As humans, we are naturally inclined- for a multitude of reasons- to create stereotypes about people who are different than us. Whether a stereotype is construed based on someone’s race, sexuality, socioeconomic class, etc., it is always demeaning because it is an unfair judgment of one’s personality that hinders the formation of positive relationships. In Toni Morrison’s short story Recitatif, many stereotypes are presented, but issues regarding racism are most dominant and cause conflict among the main characters.
The two main characters in Morrison’s story, named Roberta and Twyla, are immediately presented as being racially different- meaning one girl is white and one is black. The curious aspect of Recitatif is that Morrison never unveils which girl is of which race. A reoccurring theme in the work is the two girls defending their own races and experiencing racism, but the reader is never aware either girl’s racial/ethnic origin. This mystery is significant to the story’s overall message because neither white nor black character is portrayed as “dominant”. Instead, Morrison provides this work with a sense of racial ambiguity, which argues that racial distinctions are petty and lead to stereotypes, and therefore should not be a factor in her work. Because the readers are never aware of which main character is white and which is black, they are forced to focus on the overall tensions between races and are never inclined to feel biased towards one character based on the color of their skin.
The differences in race are developed in Recitatif via Roberta and Twyla defining their separate racial origins in opposition to the other girl’s race. In other words, the girls define themselves by highlighting the many ways in which they are different from one another. In this sense, neither girl is seen as “good” or “bad”- only distinctive and unique. One portrayal of the girls’ diverse personas is presented after years of them being apart, “We passed like strangers. A black girl and a white girl meeting in a Howard Johnson’s on the road and having nothing to say. One in a blue and white triangle waitress hat- the other on the way to see Hendrix” (1003). The different ways in which the girls live and behave is meant to call attention to their different backgrounds. One cannot say that race is the only factor that sets the two girls apart, but it is the most significant. Morrison chooses to emphasize the girls’ races as their most distinctive qualities, and makes it seem like the underlying reason for all of their other differences. In other words, because the girls differ in race, they consequentially dress and behave differently. This idea that race causes numerous dissimilarities in character- no matter how small- is Morrison’s way of pointing out the ridiculous stigma that society holds regarding stereotypes of white and black people. One other instance when Roberta and Twyla are described as being unalike because of their separate races occurs as soon as the short story even begins, “One of the things she said is that they never washed their hair and they smelled funny. Roberta sure did. Smell funny, I mean” (996). Not only are the girls portrayed as having different outward appearances, they also are described as having different mental capacities, “We were eight years old and got F’s all the time. Me because I couldn’t remember what I read or what the teacher said. And Roberta because she couldn’t read at all and didn’t even listen to the teacher” (996). Morrison’s inclusion of the girls’ variances in mental processes further develops the story’s argument that society expects two girls of different races to be unequally intelligent. Although the reader does not know which race is supposed to be “smarter”, Morrison acknowledges a common societal expectation that one race must be superior to another. Overall, Recitatif addresses the topic of stereotypes associated with race by proving that humanity expects two girls of different racial origins to be different from one another, yet Morrison challenges her readers by never showing favoritism for one particular race.