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Editor: Anne Marie Hacht
Date: 2006
Literary Themes for Students: Race and Prejudice
Publisher: Gale
Series: Literary Themes for Students
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 7
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Page 544



Ethnicity is a powerful glue for many groups in society. It typically includes several factors, such as race, religion, culture, and language. The idea of ethnic identity can be found in every culture in the world, and it is often what groups use to separate themselves from other groups in a multicultural society. Ethnic groups can be either a minority or a majority in a society. The dominant group sets its own standards for what is considered "normal" in their society. Stories that deal with ethnicity often tell of minority groups, or of those that are oppressed, discriminated against, ostracized, or even simply misunderstood. Distinct ethnic groups inside a society are frequently from minority groups and also often immigrants. Immigrants from other cultures are most likely to stand out from the overall culture.

Desire to Fit In

Sometimes an individual within an ethnic group is ostracized for exhibiting the very traits the group most wants to reject in themselves. For example, Pecola Breedlove, the young African American girl in Toni Morrison's first novel The Bluest Eye (1970), rejects herself and experiences the rejection of her peers because she is "black and ugly." She wants nothing more than to be the very opposite of what she is. The other African Americans in Pecola's town shun and Page 545  |  Top of Article
The Lafayette Theater in Harlem at the time of the Harlem Renaissance The Lafayette Theater in Harlem at the time of the Harlem Renaissance (c) Corbis abuse her because they have designated her family the lowest in town, the one that makes the others feel better because they are higher than the Breedloves: "All of us—all who knew her—felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her." When her father rapes and impregnates her, Pecola escapes into madness. The children laugh at her and the adults blame her for her misfortune: "when the land kills of its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live. We are wrong, of course, but it doesn't matter. It's too late."

Those who shun Pecola and laugh at her impossible dream do so precisely because they, too, secretly long to be blonde, blue-eyed, and white. Pecola's blackness makes them so ashamed of their own that they reject her. They hate her because they hate themselves. Their ethnic identity is based on what they can never be—someone else.

Similarly, Archie and Samad in Zadie Smith's uproarious novel White Teeth (2000) both discover that life in multicultural London of the 1970s is tough. Samad accepts an arranged marriage to a woman from his own culture and ends up with two alienated sons. Archie marries a Jamaican woman. They first meet when Samad saves Archie from a suicide attempt. The characters in the novel are basically unhappy with themselves, regardless of their ethnic group. Archie's daughter, Irie, thinks, "Sometimes you want to be different. And sometimes you'd give the hair on your head to be the same as every-body else." At the hairdresser, Irie has tamed her Afro in favor of short, straight hair, hating her non-English appearance. But Irie's friends and family do not approve, and her attempts to pass as white like her father go in vain. About this self-hatred among immigrants and their children in England, the author muses, a "churchgoing lady was determined to go to her grave with long fake nails and a weave-on. Strange as it sounds, there are plenty of people who refuse to meet the Lord with an Afro."

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Mixed-Race Identity

Irie comes from two different ethnic groups, Jamaican and English, belonging entirely to neither and rejected by one or both. This lack of a specific ethnic identity also occurs in James McBride's memoir about his white mother, The Color of Water (1997), and in the young half-Vietnamese girl, Loi, in Sherry Garland's young adult novel Song of the Buffalo Boy (1994). McBride's Jewish mother left her immigrant Polish family, who rejected her, married McBride's African American father, and converted to Christianity. Her children found themselves caught between two worlds. But their mother's love turned this mix of cultures into a strength, not a weakness. In contrast, Loi, the child of her Vietnamese mother's liason with an American soldier, is an outcast. The bitter villagers reject her because to them, she represents the American invaders who destroyed their homes and killed their relatives, and their shame at not being able to stop this invasion. But they also reject her out of their own rigidity and racism against outsiders. Refusing to accept this injustice, Loi flees to Saigon to find her father and to escape an arranged marriage. Her search ends unhappily, but it does lead to find a place in Vietnamese society with the one she loves, Khai the "Buffalo Boy."


Stories about ethnicity often explore uncomfortable and taboo subjects. The Bluest Eye, for example, explores incest, child rape, and selfhatred. Song of the Buffalo Boy explores the Vietnam War and the plight of the despised mixedrace children in its aftermath. Conflict between and within ethnic groups can result in shameful acts on both sides, as well as oppression and even genocide.

