Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Ghost of Racism: Fear and Ignorance

Wendt deftly contrasts two cultures, those of Samoans and New Zealanders of European descent, while articulating the underlying similarities of human nature in both societies. He illustrates that the same emotions motivate people of both heritages, but those sentiments manifest themselves in different ways. The role of fear and ignorance weaves throughout experiences of both cultures in the novel; though the behaviors and interactions of Samoans and New Zealanders may seem very different, they often all stem from these emotions. When the main character’s father inquired about the nature of the evil spirits in some Samoan patients, the grandfather explained, “there were no such beings as ghosts or evil spirits—only fear and ignorance” (32). These sentiments haunt Samoans in one way and New Zealanders in another, but both fall prey to them.
For Wendt’s Samoan characters, ignorance of the Western system’s intricacies causes fear because they feel powerless. This paralyzing process of misunderstanding, fear, and rejection occurs nearly every time that Samoans encounter the institutions of European society. When the boy’s mother could not conceive, she went to the Western-style hospital with much trepidation because of the horrible stories she had heard. Because Samoans did not understand the medical procedures involved in surgery, they feared hospitals and avoided them. Likewise when the boy’s father had to overcome ignorance-induced fear when he first entered the factory: “He was afraid of the factory; he understood little of what went on in it” (53). These cross-cultural interactions, for which Samoans had little preparation or background knowledge, caused them to feel powerless and afraid.
The same root emotions touched the New Zealanders in Wendt’s story, but in these characters the fear often gave way to hatred. The girl’s mother was from a family, her husband explained, which “had never really tried to understand other races…it was just a lack of understanding plus a fear of the unknown” (146). Wendt suggests that this phenomenon is the root of racism. White New Zealanders choose not to—or do not have a way to—learn about native cultures, so they develop fear, which in turn gives way to prejudice. Similarly the ignorant misconception that Polynesian men are more virile than their white counterparts causes men of European descent to feel inadequate and threatened. The main character realizes the repercussions of their stereotype when he notices the man at the party trying to act tough, and notes, “The whole history of the pakeha had been cursed with this fear, and the Maoris and other minority groups had to pay for it” (125). Misconceptions about unknown groups feed this pattern of ignorance and fear identified by the boy’s grandfather. Both Samoans and New Zealanders tend to react with fear when faced with the unknown, thus perpetrating the racist strains of their societies.

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