Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Hate U Give explores the relationship between race and identity as Starr struggles to navigate the primarily black world of Garden Heights and the primarily white world of Williamson Prep. Starr feels pulled between her Garden Heights self and Williamson Prep self, and she switches her speech, mannerisms, and behaviors to fit whichever circumstance she finds herself in. After Khalil’s shooting, Starr is reluctant to speak about his death for fear that her friends, Hailey and Maya, and boyfriend, Chris, will not understand everything that happens in her Garden Heights world. Starr feels simultaneously “too black” to talk about Khalil’s life and death with her school peers, but “too white” at home to stand up for Khalil, especially after Kenya accuses Starr of acting like a white person who thinks herself better than her neighbors.
Starr’s identity conflict is evident in her father figures, Maverick and Uncle Carlos, who have different perspectives on authentic blackness. Maverick draws inspiration from the Black Power Movement and believes in a self-reliant blackness that uses existing structures within black neighborhoods to improve conditions. Maverick’s philosophy explains why, throughout most of the novel, Maverick refuses to move his family from Garden Heights to a safer neighborhood—he believes they should change their community from the inside. Uncle Carlos, with his job as a police officer and house in a gated community, represents assimilation into white culture. Uncle Carlos believes that he can support black communities by using white organizations like the police force to combat gang violence. The constant argument between Maverick and Uncle Carlos highlights how difficult it is for Starr to reconcile her two worlds and find a way to honor her whole self.
The Hate U Give examines the way society uses stereotypes of black people to justify violence and racism against them. These stereotypes protect white communities, such as the students at Starr’s school, Williamson Prep, from reflecting upon systemic racism, which perpetuates discrimination. We see this prejudice most clearly in how One-Fifteen defends his murder of Khalil. One-Fifteen has no reason to think Khalil’s hairbrush is actually a gun other than One-Fifteen’s presumption that Khalil is violent because he is black. However, the news media and many white characters endorse One-Fifteen’s version of events because by protecting him, they protect law enforcement from accusations of racism. Uncle Carlos, Starr’s black uncle on the same police force as One-Fifteen, also initially defends One-Fifteen’s actions before realizing he wrongly tried to justify the shooting of Khalil. The media works to disguise the racism in One-Fifteen’s actions by portraying them as logical and hence justified. For example, news coverage emphasizes Khalil’s alleged gang connections, perpetuating stereotypes of black boys as violent and dangerous. Upon hearing these reports, Hailey, Starr’s Williamson Prep friend, concludes that Khalil was nothing more than a thug. The media circus surrounding Khalil’s death demonstrates how white media prioritizes protecting law enforcement and perpetuating stereotypes over black lives.
Underlying the traumatic events of The Hate U Give is the cyclical nature of racialized poverty, which Maverick explains to Starr during their conversation about Tupac’s phrase “Thug Life.” According to Tupac, widespread racism keeps black communities from the opportunities and resources needed for financial prosperity, and poverty feeds on itself, affecting generations of black families. This cycle entraps many of The Hate U Give’s black characters into a situation where they cannot escape poverty without relying on the drug trade, which is then used to devalue them as people in both life and death. Maverick himself was born to a drug dealer and joined a gang to create some sense of security. Due to the burdens created by poverty, Khalil sold drugs to pay off his mother’s debt. DeVante explains to Starr—who is initially confused as to how Khalil could sell the same drugs ruining his mother’s life—that Khalil felt pressured to provide for his family and couldn’t find a better alternative. Through Starr’s deepening understanding of racialized poverty, we see how this intergenerational cycle is difficult to break because black communities, like Garden Heights, do not have adequate access to resources such as education, employment, and protection from police brutality.