Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Racial Bias in Sons for the Return Home

                The issue of racial bias is an unfortunate truth of society today. In his “Letter to Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. presents this issue concisely by discussing the overt inequality between blacks and whites in America during the period of segregation. Skin color plays a large part in how many people think of others, and socially perpetuated stereotypes about people of color contribute to a system of organized oppression by attributing their struggles to character flaws inherent to their race. This idea is prevalent in Albert Wendt’s Sons for the Return Home, as the Samoan minority in New Zealand is looked down upon by the papalagi majority. The main character is hyperaware of this, as he experiences racism in school, where acceptance for him is conditional on excellence, and his less accomplished brother is harassed by other students and insulted by the principal (Wendt 14). When he faces his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend at a party, he sees the consequences of “the racist myth of black virility”: the other man fears the possibility that he is inadequate compared to the people whom he sees as inferior, and “the Maoris and other minority groups [have] to pay for it” because the majority denounces them as nymphomaniacs (Wendt 125). This myth is evident in American culture as well – it is illustrated clearly in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, when the black man Tom Robinson is convicted for the rape of a white girl despite evidence that she had initiated the intercourse. Despite his innocence, he is condemned by racial stereotypes. And this phenomenon is not restricted to fiction: African Americans are more than three times as likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana that whites, even though the rate of marijuana use is roughly the same between the two groups. The consequences of racial bias are very real to minority groups.
In his preface to Nuanua, Wendt discusses post-colonial literature as a retaliation against the biases set in place by colonialism. He points out that despite the view of colonizers that indigenous peoples are “hapless victims and losers in the process of cultural contact and interaction… our cultures have survived and adapted when we were expected to die, vanish, under the influence of supposedly stronger superior cultures” (Nuanua 3). This superiority complex of colonialists is the primary source of biases against minorities – they assume that natives are inferior and thus reject their cultures. In “Ngati Kangaru,” Patricia Grace turns this concept on its head. She illustrates the absurdity of the colonial mindset of superiority by reversing the roles of the natives and the settlers. She even goes so far as to have Billy use the same language as colonial writers. It is striking how unrealistic the scenario is from this perspective, because it forces readers to acknowledge the fact that the conquest which was effortless for white colonialists is impossible for Maori people reclaiming their homeland. The way the vacationers simply back down, with no means of retaliation, and the lack of attention from the media regarding the matter are distinctly unrealistic, even though the Maoris experienced this, because of an ingrained sense of entitlement which prevails in white society and originates in the era of imperialism. “Ngati Kangaru” is unsettling because it brings to the forefront of the reader’s attention the latent assumptions about race which generally occupy the back of one’s mind.

                Service at Tunbridge definitely brings these issues to light. One of the first things that I noticed is that, though the majority of the student body is black, I have yet to encounter a single non-white teacher. I doubt that this power structure was intentional, but it stands out to me as an example of the unquestioned systematic discrimination which exists in our society. People rarely acknowledge these mundane power dynamics, but I cannot help but consider the possible implications they have on the minorities facing them. How must young, black, aspiring teachers feel when they realize that they have never seen someone of their color in their desired field? I also recall a conversation I had with my roommate, who lives locally, after my first day of service. Having noticed posters around the school advertising a college essay contest and proclaiming “It’s never too soon to start thinking about college!” I commented that I couldn’t believe elementary schoolers were expected to consider college – “They deserve time to just be kids,” I said. My roommate simply pointed out that without these reminders, most of those students would never believe they could go to college. It was jarring to be made so suddenly aware of my own privilege – I was always expected to pursue higher education, and throughout my life I had access to support which I had come to take for granted. For me, the pressure to prepare for college was constant, and as such I came to consider it a hassle, but for many students of color college is a lofty ideal far beyond their reach. I feel that this realization deepened my appreciation for the work Tunbridge does to provide education and motivation for these students, and I hope to continue to develop an understanding of people from different backgrounds than mine.

Incarceration Statistics from: http://www.drugwarfacts.org/cms/Race_and_Prison#sthash.NqNYQr8c.dpbs

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