Gwendolyn Brooks's 1981 poem, "To the Diaspora," for example, evokes the shameful legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in which millions of Africans were kidnapped and sold to the Americas as slaves. She asks the people of the diaspora (people of African ancestry living outside Africa) what they might find when they come home to Africa. David Guterson's novel Snow Falling on Cedars (1994) explores lives changed by the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. In the novel, Kabuo Miyamoto, a Japanese fisherman living in the Pacific Northwest during the 1950s, is arrested for murdering another fisherman. His arrest is a result of his Japanese ethnicity, as suspicion and discrimination remained issues for Japanese Americans on the West Coast for at least a decade after World War II. A local white journalist, Ishmael Chambers, tries to defend him. But Ishmael has an ulterior motive—he is in love with Kabuo's wife Hatsue, with whom he grew up. Kabuo is finally released when the death is ruled an accident. Ishmael's story ends less happily when Hatsue stays with her husband. He sees Hatsue and Kabuo as essentially inscrutable:

[T]he palpitations of Kabuo Miyamoto's heart were unknowable finally. And Hatsue's heart wasn't knowable, either, nor was Carl Heine's [the dead fisherman]. The heart of any other, because it had a will, would remain forever mysterious.

For Ishmael, everyone is an "other," an alien person of incomprehensible thoughts, feelings, and cultural attitudes.

Similarly, the young hero of Larry Watson's novel Montana, 1948 (1995) at first sees the behavior of his family's Sioux housekeeper as a mystery. In both novels, white male protagonists tell the stories of female, nonwhite women who are deprived of their voices in society. When the housekeeper falls ill, she refuses to be treated by the protagonist's uncle, the town doctor. When she is later found dead, she appears to have caused her own death by refusing medical treatment. Then, accusations against the uncle begin to surface, and there are rumors that he sexually abused Sioux women under his care. The protagonist tells his story from the distance of adulthood, piecing together a story of prejudice and buried secrets from his own memories and the memories of those who still live and will speak to him. Even dominant groups in society cannot escape the poison that results from oppressing others.

Conflict can even result in the ostracism or attempted destruction of a group or individual, as in Rumer Goddon's young adult novel Gypsy Girl (1972). In it, Kizzy Lovell lives on the edge of a village after her grandmother dies and her wagon burns. The villagers hate and fear gypsies as thieves and tramps and try to drive her out. Only after great struggle is Kizzy able to make them accept her.

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People in minority ethnic groups often live in poverty, as they are denied equal education, housing, and professional opportunities. In Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street (1984), young Esperanza Cordero finds her impoverished life on Mango Street oppressive. Even though her family owns their house, she dreams of growing up to have better house of her own. For her, poverty means her family's small house and the humiliations they must endure because they cannot afford anything better. At the beginning of the novel, Esperanza explains the situation:

The house on Mango Street is ours, and we don't have to pay rent to anybody, or share the yard with the people downstairs, or be careful not to make too much noise, and there isn't a landlord banging on the ceiling with a broom. But even so, it's not the house we'd thought we'd get.

Poverty means adjusting one's dreams downward, something that Esperanza longs to escape.

Stories about ethnicity also frequently illustrate the social and economic shocks that immigrant groups suffer when moving to another, often larger, society. The Garcia de la Torre girls, of Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), for example, come from the very top of a rich, but oppressive society in the Dominican Republic. When they move to America, their father struggles for work and their mother struggles with a much lower place in her new society. In assimilating into American society, the four daughters are not just attracted by the wider opportunities of America, but also repelled by the closed and oppressive nature of their old society. The young Dominican men are similarly confused. They like the freedoms of America, but they do not want to share them with the women of their families:

Mundín's eyes do a double blink. For all his liberal education in the States, and all his sleeping around there and here, and all his eager laughter when his Americanized cousins recount their misadventures, his own sister has to be pure.

Even those who want to assimilate the most do not want to change the old system if it means that others in their group will get ahead of them.

Social Change

Some people find strength in embracing not only the successes among their ethnic group, but also the tragic failures in their midst. In Ernest Gaines's novel A Lesson before Dying (1993), an African American teacher, Grant Wiggins, is asked by his aunt to help Jefferson, a condemned man from his community, face death with dignity. Jefferson, a mentally challenged man who witnessed a liquor store shootout that killed two black men and the white store owner, is tried as an accomplice to murder. His defense attorney tells the allwhite jury, "Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this."

Jefferson is condemned to death, despite clearly being unable to comprehend the charges against him or the crime he was supposed to have committed. Grant does not want to help Jefferson at first. Jefferson symbolizes everything about his town that Wiggins tried to leave behind by going to college. But eventually, he realizes that Jefferson is teaching him something far more important about dying that Grant is teaching him. A witness to the execution later Page 548  |  Top of Article
Japanese Americans boarding trains for the Manzanar Relocation Center Japanese Americans boarding trains for the Manzanar Relocation Center Crown Publishers tells Grant, "He was the strongest man in that crowded room."

