Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on literature. In this essay, he discusses “Brownies” in the context of modern racism in the United States.
“Brownies” is a story with a great deal of humor but a serious theme and purpose. No one who lives in the United States can be unaware that in the history of the nation, relations between black people and white people have been fraught with injustice and oppression. Although the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and later federal government policies, including equal opportunity laws and affirmative action, removed most of the egregious racist practices, racism continues to exist in the United States. This fact is plain from the story, not only in the words and actions of the little girls, but in a small but significant comment made by Laurel, the narrator, which gives a glimpse into the day-to-day world of the black girls’ parents in suburban Atlanta. Laurel states, “We had all been taught that adulthood was full of sorrow and pain, taxes and bills, dreaded work and dealings with whites, sickness and death.” There is an old saying that the two inevitable things in life are death and taxes, but these young girls have also learned that “dealings with whites” must be added to those unpleasant realities.
In addition to the theme of racial prejudice, ‘Brownies’ makes another serious point. It shows the power of group thinking and the pressure to go along with the actions of the group to which one belongs, even against one's wishes and better judgment.
Modern racism, according to James Waller in Face to Face, is more insidious, subtle, and covert than the old racism. It manifests in negative, stereotypical, mistrustful attitudes that many whites have towards African Americans and other people of color. It is compounded by the fact that many whites believe that racism no longer exists in the United States, which makes them resistant to the demands by minorities for equal and fair treatment. Modern racism has measurable effects on quality of life indicators such as economic status and educational attainment, as well as self-esteem and general well being. According to Waller, the effects of such racism are “cumulative, draining, energy consuming, and, ultimately, life consuming.”
Racism is not confined to adults; it can also be found in young children. Research in the late 1990s and early 2000s has shown that children develop an awareness of racial categories and society’s established racial hierarchies at a very early age. Previously it had been believed that young children were color blind in this respect, with no awareness of racial differences or the meanings applied to them by adults. But Debra van Ausdale and Joe R. Feagin in The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism, using experimental data on fifty-eight preschool children from age three to six in an ethnically diverse urban day-care center, demonstrate how children of this age use awareness and knowledge of race in their social relationships. These children had already learned at an early age “the desirability of whiteness, of white identity and esteem”; they knew that “whiteness is privileged and darkness is not”; they had the ability to understand and use the power of racial insults to hurt other children and to reinforce the perceived superiority of whiteness over blackness. In some cases, white children had learned to exclude others from games based on racial identity, as with the four-year-old white girl who had been pulling a wagon across the floor and told an Asian girl that “Only white Americans can pull this wagon.” In another incident, a three-year-old white girl refused to let a three-year-old black boy get on a swing, telling him that...
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