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Caucasia Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

One of the central themes explored in this novel is how identity is constructed both socially and psychologically. Birdie is a girl who literally sees herself when she looks into her sister's face, partly because she sees evidence of her own "blackness," but the outside world will focus only on their differences. When Birdie is first enrolled in an all-black school with Cole, the other children are initially extremely hostile until Cole sets them straight: "Birdie isn't white. She's black. Just like me." Birdie still feels, however, that she is acting a part: "But I did feel different—more conscious of my body as a toy, and of the ways I could use it to disappear into the world around me." The novel is filled with words like "acting," "performance," "reinvention," "changing," "blending," and "shifting;" even as a child Birdie feels like a chameleon trying to take on the coloring of those around her so she can disappear. This is a skill which serves her well when she and her mother go into hiding and become Jesse and Sheila Goldman. As the novel will also make clear, however, an internalized sense of self is not necessarily the same as the self one sees in a mirror, and this ill-formed sense of self makes it extremely difficult for Birdie to really interact with her peers.

While many characteristics society uses to label race are arbitrary, Senna does not suggest that there are not physical differences between "black" and "white" bodies. Adolescence, in fact, is particularly difficult for Cole because Sandy does not understand the problems unique to a black daughter, and does not know how to deal with simple issues like Cole's skin and hair, and it is only with Carmen, her father's new black girlfriend, that Cole finds someone who understands her unique need for certain kinds of clothes or hairstyles. Carmen also wants to make sure that Birdie feels like she is not a part of her and Cole's intimacy: "Others before had made me see the differences between my sister and myself—the textures of our hair, the tints of our skin, the shape of our features. But Carmen was the one to make me feel that those things somehow mattered. To make me feel that the differences were deeper than skin." Birdie will go on to prove in New Hampshire, however, that similarities are also deeper than skin. As she tries to ignore the racist comments she hears from other teenagers and continues to collect objects for her Negrobilia box, Birdie slowly begins to realize that she cannot continue to pretend to be Jesse Goldman because it is negating her real self.

Again, this "real" self has everything to do with how Birdie feels, not how she looks. Caucasia destabilizes the very idea of "race," exploring the contradictions between a visible racial identity and a subjective one. When Sandy tries to defend...

(The entire section is 746 words.)