Miss Renner characterizes a teacher who worked in Harlem and who showed disgust towards the smell of black children. In the novel, she does not see the value of teaching black children and is portrayed as continually visualizing the day she will move to a school with blue-eyed and blond-haired children. Her behavioral inclinations divulge her racist tendencies towards the blacks as well as a sense of ignorance that stems from her prejudicial attitudes. It is no wonder that the character of Miss Renner can be rightly perceived as a metaphor for racism. In this case, racism represents harmful social and intellectual practices in the culture and politics of the interaction between blacks and Europeans. Miss Renner plays the character of a racist European, who deeply disdains the black community. Her case typifies conventional instances of racism that plague American society, where racist individuals are often unaware of their ignorance and unfamiliarity with the plight of those they hold in contempt.
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Perhaps the most evident representation of racism is seen in chapter 14, where Miss Renner’s reflections about her work are expressed through the property is the smell. She perceives the schools as a repulsive setting with a suffocating concoction of odors, “the dusty smell of chalk, the heavy, suffocating smell of the pine oil used to lay the grime and disinfect the worn old floors, and the smell of the children themselves” (Petry 327). Although the author attaches a better part of these attributes to the poorly maintained, forty-year-old buildings of Harlem, Miss Rinner is also sickened by the smell of “rancid grease” on the children’s clothing, which is later rendered as the smell of Harlem and its inhabitants (Petry 328). The ‘mixture of nauseating’ odors’ that Miss Renner cites is not logically attributable to the black race. Instead, it can be traced to the poor conditions in which they live. Indeed, by the time the reader learns about Miss Rinner’s racially prejudiced views of Harlem, Petry has already offered numerous architectural and economic clues to explain the poor ventilation and stuffy smells of the town’s low-income apartment buildings. Miss Rinner’s reactions to the smells show her level of stigmatization whereby the uneven distribution of fresh air is attributed to the skins color instead of the poor state of the segregated and poorly maintained buildings. According to Abedin (7) defective properties lead to crime, poor sanitation, and health hazards in black and Latino neighborhood. Yet, these facts are rarely recognized by people who hold discriminatory views against marginalized races, even in modern-day America. Krysan (528) asserts that the persistent racial segregation that permeates residential choices among whites and blacks can be traced to the quality of housing and residential ratings more than it can be traced to identity and stereotypes. This assertion is particularly evident in the Petray’s account.
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Rinner’s horrified illusion of the racialize smell that pursues into her own home is an allegorical representation of the prejudiced thought patterns that mismatches the causes and effects of the odors. Instead of acknowledging the Harlem’s unhealthy apartments and the poverty of its inhabitants, she views the black race that lives there as a group that has “no moral code’ and which is probably ‘diseased.’ Petry’s use of olfactory characterization brings out the different ways through which the characters in her novel interpret the town’s suffocating smells. On the one hand, Lutie distinguishes the smells as a limitation to her ambitions. She is not only physically obstructed by wind, but also psychologically disturbed by the smell, mold, and gases emanating from the residence. On the other hand, Rinner expresses a loathing for the smell which she wrongly attributes to the physical appearances of the residents.
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In sum, the character of Miss Rinner typifies conventional racist ideologies that do not harmonize with reality. Rinner’s ignorance of Harlem’s limiting condition represents the inexperience of Americans who hold racist philosophies without accounting for the limitations that marginalized American communities face in their localities. The mismatch between reality and actual situations on the ground further complicates the problem as it exposes prejudiced thinking patterns in the minds of the population.
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