Thomas’s book derives its title from the rapper Tupac Shakur’s philosophy of THUG LIFE—which purportedly stands for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody”—and it’s a motif the novel returns to a few times. The acronym tattooed across Tupac’s abdomen could be read as an embrace of a dangerous lifestyle. But, as Khalil explains to Starr, just minutes before the cop pulls them over, it’s really an indictment of systemic inequality and hostility: “What society gives us as youth, it bites them in the ass when we wild out.”
This question of appearance versus reality recurs throughout The Hate U Give. Starr, familiar with perceptions of her neighborhood, community, and herself, code-switches to adapt to her environment and others’ expectations. After the shooting, a new narrative—one that paints Khalil as a drug dealer threatening a cop—surfaces, but an emboldened Starr challenges this simplistic framing of her friend. The novel goes on to raise cogent and credible counter-arguments to the flattening narratives often presented by authorities and echoed by many media outlets in shooting cases involving young black males.
As a book written for teens, The Hate U Give reminds readers of just how often racialized violence is carried out against that age group (Michael Brown was 18 when he was killed; Trayvon Martin was 17; and not-yet teen Tamir Rice was 12). And it illustrates how young people of color who might speak out to defend their late friends are unfairly criticized, as happened to Rachel Jeantel when she testified against her friend Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman. Thomas’s novel keenly understands the dangers of defaulting to the cop/vigilante versus “thug” framing device: The deceased get put on trial, rather than their killers.
The Hate U Give has many of the markers of a typical young-adult novel, too: At times, Starr feels judged and out of place in school, she’s navigating a friendship with a “mean girl,” and is a year into her first real romantic relationship. But each of these plotlines is inevitably complicated by race. For example, Starr hides her white boyfriend from her father. “I mean, anytime he finds out a black person is with a white person, suddenly something’s wrong with them,” Starr explains. “I don’t want him looking at me like that.” She’s wary, too, of sharing her role in the investigation at school because she doesn’t trust one of her closest friends to be sympathetic to her situation, and she feels self-conscious about the easy stereotyping of her neighborhood as “the ghetto.”
Thomas’s intimate writing style and the novel’s first-person perspective taps fully into Starr’s shock, pain, and outrage during the shooting and its aftermath. As a result, The Hate U Give allows some readers to see the complexity of their lives mirrored in literature; for others who may be removed from Starr’s experience or haven’t lived through similar tragedies, it can help generate deeper understanding.