Racism against Us and Them in "Yoneko's Earthquake" and "The Toughest Indian in the World"
“Yoneko’s Earthquake” demonstrates racism of the Japanese-Americans against the Filipino-Americans. The Issei, or first-generation immigrants, transport unfair stereotypes to America, where they teach the unhealthy ideas to their children. A gulf forms between the Issei and the Nisei, as acting out ethnicity-based hatred results in ultimate disunity among the generations. The Issei and their children understand the world differently because they were born in different countries, and this creates some of the major conflicts that persist throughout the stories in Yamamoto’s Seventeen Syllables.
Racism manifests itself in “The Toughest Indian in the World” in a different form. The unnamed first-person narrator mentions many of the stereotypes against Native Americans—their supposed constant drunkenness, the men’s insensitivity toward sexual partners, and their desire for Caucasians to disappear. Yet the Native Americans’ greatest critics in the story are themselves. The narrator, himself an Indian, explores racial generalizations about his people. Critiquing themselves advantages Native Americans. The strategic essentialism practiced by the narrator helps him to address problems in Indian culture, and as a result, the story ends with racial unity—albeit an odd one symbolized by homosexual sex.
When comparing the instances of racism in these two texts, self-hating racism appears preferable over racism that hates other groups. Hatred for the Other results in ignored conflict within the group, while hatred for the Self opens up a discussion that can lead to hope and resolution. Strategic essentialism succeeds where flat-out racism fails.
“Yoneko’s Earthquake” illustrates the racist misconceptions that the Japanese had for Filipinos in early twentieth century America. Racism emerges in the story when the narrator describes a report Yoneko discovers describing how Filipinos “trapped wild dogs, starved them for a time, then, feeding them mountains of rice, killed them at the peak of their bloatedness, thus insuring themselves meat ready to roast, stuffing and all, without further ado” (43). While some Filipinos eat dogs, asserting that all of them do exaggerates the truth. The report’s specificity sparks Yoneko’s interest. The detailed description adds some credence to the exaggeration. The systematic trapping, starving, feeding, and killing give it the report a factual quality not unlike instruction manuals. To top it off, the report says wild dogs prepared in such a fashion are “considered a delicacy,” causing Yoneko to find herself “Unable to hide her disgust and her fascination” (43). Yoneko’s disgust and fascination exoticizes Filipinos. Her contempt for another culture’s tradition fails to take into account the fact that aspects of Japanese culture may bewilder Filipinos. Cultural relativism decries the logical fallacy of judging Culture X by Culture Y’s standards. Yoneko’s naïve analysis essentializes Filipino culture into one stream of possibility. While some Filipinos may eat dogs and consider it a delicacy, many others—like Marpo, the Filipino servant of the Hosoume family—agree with Yoneko’s distaste. Thus, Yoneko ought to understand that opinion varies within any given culture, but her father’s choice to neglect multicultural tolerance stunts her intellectual growth.
Yoneko’s overbearing father receives no name besides “Mr. Hosoume,” which demonstrates his curtness and formality. He plays the landowning “mister” of the story, the hardworking husband of a wife who, he believes, should submit to him. He lives up to his name’s standard by observing and perpetuating old Japanese myths about Filipinos, unwilling to change his view of the Other even in the racial melting pot of the American West Coast, where dozens of cultures intermingle and would benefit from learning to accept each other instead of fostering old grudges. His racism against Filipinos appears at the tail end of a compliment for Marpo. Remarking on Marpo’s capacity for industriousness, Mr. Hosoume notes amazement with Marpo’s work ethic because “it was an irrefutable fact among Japanese in general that Filipinos in general were an indolent lot” (43-44). Mr. Hosoume cannot just credit Marpo as a good worker; he qualifies the compliment by mentioning the Filipino stereotype of slothfulness. So where does Marpo learn his work ethic? “Mr. Hosoume ascribed Marpo’s industry to his having grown up in Hawaii, where there is known to be a considerable Japanese influence” (44). Credit for Marpo’s hard work goes to the Japanese by virtue of geographic proximity. Marpo may not have had much contact with Japanese people in Hawaii. Mr. Hosoume’s binary between the hardworking Japanese and the slothful Filipinos undermines Marpo’s individuality, as well as Filipinos’ ability to surpass the stereotypes assigned to them by their Japanese neighbors.
According to the overgeneralizing of many in Japan, “it was another irrefutable fact . . . that Filipinos in general were a gaudy lot” (51). For this reason, Mr. Hosoume chastises his daughter for wearing fingernail polish, an allegedly Filipino practice. The word “irrefutable” solidifies Mr. Hosoume’s state of mind. He does not concern himself with the negative effects of voicing harmful—and incorrect—views of other races. When he pictures a Filipino, he probably pictures a lazy person decorated gaudily eating a dog.
