Social Stratifications and Racial Presumptions in “After You, My Dear Alphonse”
“Racism is not about how you look, it’s about how people assign meaning to how you look.” (Robin Kelley, an American History Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles)
People tend to judge each other based on social constructions that society has subconsciously implemented. Race itself is merely a concept, yet individuals in a society use stereotypes to isolate each other negatively based on the singular discrepancy of skin pigment. Racism has stemmed from generational long discriminations of others’ physical differences, until we as a society are able take away the labels we implement onto these visual barriers, prejudice will remain a problem. In the short story “After You, My Dear Alphonse” by Shirley Jackson, readers follow the story of a mother meeting her son’s friend for the first time. Upon finding that the boy’s ethnicity is African-American, the mother begins to negatively assume all the aspects of his life. She goes on to inquire about the child’s own personal lifestyle, displaying extreme condescensions that have negatively undermined outcomes for her own self betterment. Through Mrs.Wilson’s interrogation of Boyd, the author discusses racial conceptualizations and reveals presumed cultural distinctiveness in racial groups create barriers between positive communication.
Racism is not always violent, yet its subtle actional forms are just as distinctive. Apparent from when Mrs. Wilson first met Boyd, a sense of prudence was evident in her mannerisms. She would ask question after question about his own personal lifestyle, seeming to already have a negatively spiraled theory about what his life was like in her head. Jackson writes, “She [Mrs.Wilson] hesitated. ‘Does he [Boyd’s father]… work?’ ‘Sure.’ Johnny said. ‘Boyd’s father works in a factory.’ ‘There you see?’ Mrs.Wilson said. ‘And he certainly has to be strong to do that-all that lifting and carrying at a factory. ‘Boyd’s father doesn’t have to,’ Johnny said. ‘He’s a foreman.’ Mrs.Wilson felt defeated.” Mrs.Wilson had preliminary presumptions that Boyd’s father was unemployed, due to the historically wrong stereotype of black identifying people to be “inherently lazy”. Upon learning that his father does indeed work, and in fact that he works in the factory business, she then goes on to assume that his father is in the manual labor force. This, combined with her suggestively racist remarks about whether he was employed or not, indicated her beliefs that his family was in the lower class. Yet, Boyd states that his father had more of of a supervising job, rather than one of manual labor. In result, Mrs.Wilson takes this new information intimidating to herself personally. In an attempt to check off the low class stereotypes for his own family, she then proceeds to ask more rounds of wrongly discriminative questions about the way that he lives his life. As each question and answer goes by, Mrs.Wilson acquires a petty bitterness to the way that she talks to Boyd. The act of asking such closed minded questions about Boyd’s personal life signifies that racial discriminations are founded by underlying cruelness of character.
Charitable actions towards those of a lower class have givers with alternative motives. Mrs.Wilson displays extreme dissatisfaction when learning that Boyd’s family is as well-off financially as her own. Annoyed that she cannot show support for the boy money-wise, she offers him secondhand clothing, with the presumption that while his father may work, Boyd didn’t have all the clothes he needed. Boyd then, respectively, puts down the offer, stating that he has everything he needs, and is able to buy all else that he wants. Mrs.Wilson’s personality then turns sour with distaste. Jackson writes, “Mrs.Wilson lifted the plate of gingerbread off the table as Boyd was about to take another piece. ‘There are many little boys like you, Boyd, who would be very grateful for the clothes someone was nice enough to give them.’ … ‘Don’t think I’m angry, Boyd. I’m just disappointed in you, that’s all. Now let’s not say anymore about it.’” Mrs.Wilson’s change of demeanor turned frustrated, into a form of irritation against Boyd. Ostensibly, she tells Boyd that he has not angered him, yet this is exactly what he has done. Mrs.Wilson was looking to be the charitable upperclass woman to Boyd; often times, xenophobic, or racist people, believe that anything they do for another racially diverse person will positively benefit the individual, regardless if this is true or not. She wanted the boy to be that character, she deeply wanted to make herself feel superior to him by aiding him through his “apparent struggle in life”. Mrs.Wilson’s false charity highlights the racist stratifications that are placed towards those who are labeled as racially inferior.
Insinuations of racist beliefs cause harmful biases towards different racial groups than of personal experience. Throughout Mrs.Wilson’s interaction with the two boys, it is evident how racially sectarianism her beliefs are. Not only is does she feel personally obligated to make herself seem notably higher in social class and privilege, but she feels the necessity to be a charitable leader towards Boyd. In fact, the first clear sign of her racist beliefs were noticeable in the first interaction where she was in the visual vicinity of Boyd, even before their verbal exchanges. Jackson writes, “As she [Mrs.Wilson] turned to show Boyd where to sit, she saw he was a Negro boy … Mrs.Wilson turned to Johnny. ‘Johnny,’ she said, ‘what did you make Boyd do?” The short story’s sequence of events, directly after, begins to fall down a hole of contemptuousness. Mrs.Wilson is clearly one of racist beliefs. Her dislike of Boyd grows stronger and stronger, each question of hers that is answered adds to the fundamental grudge that she is building up. Soon every question she seemingly asks has multiple negative connotations behind them. The act of housing such strong racist beliefs illustrates how implicit racism is internecine.
Due to Mrs.Wilson’s interrogative behavior towards Boyd, the author discusses ethnical discrimination and reveals that atypical conceptions of what is normal in different ethnic groups creates impediments towards creating emotional connections. Through Mrs.Wilson’s constant racist remarks, one can establish that racial inequalities are due to a person’s wrongful perception of themselves being naturally superior to another individual.
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