Stereotypes in Recitatif

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Richardson 1

Dominise Richardson

Professor Kimberly Fain

English 132-12

November 19, 2019

Stereotypes in Recitatif

 Stereotyping is a big deal in our society, although you cannot judge a book by its cover. A short story written by a phenomenal woman named Toni Morrison called Recitatif tells a story of a difficult friendship between an African American girl and a Caucasian girl. However, Morrison doesn’t tell us who is black or white. Twyla has this stereotypical mindset about people of different races. Toni Morrison is a well-known author that won the Nobel peace prize in literature. (Morrison 1) This story is an example of a renowned American writer for her investigation of black experience within the black community. Morrison makes the readers identify their perceptions about the race through the character development of Roberta, Twyla, and the surrounding relationship. 

The short story is about two eight-year-old girls who met in an orphanage. At first, they did not get along, but they had no one else to make friends with; thus they eventually became friends. Both of their mothers had problems, and that is why they had to be brought to the orphanage. Twyla’s mother liked to ‘dance all night’ which probably indicates a love of party life, which led her to neglect her daughter. Roberta’s mother was also sick, although her sickness was not disclosed. At their young age, the children were very much aware of their different races. Twyla said that her mother would hardly approve of the situation of her sharing a room with Roberta, who happened to be “a girl from a whole other race.” (Morrison) The girls got to know each other, and they would spend a lot of time at the orchard. There were some older girls at the orphanage as well, and the younger girls were quite fascinated by them. The older girls would drink and smoke. One day, Twyla and Roberta’s mothers came to visit, and this is an excellent example of racism in the story. Roberta’s mother refused to shake Twyla’s mother’s hand because they were from different races (Goldstein-Shirley 102). 

Later, when the girls were all grown up, they happened to meet by chance. Twyla was working as a waitress, but to her surprise, Roberta barely acknowledged her. A few years later, they met again and resumed their friendship. However, race reared its ugly head when the city decided to transfer children from schools based on their color. At first, Twyla did not understand, but she later came to see the real issue at hand. The protests around the school issue put a new strain on Twyla and Roberta’s rekindled friendship. In the end, they made up. Twyla was confused when Roberta said that Maggie had been black because she never saw it like that (Sklar 137). Maggie’s racial identity remains ambiguous throughout the story. 

Stereotype plays an important role in this short story, as Roberta and Twyla are of different races. The girls Twyla and Roberta were brought together to stay at the orphanage because they both had issues with their moms. Twyla’s mother (Mary) danced all night while Roberta’s mom was ill. When they met, they didn’t know much about each other; however, they still did not get along. Mary tried to teach Twyla about the prejudiced of Roberta’s race. In the story, we learned while staying at the orphanage when they were younger, the two girls didn’t realize how much different how they would get treated when they got older. The story is quite confusing because Morrison does not reveal the racial identity of the characters, leaving readers to explore their own racial prejudices (Harris 107)

One example of stereotyping in the story is about hair. When it comes to issues of race, hair is one of the major things that people consider. When the girls first met, Mary told Twyla that people of Roberta’s race “never washed their hair and smelled funny.” (Morrison 201) From this statement, the reader is left to wonder what race Roberta belongs to. The textured African-American hair needs different care compared to Caucasian hair; thus the stereotype could apply either way. The two girls learned a lot of their stereotypes from their mothers. When the women came to visit their girls at the orphanage, the girls thought that the meeting would be good from them both. However, Roberta’s mother refused to shake hands with Twyla and moved away from them to the back of the line to the chapel. Roberta’s mother obviously thought condescendingly of Twyla and Mary based on their race.

When Twyla met Roberta after they were both married, she found out that Roberta lived in a wealthier neighborhood. Twyla thought to herself, “Easy, I thought. Everything is so easy for them. They think they own the world.” (Morrison 214) This is another example of stereotypes that suggest that one race tends to belong to a higher economic status than others. Twyla came to this conclusion after observing how well dressed Roberta was. At the end of the story, the two women argue about Maggie’s racial identity. While most people can look at a person and tell what race they belong to based on physical features, Morrison keeps readers guessing. Twyla remembers Maggie as white while Roberta says that Maggie was black (Morrison 225). This ambiguity suggests that stereotypes are formed in people’s minds, and most times, they do not relate to reality at all. 

Stereotyping is when someone labels another based on appearance or how they carry themselves without knowing who they are or where they come from. Every young or older person is labeled either positive or negative stereotypes. Many generations before us have manipulated how we think as a collective group. Simply from the way we look at each other when someone enters the room, or from conversations around us. Most of our actions are influenced by stereotypes. These actions are inherited from parents, learned from peers, and even influenced by social media, which has become embedded in our everyday lives. Stereotyping causes stress and anxiety. People get drained of getting judged and disparaged all the time, which makes people isolate themselves because they are afraid to say something wrong or viewed differently. For example, people are surprised to see men cry or show their emotions. People have the idea that men should not express themselves. This is an example of stereotypes and generalization from our society. Judging people on things that’s beyond their control should be stopped. We need to overlook the issue of race, color and other stereotypes and instead focus on who someone is on the inside. 

Recitatif is a story about stereotypes based mainly on race. Morrison never reveals the racial identity of the two girls, but readers can judge their own stereotypes when reading the story. The short story is set at a time when there was a lot of racial awareness and segregation, but the characters in the story could belong to any race. Many people are quick to judge others using stereotypes based on appearance, yet they do not take time to know the person. The day when Twyla and Roberta first met, Mary’s racial prejudice was apparent. Morrison does an excellent job of delving into stereotypes that are a big part of society. Based on their experiences and racial identity, readers are left to judge the identities of the characters. 


Works Cited

Goldstein-Shirley, David. “Race/[Gender]: Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif”.” Women on the Edge. Routledge, 2018. 97-110.

Harris, Trudier. “Watchers watching watchers: Positioning characters and readers in Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and Morrison’s “Recitatif”.” James Baldwin and Toni Morrison: Comparative Critical and Theoretical Essays. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2006. 103-120.

Morrison, Toni, and Doris Lessing. Recitatif. Difusión, Centro de Investigación y Publicaciones de Idiomas, 2010.

Sklar, Howard. “What the Hell Happened to Maggie?”: Stereotype, Sympathy, and Disability in Toni Morrison’s” Recitatif.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 5.2 (2011): 137-154.