The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, follows Starr as she navigates life—at home and at high school—after witnessing the murder of her friend Khalil, finding that every facet of her life is informed through race.
When her dad asks her to explain the significance of the phrase “The Hate U Give Little Infants F—s Everybody” (the meaning that Tupac gave to the term “Thug Life” and the source from which the title of Thomas’s novel takes its name), Starr responds that the phrase is about “us.” With her dad’s promptings, Starr expands upon this idea:
“Black people, minorities, poor people. Everybody at the bottom of the society. […] We’re the ones who get the short end of the stick, but we’re the ones they fear the most. That’s why the government targeted Black Panthers, right? Because they were scared of the Panthers?”1
While Thomas never directly addresses the reason behind this fear of minority groups, she does offer a number of inroads into the conversation. One explanation Thomas hints at can be seen in the subplot regarding the dissolving friendship between Starr and Hailey.
At the beginning of the novel, Starr identifies a growing rift in her relationship with Hailey—a popular, white girl at her school who has, for years, been the clear leader of Starr’s friend group.
As the novel progresses, Starr is continuously disappointed and shocked by Hailey’s behavior: unfollowing Starr’s Tumblr that features images of Emmett Till’s beaten body, refusing to apologize for racist comments she’s made (insisting that they are merely misunderstood jokes), sympathizing with the police officer who shot and killed Khalil, and then using the protest of Khalil’s death merely as an excuse to get out of class.
When Hailey finally does apologize to Starr near the novel’s close, Starr isn’t satisfied with a simple “sorry.” Responding to Hailey’s text, Starr writes, “Sorry for what?”
Hailey replies, “About the decision […] And that you’re upset with me. Haven’t been myself lately. Just want everything to be how it used to be.”
Starr mulls over these words, admitting that she’d hoped Hailey would change, but concluding that she hasn’t. In her last text to Hailey, Starr writes, “Things will never be the way they used to be” (Thomas, 433).
Hailey’s rejected apology provides excellent insight into the fear that Thomas mentioned earlier in the novel. This is not so much hypostatization as it is an instance of following the actual trajectory of the subplot. In this trajectory, Hailey betrays her fear of change in expressing her desire to see everything go back “to how it used to be.” Thus, Hailey is afraid of the truths that she has to confront – that she is racist, that she is privileged, and that she has enacted a serious injustice towards her friends. Unable to accept these facts, Hailey seems most afraid of the impending call that she needs to change. Is this why the novel’s conclusion sees Hailey attempting—in an act of desperation—to bring back her semblance of “normal” – the way things used to be?
Starr, however, has changed. Over the course of novel, she’s become an informed and outspoken activist. She is aware of the injustices that surround her, and she is unwilling to go back. And, on top of all this, she is ready for more change.
Hailey’s tragedy is that while she learns to be sorry, she hasn’t learned what to be sorry for. This reveals that she hasn’t really learned anything at all.
One of the main themes of Thomas’s novel is that social change takes work; it isn’t easy, and while Hailey fears this, it is the very thing that drives Starr.
In a recent blog post, New York Times bestselling author Luvvie Ajayi echoes this call to action:
White people, I’m talking to you. THIS. IS. YOUR. PROBLEM. TO. FIX. Y’all got some work to do, because this system that y’all keep on privileging from, you’ve got to help us dismantle it.2
The article from which this excerpt is taken goes on to outline a list of ways that white people—privileged in a situation of institutionalized racism—can help in bringing about change. It starts with listening to and amplifying the voices of black and brown people.
While this seems like an excellent first step, Thomas offers an even simpler approach. Responding to an interview question about the main message that Thomas wants readers to take away from her novel, she replied simply, saying, “[E]mpathy is more powerful than sympathy.” 3