White vs. Non-White Narrator
Comparing the White vs. Nonwhite Narrator: A Case of Three Stories
Unfortunately, race is still a huge part of how we interact with each other. No matter how hard we try to deny it, racism is still prevalent in our society. This makes us have different perspectives on life and other races. In the three stories, "Brownies by ZZ Packer, "Sharing" by John Edgar Wideman, and "Along the Frontage Road" by Michael Chabon, there are non-white and white narrators with both commonalities and major differences. The three stories show that these two races do actually share a lot in common, their ignorance for each other and a strange sense of defensiveness they have when interacting with other races; yet, they also share differences in the idea of who they view as the more limited party in regards to racial relations with the white narrator seeing themselves as limited, and vice versa.
In the short story "Brownies," by ZZ Packer, the non-white narrative shows clear defensive signs that place her at a disadvantage later on in the story. The story itself is about an African-American Girls Scout troop of Brownies who go away to a camp for one of their retreats. The story is narrated by a little girl named Laurel, who is herself African-American. The story opens with the description of Laurel's background, especially in regards to her knowledge of racism in the inner city at the time she was growing up. The girls attend Woodrow Wilson Elementary, a school with only one white student, a boy named Daniel. It is pretty much segregated, although it is kind of unclear to the reader whether that is by law or not. Regardless, it is obvious that the little girls in the Girl Scout Brownie troop have little contact with white individuals in their home environment. Thus, all the narrator knows is other African-Americans. This definitely becomes an issue once the little girls encounter people they are not familiar with.
On their trip, they come in contact with another Girl Scout troop, Troop #909. This troop is made up of entirely white little girls. The narrator clearly shows her own curiosity and ignorance of white people when she encounters the troop of white girls. Laurel describes them as having "complexions if ice cream" strawberry, vanilla," (Packer 1). Laurel clearly shows that she has had limited contact with white people before. She does not go to school with any but one boy, she does not have any white friends, and later in the story she shows that even her family has had limited contact with white people. The contact her family has had seems to be relatively negative, a stigma which has been passed down to her. Therefore, Laurel's description is not entirely innocent, even before the troop believes the white troop to be discussing them in racial slurs. Here, Laurel continues with her description, saying that the white girls smell "like wet Chihuahuas" (Packer 1). Automatically, one of the girls in troop is defensive. Arnetta, who is the leader of the troop, believes that she hears one of the white girls say a racial slur to her.
Once Arnetta convinces the other girls in the troop that she has heard the slur, they all begin to conspire against the girls in the white troop. This shows how rather than addressing the situation with some sort of dignity or respect, they automatically get defensive. They do not even approach the other girls to confront them on whether or not there was a racial slur uttered. Instead, the girls think of ways to get the other troop back. They finally decide on leaving "leaves and wads of chewing gum on the floor" in the camp bathroom" (Packer 13). It is a childish concept, but the fact that there is a non-white narrator makes it an interesting one as well. This is a clear defensive move. In the end, the girls find out that the other troop consists actually of a bunch of white girls with some mental issues. They are "delayed learners" with "special needs" (Packer 30). This leads Laurel and the other girls to feel bad about their plotting because they know better than the other girls.
However, the story also shows something else about the presence of a non-white narrator. It highlights the fact that the non-white narrator only has a limited perspective from which to draw on. The fact is, Laurel is limited in her own experiences because she is African-American during a highly racist time in the United States. Laurel is limited in her experiences because she has been segregated. She goes to a school with only one white student, but also has had limited contact with other white people. She has even had limited contact with the world outside of the large city. Here, Drema talks about all the stars the girls can see at the camp. She says, "Why are all the stars out here? I never see stars back on Oneida Street," (Packer 21). This shows how limited the girls are because they have been denied some basic elements of life outside the context of racism. They only know racism and hatred coming from their limited position within society. This leads them to be defensive, as stated earlier on, but it also places a negative tone to the voice of Laurel, the non-white narrator. She sees the world as having negative elements that she knows she can do nothing about because of her limited perspective. This is another element that tends to highlight the difference of having a non-white narrator, they provide a much darker sense of the world to the context of the story they are telling.
The second story here highlights a white narrator, bringing in the view of a white perspective. In John Edgar Wideman's story "Sharing," the white narrator encounters her African-American neighbor when he comes to his door to ask for mayonnaise. It is an encounter between two individuals who had never before taken the time to even acknowledge each other, much like the story from Packer. Here, the white narrator states that "for the first two years, every time we passed on the neighborhood streets, he managed to avoid my eyes" (Wideman 27). They are neighbors, yet something has always kept them apart. That something was their race. He is black and she is white, yet they share the same physical space and so have never learned anything from each other. This is the first time they speak. Yet, even the brief conversation did not lead the two to open up to each other. Rather, the narrator says "for the next two, there was an occasional nod or wave after both of us had figured out that we were going to be around for the long haul, not like lots of families, who seemed to come and go regularly as the seasons. For SALE signs sprouting on lawns each spring" (Wideman 27). This shows that even the white narrator comes from a limited perspective. She has also been limited to her exposure to African-Americans. When her neighbor addresses her as ma'am, she says "this ma'am reminds me of the way the only black man I ever saw inside my parents' house addressed my mother" (Wideman 33). It is clear that she is just as limited as the non-white narrator in "Brownies."
This limited perspective also leaves the image of the white narrator defensive as well. She is very unsure of African-American's motives, making the white narrator on edge about interacting with other races. Here, she says, "his reluctance to speak in our early encounters had convinced me he didn't like white people" (Wideman 27). She is confused because she has never really had encounters with an African-American. She is especially confused with the notion that her neighbor is married to a white woman, "if he loved his white wife, why would he stay mad at everybody like her?" (Wideman 27). This leads her to have some suspicions about his motives, although he has no reason to be doing anything suspicious. She automatically begins second guessing herself in the situation. The narrator becomes obsessive on how to talk to her neighbor or what his neighbor might know about him. It shows the narrator as an obsessive one, who is uneasy yet trying his hardest not to be racist herself. From her confusion comes a type of defensive attitude. This white narrator also shows clear signs of being defensive, although she has a sense of guilt about it. She thinks, "if he doesn't like white people, why is he living here in Fairwood, where just about everybody, if you don't count a handful of Asians, is white" (Wideman 29). Just like the concept of the non-white narrator, her limited contact leads to sense of having to be defensive when she finally encounters an African-American man. This essentially shows that the non-white and white narrators have a lot in common.…