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It is for this reason that one could reasonably argue that Precious' entire life, and particularly the trials and tribulations she must endure, including her violent family life, her poverty, and her illiteracy, all ultimately stem from her racial and ethnic background, because the pervasive, institutional racial inequalities that still exist in America served to structure her entire life. Even before she began she was already disadvantaged by being born a black woman in the United States, because the United States maintains a system of social, economic, and political inequality that disproportionately impoverishes the black population. Thus, in broad strokes, one can say that all of the major events in Precious' life are a result of her ethnic background and the meaning American society places on that category of difference.
Perhaps more than any of the novels discussed here, Push manages to make the idea of difference as a form of social control permeate the entire story, because the particular dialect used by Precious as she narrates her story is a direct reflection of the practical, material effects of ethnic difference. Precious grew up in the neighborhood of Harlem and has spent her entire life there, to the point that she and her first baby recovered in the same hospital she was born in (Sapphire 12). She is functionally illiterate as a result of her school and family life, and this illiteracy is rendered explicitly in her narration. In this way, the general realization that Precious' life is the product of her historical context's treatment of race and ethnicity is rendered in the text of the novel itself, because her illiteracy is directly related to the reduced opportunities offered black Americans.
Precious herself is acutely aware of race and ethnicity, which makes perfect sense considering how fully it has structured her life; on this point, it seems worth highlighting the fact that the preeminent luxury afforded to those who enjoy white privilege in America is that race is something they are allowed to consider at will. Implicit in her early narration is a focus on the race or ethnicity of the adults around her, and it seems to anger her that the authority figures tend to be white (even if at this point she lacks the skills to accurately express this anger). For example, she notes that her teacher Mr. Wiener is "a skinny little white man," and she calls Mrs. Lichenstein a "white cunt box" in addition to referring to her "white bitch hands" (Sapphire 5, 7). When Precious points out the whiteness of these characters, she is doing so precisely because the difference is meaningful to her as a result of the institutionalized inequality in the United States. For her, whiteness in the early parts of the story is a sign that these people are different to the point of being alien.
In a similar way, Precious is acutely aware of her own blackness, but early on this awareness is still coded by the language of a category of difference provided by a white society. As a result, even as Precious views herself as black and even has some pride in it, she nevertheless connects that blackness to a kind of isolation and poverty: "This nurse slim butter-color woman. She lighter than some Spanish womens but I know she black. I can tell. it's something about being a nigger ain't color. This nurse same as me. A lot of black people with nurse cap or big car or light skin same as me but don't know it" (Sapphire 12). In addition to the word "nigger," Precious repeats other racist words and phrases in relation to black people, including calling her classmates "coons" and referring to how "some of the other natives get restless" (Sapphire 6). This internalization of a racist society's focus on racial and ethnic difference is one of the primary reasons behind Precious' despair, and she goes so far as to characterize herself as a "vampire sucking the system's blood. Ugly black grease to be wipe away" (Sapphire 34).
As Precious progresses through the story, she gradually begins to see the world through eyes unrestrained by the linguistic and conceptual blinders imposed by society's conception of ethnic and racial difference. By the end of the novel, she has made friends with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, and even finds herself attending an incest survivor support group (Sapphire 140). Where previously she described others first and foremost in terms of their racial or ethnic background, Precious has developed to the point where the race of a person does not tell her anything else about them; "white bitch" is replaced by "white women," and Precious recognizes that the racial or ethnic descriptor is actually not that descriptive at all (Sapphire 142) She stops caring about race and ethnicity at the moment that it stops being useful for her, and it stops being useful for her because she has given herself the opportunity to develop a new language of her own.
Soledad's journey in Soledad bears some similarities to Push, in that the main character hails from a predominantly non-white neighborhood of New York. In this case, the neighborhood is Washington Heights, and the instead of focusing on the meaning given to differences between black and white, the novel explores differences between white American and Latina culture as expressed in the conflict between Soledad's former neighborhood and her new home in the East Village. Thus, this exploration of ethnic difference occurs more subtly than in Push, because in the case of Soledad, the story begins with the central character having already removed herself from her ethnic and geographic background.
The novel lays out this conflict on the first page:
In some ways the travel and leisure fantasy continues because without trying I led my family to believe I left 164th street to live in the school dorms, which I kind of described to be more like high-rises, with a view of the East River and really great showers. For two years, they've had no idea. Every time I step inside my East Village walk-up on the corner of 6th and a, I feel guilty. [….] but if they knew the truth (and how much I am paying for it), they'd declare me insane and send my uncle Victor to tie me up on the hood of his Camaro and bring me back home, kicking and screaming. (Cruz 11)
This passage is instructive because it highlights many of the major themes of the novel while presenting the central conflict as a conflict between accepting one's ethnic background and rejecting it. In contrast to Precious, who accepts her ethnic background but accepts it within the confines of a limited vocabulary and available meaning, Soledad attempts to disavow her ethnic background in favor of a fictionalized identity.
At the beginning of the novel, Soledad is clearly ashamed of her ethnic background, and even makes excuses to justify her efforts at hiding it. One such excuse is particularly relevant because it helps demonstrate the extent to which Soledad has internalized certain negative stereotypes about her ethnic history even as she believes she is combating those stereotypes. When discussing how she relates where she is from to other people, Soledad states that:
Because I knew that people associated what they saw on the news with the place I grew up in -- a war zone filled with cop killers, killer cops, crack dealers, gang members and lazy welfare mothers -- I convinced myself that embroidering the truth about my living on the Upper Upper West Side was my way of keeping nasty stereotypes of Washington Heights out of people's minds. (Cruz 12)
Ironically, by attempting to keep "nasty stereotypes" out of people's minds, Soledad is actually helping perpetuate those stereotypes by ensuring that no positive associations with Washington Heights emerge. Soledad, having accepted the terms for discussing ethnic difference given to her by society, including "what they saw on the news," internalizes the negative stereotypes about her own home neighborhood and ends up working as part of the larger social forces perpetuating those stereotypes.
Of course, Soledad is at least partially aware of this fact, which why she feels guilty about her new neighborhood and worries about being "a blanquita […]: a sellout, a wannabe white girl" (Cruz 12-13). She is essentially a wannabe white girl, having given up any explicit identification with her ethnic past and instead focused on integrating herself into a bohemian, artistic, and, like most privileged circles, predominantly white culture. This fictional experience mirrors empirical research on the children of Latin American immigrants, which has shown that "the second generation's identities are likely to differ greatly from their parents," to the point that conflicts arise when this second generation attempts to establish purely American or "hyphenated" identities (Feliciano 136). The rest of the novel, then, is a process of Soledad coming to terms with her ethnic history,…[continue]
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