Mrs. Hosoume rebuts Mr. Hosoume’s insult of their daughter, arguing instead that “in Japan, if she remembered correctly, young girls did the same thing” (51). Since Japanese girls also paint their fingernails, Mrs. Hosoume’s statement disproves Mr. Hosoume’s racist logic. Moreover, in the short amount of time between her own childhood and her middle aged adulthood with two children, Mrs. Hosoume forgets enough to question her memory. She has already become ingrained in a new American identity, her memoty of one decade ago clouded so soon with a thin haze of forgetfulness. This sheds some doubt on whether the Hosoumes should generalize based on old Japanese conceptions; perhaps they should cease to resist an American identity of multicultural acceptance.
Yoneko begins to accept a multicultural attitude when she fancies that “there seemed to be nothing Marpo could not do” (43). She sees his ability to work, confess Christian faith, exercise, paint, play violin, and build radios, and begins to fall in love with a man of another race. Her focus on him indicates a kind of female gaze, as opposed to the phallocentric male gaze suggested by the essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (Mulvey 14). Her penchant for gazing upon Marpo objectifies him, mentally transforming the man into a wonder. This sets expectations too high for Marpo. After Mr. Hosoume fires Marpo for impregnating Mrs. Hosoume, Marpo’s departure embitters Yoneko to the extent that she consoles herself by calling Marpo a “mere Filipino, an eater of wild dogs” (54). She allows herself to spew the same kind of racism as her father as a defense mechanism, designating Marpo the Other as a scapegoat in order to forget about her family’s inner conflicts.
Sherman Alexie’s “The Toughest Indian in the World” presents a different kind of bigotry: racism against one’s own race. The narrator makes several universal claims about all Indians, including “Indians just like to believe that white people will vanish, perhaps explode into smoke” (22); Indians “were usually in some stage of drunkenness” (23); and Indian men rarely ask a woman “How does that feel?” during sexual activity, which implies emotional insensitivity (24). Having established the widespread views that all Indians are insensitive drunks who hate white people, the narrator sets out to rectify the situation by establishing that hope still exists for Native Americans. The narrator’s phrase, “our salmon—our hope” (21), equates a species of fish (reminding readers of Indians’ former hunter-gatherer lifestyle) to hope, in order to restore the reputation of Native Americans.
The narrator picks up an Indian hitchhiker and offers to share a motel with him. Out of nowhere, the hitchhiker climbs into bed with the narrator and demands sex, saying to the narrator, “I want to be inside you” (31). This signals more than just a desire for random homosexual sex. Through their intercourse, they establish a symbolic and meaningful interconnection. Despite the narrator’s homosexual panic apparent in forcing the hitchhiker to leave immediately after the narrator bottomed in anal sex, immediately taking a shower out of disgust (32), he unites literally and metaphorically with another Indian. He refuses to act as the Indian stereotypes would dictate. The narrator does not decide to have gay sex out of drunkenness. The story shows him drinking soda, not alcohol. The narrator does not act insensitive toward the hitchhiker’s sexual request, although he could choose to speak and act violently in response to the hitchhiker’s unwarranted advances.
The narrator’s unity with another Indian, attained through sex, causes him to believe on the morning after submitting to the hitchhiker’s sexual advances that “if you had broken open [his] heart you could have looked inside and seen the thin white skeletons of one thousand salmon” (34). After mentioning the thousand dead salmon skeletons, the narrator does not echo his father’s claim that the salmon endangers Indians by igniting the hatred of white people. The narrator’s hope for racial unity appears in the end without fear and hatred of whites, which discards the notion that all Indians hate white men. Through unity within their race, Native Americans can find salmon—hope—to erase the stereotypes that plague them.
The narrator’s rehashing of stereotypes in “The Toughest Indian in the World” demonstrates a successful use of strategic essentialism. He acknowledges the stereotypes used against Native Americans and counters them with evidence that Indians surpass racist expectations of their behavior. This contrasts with the Japanese-Americans’ stereotypes for Filipinos in “Yoneko’s Earthquake,” which the Hosoumes never discard. They create the same kind of problem of bigotry that the Native American narrator seeks to obliterate. Instead of focusing on Indian stereotypes for Caucasians, the narrator focuses on Caucasian stereotypes of Indians, addressing their common misconceptions and dissolving them. Therefore, the Hosoume family should take a hint from the Indian narrator and focus on their own inner struggles instead of the flaws of other races. The marital strife between Mr. and Mrs. Hosoume is not ultimately Marpo’s fault, and the blame for Mr. Hosoume’s intergenerational misunderstanding of his daughter rests firmly on his shoulders. The quarrels between man and wife and between parents and children can be resolved. The parties involved, however, first need to find unity through the exploration of the problems plaguing them instead of pointing out the alleged problems with other races.
Alexie, Sherman. “The Toughest Indian in the World.” The Toughest Indian in the World. New York: Grove/Atlantic, 2000. 21-34.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988. 14-26.
Yamamoto, Hisaye. “Yoneko’s Earthquake.” Seventeen Syllables. Ed. King-Kok Cheung. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994. 41-56.