Subjectivity and Objectivity in Junot Diaz’s Short Story “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl or Halfie”
Casey S. Torstenson
To address the question of subjectivity and objectivity in Junot Diaz’s “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie” is really to discuss a case where appearances are manipulated to the extent that objectivity becomes impossible. The story takes the guise of an instructional manual, purporting to offer advice as to how to act or behave depending upon the ethnicity and social class of the reader’s date. But if the true purpose of “dating” is to achieve not only physical, but emotional intimacy—that is, to truly begin to know the person one is courting (and vice versa)—then the advice of the story becomes counter-productive. This then becomes the central irony and driving force of the story. The potential for either participant to know the other, objectively, becomes impossible as Diaz instructs the reader (an assumed male) to pile layer upon layer of subjective façades onto his interactions, masking his history, social status, and even racial characteristics in hopes of manipulating the situation at the expense of emotional intimacy (in the sense of the participants knowing each other’s true selves). Likewise, by highlighting the extent to which a person’s own expectations of another human being are determined by his or her subjective generalizations about a person’s race or class, Diaz demonstrates that while we control the other’s perception of us, our perceptions of others also control us.
By the second paragraph of the story, its role as a primer becomes clear as the narrator instructs the reader to mask his social class by hiding the “government cheese” in the refrigerator (143). But even this is not a simple action, since the girl/date’s social class will determine how well the cheese will have to be hidden. This introduces the central theme of the story—that the intended reader must act differently depending upon the race and social class of the person he is courting. Thus, Diaz’s instructions fly in the face of the age old, objective, parental wisdom of “just be yourself” and highlight the way in which race/class constructs and expectations make such advice impossible to heed. This is further evidenced by the narrator’s instructions that the reader hide elements of his history and racial background: “take down any embarrassing photos of your family,” “Hide the pictures of yourself with an Afro,” (143) and “Run a hand through your hair like the whiteboys do even though the only thing that runs easily through your hair is Africa” (145). To follow the advice of this story will, in all likelihood, get the follower closer to some form of physical intimacy, but this intimacy will be the result of a carefully manipulated subjective impression he creates for his date, rather than the more inherent and objective truths of who he truly is.
But Diaz does not confine his analysis solely to the ways in which the girl’s race and class should determine the behavior of her date (the “you” of the story). It also determines the girl’s behavior, or at least what the reader should expect of the girl. Diaz peppers his instructions with advice as to what to expect, such as “A halfie will tell you that her parents met in the movement” (146), “a local girl may have hips and a thick ass but she won’t be quick about letting you touch” and “A whitegirl might just give it up right then” (147). Thus Diaz highlights not only stereotypes and their potential for accuracy, but also the extent to which a person’s upbringing and race can determine his or her behavior. In doing so, Diaz emphasizes the way in which the social forces of race and class undercut both individuality and objectivity. If our actions are determined by the social influences put upon us by our race and class, where is there room for individuality? If our response to others is determined by race and social class, are we courting an individual or a racial/social archetype? To deal with another human being as a racial or social archetype rather than as an individual is to trade in stereotypes. The narrator’s advice is predicated upon his subjective experience of groups (race/class), rather than the consideration of each human being as an individual, possessed of unique responses and desires. He plays at presenting the reader with objective truths (If she is this, she will act this way) but if a reader looks beyond the authoritative tone, he or she can see that this advice is no doubt predicated upon the narrator’s subjective experience of these racial and social groups. This observation is further evidenced by Diaz’s inclusion of a moment where the narrator’s advice falters and breaks down in the face of a girl whose actions move beyond the realm of stereotype and into that of individuality: “She will cross her arms, say, I hate my tits. Stroke her hair but she will pull away. I don’t like anybody touching my hair, she will say. She will act like somebody you don’t know” (148). At this point, the girl is acting like someone the narrator does not know, someone who does not fit neatly into a racial stereotype. She is an individual, possessed of her own unique hang-ups and insecurities. She is a human being more than an archetype, and this confounds the advice of the narrator. This moment is Diaz’s reminder that we are all more than the categories into which we fit, and that no fit is perfect.
Therein lies one of the primary strengths of Diaz’s story: by highlighting the reduction of the individual to race and class characteristics, he forces the reader to question both the accuracy and the validity of such a reduction. Though the story couches all of its points under the pretext of sexual intimacy (ranging from a kiss to full on intercourse), it nonetheless forces the inquisitive reader to consider the ways one manipulates appearances in all social contexts and interactions and the way in which one’s own biases and expectations determine behavior.
Diaz, Junot. Drown. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.