It slips off my tongue— dis nigga—fresh out the breath. Issa Dee from Insecure did a messy thing, and my last nerve has been plucked. Something is different here—something de-gentrified so to speak. If my mind was an unseasoned barbecue chicken, it’s now a rotisserie jerk cookout (there’s a difference). And I’m ready to do a seven-step handshake, be unbothered, and talk that good shit. This is time to code-switch.
It’s a moment I remember so well when I watch George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give, adapted by Audrey Wells from Angie Thomas’ book of the same name. In it, we’re given two Starr Carters (Amandla Stenberg). The Starr that was raised and born in a fictional and poor Garden Heights with her immediate family. And the Starr that attends the predominantly white private school, Williamson prep with her younger brother. In the latter world she’s agreeable and submissive in that non-aggressive, quiet, not-as-black sort of way. In the other, she’s louder and carries a slang that’s homegrown. Change happens while getting a ride home by a longtime friend in her former setting, a cop pulls them over and she witnesses her friend get shot for grabbing a hairbrush that was mistaken for a gun.
What follows is a #BlackLivesMatter blueprint for film, but with an interesting side-note—her white friends notice the pissy change in Starr at the mention of #AllLivesMatter among other slights. Starr is no longer the Starr-lite that would allow this. She’s been hiding a version of herself, and as a film, The Hate U Give does well in underscoring the harm that we as people of colour do to ourselves in our constant efforts to assimilate.
Now on one hand, code-switching is one of the more interesting parts of existing as a person of colour—that carefully curated behavior and pressure to be multilingual. Ebonics, King’s English, slang, Gucci Mane—we’re well-versed in all dialects and messages of white-on-black camo. But this naturally makes us attuned to the languages of racism and race as well—a gift of translation we keep pocketed for pleasant relations’ sake. Yes, we instantly know what “Make America Great Again” is meant to convey. Yes, we know what an #AllLivesMatter name-drop truly means. And yes, we understand the deep-seated origins of a “harmless” race joke. Our verbal sensitivity—performed and taught by us, is a matured and fine-tuned tool, but when overused, it can imply white as the only thing deserving of being right. That presents a problem.
As Starr cycles through her divided teen experience, from attending block parties, to playing on the private school basketball team, we spot these subtle moments of a mind at work. One student passes her in the hallway with some black-ish vernacular, “those kicks are lit!” to which she smiles before her straightened face. In another, she’s in a locker room with her white girlfriends clearly attempting some bootleg version ebonics. She steadily force-laughs her way to a sly eye-roll. The series of moments in this white space are all shot with an intentionally dull colour palette, as if to imply that she lost a part of herself in her refusal to disrupt that whole single-toned world of hers. Unlike so many inclusions of black folks in white spaces, The Hate U Give makes it impossible not to notice this performance.
When Starr first witnesses injustice directly tied to her skin colour, it rocks her world from a balanced axis. The realities of her race become hard to adjust to without offsetting the world she hid it from. She can no longer collaborate with the “colourblind” bullshit. And in one moment, best friend Hailey yells at Starr during basketball practice for running too slow, “just pretend the ball is some fried chicken,” she jokes, putting Starr in the position of being ready to snatch a blonde tail in ways she never thought to do. It’s a balance that I’ve been guilty of attempting to hold myself.
Most of us understand those moments of letting someone flaunt caucastic ignorance in our presence. Like the guy in my case that would always give me awkward daps, spring ebonics in my direction and crown me as one of the cool niggas because I let him brandish the “nigga” without the sharp “-er”. My mission was to avoid conflict and run from the image I was perceived to be a part of. I wanted him to feel a comfort as I sacrificed my own—never truly considering that I was his only black association. The receipts already state that most white Americans don’t have a close black friend. And like Starr and her whole double agent approach, I was the black model for this one guy—the one he could touch and hear within an eye/ear shot. I was more than some likeness from a distance, I was a physical presence that sanctioned all his bullshit.
The talking point that The Hate U Give paints so well is in the way that we inadvertently tell those without our experiences and concerns that white experiences and concerns take precedent. It’s witnessed through the attitudes of Starr and her friends before and after her ownership of self. They don’t recognize the same Starr that unintentionally invested stocks in their “white privilege” by allowing them to feel content. By minimizing her own identity, colour and inner protest, she had few rights to act surprised when the white dude with the one black girlfriend made the claim of being “colourblind,” like in the case of Starr’s husband.
I mean I get it, like Starr, this is a culturally specific world that we have to live in. Sometimes we have to subtract and adapt to survive. But there should be a limit. I want to live in a world where I didn’t have to minimize who I was just so I could empower the same bullshit that forces so many of us come head first with cultural roadblocks (too black, not white enough). It’s why a movie like The Hate U Give is so damn necessary, and it’s why I approach these topics unapologetically and sometimes walk with a strut. I’m black, it’s who I am, and no one should feel comfortable enough to forget that.
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