Essentially, the story's ostensible subject of black-white racial tension serves to paper over its inclusion of racist descriptions that target other groups.
The first racist description comes when the narrator is describing the white troop leader's hair, which is "a severe pageboy hairdo of an ancient Egyptian" (Packer 10). The description might be acceptable if the narrator did not then go onto say that "she lay on a picnic blanket, sphinx-like, eating a banana" (Packer 10). Later on the narrator remarks at how "her Egyptian-style pageboy [flaps] against her cheeks" (Packer 22). While the lines are an effective piece of description, they are problematic when considered in the context of the narrator's other choice images, because they are part of a pattern of ethnic and racial essentialism; for example, a few lines later the narrator states that a girl's hair "hung down her back in two braids like a squaw's" (Packer 10).
The problem is that the narrator's descriptions are offered without criticism or commentary within the larger story of black-white racial tension, such that they appear entirely acceptable even though they participate in a long history of exploitation. The description of the troop leader's haircut ties Egypt and Egyptian people to the most prominent Western stereotype of Egypt, and the transition from "ancient Egyptian" to simply "Egyptian-style" serves to reproduce this stereotype by conflating the historical Egypt with Egypt as such. Similarly, the uncritical use of the term "squaw" means that the story is participating in the long history of colonialist oppression and racism against Native Americans, firstly by reproducing the language of the colonizer and secondly by essentiallizing the appearance of Native American women, suggesting that all Native American women wear (or wore) their hair in the same way. Saying that a girl's hair "hung down her back in two braids like a squaw's" is not meaningfully different from describing a girl's hair as styled in a way stereotypically associated with black people "like a nigger's," even if "squaw" is not generally regarded with the same automatic revulsion that "nigger" is greeted with in contemporary society.
Again, while one might be inclined to argue that this is the narrator's racism on display rather than the story's, this argument is less than convincing due to the pains the story takes to suggest that the narrator, and thus the reader, have learned some kind of valuable lesson about racism. When the story concludes with the narrator's recollection of a time her father exploited some Mennonites in order to enact his own racist fantasy, she remarks that she "suddenly knew there was something mean in the world that [she] could not stop" (Packer 28). Apparently this new-found awareness does not extend very far, however, because by the time the narrator is recalling the story, she manages to use the word "squaw" casually and without comment, and the imaginary, obvious "lesson" about not assuming things about other people only serves to cover up this casual racism.
Analyzing these three stories provides valuable insight into the way racist ideologies and stereotypes manage to reproduce themselves even in texts that purport to offer criticism of this very racism. Although they differ in their obviousness and the particular racist stereotypes they perpetuate, "Sharing," "Along the Frontage Road," and "Brownies" all manage to perpetuate racism while pretending to offer the reader a critical look at race and identity. In some ways this kind of subtle, subdued racism can be more destructive and pervasive than more blatant, obvious forms, and so it is crucial to point it out and condemn it wherever it appears, even if that means criticizing texts and writers more frequently lauded for their "enlightened" view of racism.
Chabon, Michael. "Along the Frontage Road." The Best American Short Stories. Ed. Sue Miller
and Katrina Kenison. New York:Mariner Books, 2002. 1-8.
Packer, ZZ. "Brownies." Drinking Coffee…