The Hate U Give: A Meditation on Race, Class, and Code-Switching
By Keyanna Wigglesworth
When I was younger, passing my driver’s license test wasn’t the only thing I was worried about as a potentially new driver. As I was in the living room studying, my dad pulled up a chair to give me “the talk.” While it was not “the talk” about the birds and the bees, the conversation was equally important. He proceeded to tell me the precautions that so many Black parents inform their children of in order to protect them from the potentially fatal horrors of driving while Black: 1) expect to get unnecessarily pulled over by a cop at some point, 2) be as respectful as possible: address them as “sir” or “ma’am,” turn your music off, speak clearly and without emotion, 3) never reach for, grab, or even look in the direction of something in your car before telling the officer you are going to do so.
George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give (THUG) tells the story of how “the talk” becomes not just a rite of passage, but also a foreshadowing of one of the most tragic events in teen protagonist Starr Carter’s (Amandla Stenberg) life— the murder of her friend Khalil (Algee Smith) by a police officer. Considering the recent fervor behind social media campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo, it is affirming to see a film address police brutality— an issue that hits incredibly close to home for myself and countless others in the Black community, with a young Black woman at the helm. Despite the colorist undertones behind the casting of Stenberg, THUG manages to capture one of the most authentic cinematic depictions of being Black in America in recent years. From the co-opting of #BlackLivesMatter by hashtag-happy white people to her local news station’s attempt to criminalize Khalil instead of the cop who murdered him, this film portrays the full gamut of emotions and conflicts young Black people face in the aftermath of state-sanctioned racial violence.
Although THUG primarily focuses on how systemic racism, by way of America’s police state, forces Black people to alter their behavior to seem less threatening, the film also highlights similar methods used when dealing with casual racism from white people in everyday life. Starr putting her hands on the dashboard when pulled over and changing her colloquial response of “nah” to a more proper “no” when speaking with detectives are examples of the survival methods her father, Maverick (Russell Hornsby), taught her. Maverick can advise Starr on interactions with the police because of his experiences based on race. However, he cannot counsel her in the same way when it comes to adjacent demeaning encounters with her schoolmates because of his lack of experience due to class. In order to not be tokenized, and ultimately condemned, as the “stereotypical poor Black girl” at her predominantly white high school, Starr becomes the emotionally subdued “Starr Version Two” who “doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto.” While her white classmates speak to her in recycled AAVE, African American Vernacular English, and freely talk about beating people up to feel closer to what they believe is Black culture, Starr must code-switch by not using slang or even talking about her neighborhood to her boyfriend. Because Maverick has probably never been immersed in white upper-class environments, he cannot help Starr navigate these subtly racist social situations through code-switching— a common practice of shifting between different cultures through language.
Code-switching could be the difference between getting a job, building relationships, and ultimately leading your family to upward mobility. It is a code of conduct that people who split their lives between their poor and working-class backgrounds and privileged life prospects have to learn on their own. Much like Sorry to Bother You, THUG is a uniquely poignant contribution to this year’s canon of social justice-themed films in that it intimately shows how its characters are largely impacted by race and class.