People who embrace their ethnic identity may also find great strength in the specialness it confers. Zora Neale Hurston's essay "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" (1928) celebrates her African American heritage instead of dwelling on the pain of slavery, segregation, or forced assimilation. "I am not tragically colored," she insists. She describes going to a nightclub with a white friend. She is caught up, willingly and joyfully, in the wild mood of the jazz music. At the end of the piece, she turns to her white friend, who has been completely unmoved by the music, and she feels sorry for his ignorance. His tonal deafness seems, to her, a function of his drab, colorless ethnic background and she wants no part in it, dominant or not.


In Yoshiko Ushida's novel Picture Bride (1997), Hana Omiya, a young Japanese woman, comes to America at the turn of the century for an arranged marriage with a young, rich businessman. When her husband turns out to be both poor and middleaged, she is disappointed, but remains true to him. She does so by trying to maintain a Japanese home in the United States. Her English remains limited and broken as she proudly clings to her Japanese language and customs. Language becomes a link to her identity.

Language also marks those who assimilate into a new society. In How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Yolanda resists maintaining her Spanish roots, fearing it will affect her English:

The more she practices, the sooner she'll be back into her native tongue, the aunts insist. Yes, and when she returns to the States, she'll find herself suddenly going blank over some word in English or, like her mother, mixing up some common phrase.

To Yolanda, assimilation is easier than a daily compromise between different cultures, Page 549  |  Top of Article
Young girls in a Cinco de Mayo parade, New York, 1997 Young girls in a Cinco de Mayo parade, New York, 1997 (c) Catherine Karnow / Corbis because it is less confusing. But it also leads to losing a part of one's self. By refusing to keep her Spanish, Yolanda loses that childhood part of her that speaks and thinks in her native tongue.

Keeping one's culture can go even further than holding onto language and daily customs. Antonio, the young hero of Rudolpho A. Anaya's novel Bless Me Ultima (1994), learns Native American shamanic traditions in 1940s New Mexico. These magical traditions give a surreal quality to the boy's memories when he grows up, but they also enable him to preserve his Native ethnic identity. Not only does his the old healer Ultima speak a different language from English and freely live an impoverished lifestyle that most immigrants would avoid and try to escape, but she has mysterious traditions that defy Western rational thought. The protagonist strives to retain these traditions, even to the point of rejecting the dominant American culture. They give him an especially strong ethnic identity.


When ethnic identity makes the person feel stronger rather than weaker, superior rather than inferior, that person will struggle to retain that identity. When a person holds a weaker position in the old culture than in the new one, his or her attachment to the old ethnic identity likewise becomes weaker. Thus, the Garcia girls lose their accents and Esperanza flees Mango Street. In traditional, non-Western cultures, women are usually required to suppress their Page 550  |  Top of Articleown identities as individuals in favor of bolstering their ethnic culture and the identities of their husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons. They are expected to bear the burden of carrying on the culture by maintaining their households and raising their children in traditional ways, like Hana Omiya in Picture Bride. Stories about ethnic identity often show women fighting and rejecting traditional ethnic ties as too hostile and confining.

However, people like Hurston and characters like Antonio and Ultima can surmount these weaknesses and turn them into strengths. Hurston freely adopts the traditionally male persona of a hunter when listening to jazz music. She converts traditional roles to her own use, making something new and vibrant out of something that is neither purely African nor purely American. Antonio juggles Spanish and Native American culture and comes up with something of both that works for him. Fiction about ethnicity rarely shows such a happy blend of traditions, but the protagonists of such stories often hope for such a solution to their confusion. A healthy culture can mix new traditions with old ones and maintain continuity.


Alvarez, Julia, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1991, pp. 7, 125.

Cisneros, Sandra, The House on Mango Street, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, pp. 3-4.

Gaines, Ernest J., A Lesson Before Dying, Alfred A. Knopf, 1993, pp. 8, 253.

Guterson, David, Snow Falling on Cedars, Harcourt Brace, 1994, p. 345.

Hurston, Zora Neale, How It Feels to Be Colored Me, Barnard Electronic Archive and Teaching Library, (February 4, 2006).

Morrison, Toni, The Bluest Eye, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, pp. 203-204.

Smith, Zadie, White Teeth, Random House, 2000, pp. 227, 237.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2661800058