Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 824
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The racial prejudice and hostility shown in the story appears to be the product of historical circumstances combined with the current reality of racial segregation. The first noticeable fact in the story is that the Brownie troops at the summer camp appear to be either all-white or all-black. No mixed-race troop is presented. It also transpires that in the Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in the south suburbs of Atlanta, there is only one white child, a boy named Dennis. For all intents and purposes, the black girls in the story have been raised in a racially segregated environment. This is confirmed by the remark of Laurel: “When you lived in the south suburbs of Atlanta, it was easy to forget about whites. Whites were like those baby pigeons: real and existing, but rarely seen or thought about.”
Because they have had so little contact with whites, the black girls are extremely conscious of the differences between themselves and the white girls. Many of these differences are purely imaginary: “Man, did you smell them?” asks Arnetta of the other girls in her troop after they first see the white girls of Troop 909. For the black girls, the term Caucasian is an all-purpose, humorous term of abuse that can be applied in almost any situation: “If you ate too fast you ate like a Caucasian, if you ate too slow you ate like a Caucasian.” It is because the black girls are so used to living in a racially segregated environment, in which they may catch only momentary sight of white people in places like clothing stores or the downtown library, that Arnetta regards the white girls as “invaders.”
Indeed, until the confrontation in the restrooms, Laurel, Arnetta, and their friends do not even see the white girls at the camp at close quarters. The one thing they are able to see is that the white girls’ long straight hair looks like the shampoo commercials they have seen on television, and this difference alone is cause for “envy and hatred.” But they cannot see “whether their faces were the way all white girls appeared on TV—ponytailed and full of energy, bubbling over with love and money.” In other words, the black girls’ knowledge of whites comes not from direct experience but through the distorting, homogenizing lens of mass culture.
Given the extent of racial segregation, it is not surprising that the encounter between the black girls and the white girls should be full of misunderstandings. It is never established beyond doubt that any of the white girls actually used the racial insult, but even if they had, they would not have used it with the intention of offending the black girls. But this is not the whole story. If a white girl used the word, she must have heard it somewhere, possibly spoken in private by her parents or other white people. It is thus made clear that racial prejudice continues to exist in present-day Atlanta. This is confirmed by Arnetta in the bus returning from the camp, when she reports on her experience at the mall in Buckhead. (Buckhead is an extremely affluent area in the northern part of Atlanta, known as a shopping mecca for the entire South.) While Arnetta was there with her family, she says, “this white lady just kept looking at us. I mean, like we were foreign or something. Like we were from China.” It appears that there are still places in Atlanta where black people are perceived as not belonging.
The story Laurel tells on the bus illustrates the depths of resentment that black people feel over such slights. Her father feels his resentments keenly, and that is why he asks the Mennonite family to paint his porch for free, so he can for once feel himself to be in a position of superiority over whites. Laurel now understands why her father did this: “When you’ve been made to feel bad for so long, you jump at the chance to do it to others.” This is a great moment of realization for Laurel. She is mature enough to realize that she does not agree with her father’s motivation, but she also learns that “there is something mean in the world” that she cannot stop, something that makes people dislike those who are different from themselves and also makes those who suffer discrimination harbor grudges and try to settle old scores whenever opportunity presents itself. The sad thing that Laurel realizes is that the kind act of the Mennonite family did nothing to heal the situation or remove past pain, since her father refused to thank the family for the work they had done. It is to Laurel’s credit that she does not indulge in racist thoughts of her own to explain such sad incidents. She appears to attribute the painful reality to human nature rather than to one specific racial group.