, doing an embarrassing task with the other Rocky Horror virgins. I was so mortified, I didn’t have any fun at the show that night.
After, when anyone brought up Rocky Horror, I jumped in the conversation with a huge grin. “It was so much fun! I loved it!” I kept saying that, even though I did not enjoy the show. Why? Because I’d voluntary embarrassed myself in front of dozens of people. I needed to justify that somehow. I tried to make myself believe that my embarrassment wasn’t for nothing, and that I’d had a great time.
I bring this up because I want to think Hailey is experiencing cognitive dissonance when it comes to Khalil’s murder. If she was raised like I was, she probably grew up thinking that cops are heroes, not potential threats. The people who are supposed to protect us doesn’t fit with the notion that they can kill innocent people. It’s easier for Hailey, and many like her, to write Khalil off as criminal scum and nothing more. Hailey doesn’t know the desperate, sad circumstances that led Khalil to become a drug dealer. She just saw the end product.
I’m focusing on Hailey, probably a little too much, because I’ve been Hailey. Not just in terms of cognitive dissonance, but because I’ve made those “jokes” and those ignorant comments. Sometimes I’ve been justifiably called out on them; other times it’s been a longer process to figure things out. Everyone has implicit bias, but it’s not until we know we have them that we can change them.
This is a very in-depth look at a relatively small character, but the tension between Starr and Hailey is only one of the book’s conflicts. There’s Starr’s inner turmoil, family drama and the outside pressures from both of Starr’s worlds. There’s the King Lords, Garden Heights’s powerful and dangerous gang, the press, the cops…and a teenage girl trying to figure out where she stands in all this mess.
There’s a lot more I could say about this book. It’s well-written and gripping from start to finish, with memorable characters. It very much made me think of how my own privilege affects me every day, and helped open my eyes to both of Starr’s worlds. This is an important book, and all too reflective of current events. If you haven’t read it yet, do it.
Before I end this, I want to add that there are some ways to see your implicit biases without having to be called on it. Project Implicit has a number of Implicit Association Tests that you can take that may reveal your unconscious thoughts. Plus, they’re kind of fun to do.
I highly, highly recommend this book.
The best books are the ones that make you see the world a little differently. This is one of them.
Showing Up for Racial Justice
The National Bail Project
American Civil Liberties Union
NAACP Legal Defense Fund