Obasan by Joy Kogawa follows the story of protagonist, Naomi Nakane, as she reflects on her person experience as a young Japanese-Canadian during World War II. Throughout the novel, Naomi and her family members struggle to understand what it means to be a minority in Canada when a plethora of stereotypes exist in society. In Obasan, readers are able to see how difficult it is for an oppressed population to create their identity when so many things have already been assumed about them in society.
Each person has their own unique characteristics, personality traits, and preferences that combine to create their identity. When society uses the actions, beliefs, or moral standards of one or a few individuals) to create stereotypes, innocent people are stripped of their individual identities. Not only do stereotypes create a false general identity for minority populations, but they also cause a divide among society, thus often restricting minority populations to inferior lifestyles.
Contrary to common beliefs in society, one set of characteristics will never be able to define multiple people. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have shown that as time continues, it becomes more and more difficult to categorize and place labels on individuals. Technology places a huge role in the interconnectivity of the world, it allows people from all over the world to connect with others, to adapt their customs, and share their practices with others.
Standards for certain races and ethnicities have been eliminated, because the days when one set of characteristics defined an entire population of people have passed. For example, in Obasan, when conversing with her father, adolescent Naomi asks her father about their culture clashing with the culture of the Canadians. Naomi’s father responded by stating “Everything a Canadian does is Canadian” (Kogawa 68). This statement shows that being Canadian is not limited to one set of customs, in fact, it implies that the true definition of being Canadian came from a person’s place of citizenship.
This statement goes beyond the idea of what it means to be a Canadian, this statement also shows that it is unfair for society to assume that certain attributes makes one person a candidate to fit into a particular category. Furthermore, in an article about the importance of people choosing their own identities, Bonnie Tsui states that “The Census Bureau has admitted that its categories are in flux, recognizing that race is not a mixed, quantifiable value but a fluid one” (Tsui).
The term “flux” means that something continuously goes through changes; in this instance Tsui is saying that the limitations of race within the United States are constantly changing. With the increasing amount of interracial relationships, the popularity of immigration, as well as the spread of culture through technology, it is becoming increasingly difficult to assume that a person will fit all the characteristics of stereotypes that have been created for their particular ethnicity. Along with ethnicity, personality is another component that makes up a person’s identity.
According to Google, personality is defined as “the combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individual’s distinctive character”. Personalities stem from a person’s distinctive preferences, which helps them to develop their identity, which typically differs from the stereotypes that society has assigned to them. According to Barry McGuiness, personality can also be defined as “the human nature we all share [that] manifest in different styles of thinking, feeling, and acting” (McGuinness). Each person on Earth carries a unique personality, which allows them to view the world in different forms.
Personalities are driven by how each person interacts with the environment as well as the people in the environment. In his article titled What Is Personality? ” McGuinness also states that “somewhere between these two our common humanity and our unique individuality-lies personality” (McGuinness). This statement emphasizes that the personalities of individuals stem from how they interact with their environment as well as the people in their environment. The personalities each individual carries are unique and often times differ from the stereotypes, or labels that society has created for them.
Stereotypes prevent individuals from being recognized by the identities that they have created, or adapted for themselves. In most instances, stereotypes exist in a negative context, in which the majority population develops a negative idea of a minority population and treats them accordingly. For example, in Obasan, Naomi’s aunt, Emily, wrote letters to Naomi’s mother who was visiting their mother in Japan at the time relocation began to occur. In the letter, Aunt Emily states “We were identified by the way we were seen” (Kogawa 139).
This statement shows that stereotypes often limit a person’s ability to view someone beyond the label they have been given by society. Rather than actually attempting to get to know someone’s personality, beyond their ethnicity, many people make assumptions about people solely based on appearances. This statement also shows when stereotypes are highly active in society, people are not given the opportunity to be recognized based on the qualities they actually carry, instead they are viewed based on the qualities they are assumed to have.
Stereotypes prevent a person from being judged based on the identity they have created for themselves. In most cases, stereotypes come from past events, that more than likely no longer affect society. According to Kim Davis from Indiana University “Labels can create expectations that are based on previous experiences or hearsay” (Davis). Regardless of being innocent of the events that inspire stereotypes, billions of people are restricted to the stereotypes set by events they had nothing to do with.
For example, following the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 in the United States, people of Muslim escent suffered a long period of intense racism. Both citizens and tourist of Muslim descent were viewed as terrorist, or assumed to have some type of connection to the Al-Qaeda group. While, almost all of the victims of racial profiling were innocent, they had to unjustly endure harassment due to stereotypes established by an event they were not connected to. Not only do stereotypes seek to imprudently classify society, but it divides society and typically leaves the victims of the stereotypes dejected.
Despite living in a very interconnected world, many people use “racial category as meaningful factor in representations, judgments, and treatments of others” (Maddox). It is unfortunate that in a world filled with so much diversity, there are some individuals that rely heavily on racial stereotypes as a method to make assumption on one’s character. This approach to interacting with the human race fails to acknowledge the fact that each person has a distinct personality, that usually does not fit the parameters of most characteristics.
Division of race is commonly seen within the history of the United States, especially; when it comes to African Americans and Caucasians. African Americans have a deep history in the United States that ranges from being enslaved to being President of the United States. Yet, regardless of the success found in the African American community over the last few centuries, many negative stereotypes still exist about them that makes it difficult for them to develop their own unique identities. When people use race as a way to identify others, society’s ability to progress as a more equitable place is restricted.
Stereotypes play a negative role in society, they create division, and prevent individuals from creating their own distinct identity, from which they can be judged. The presence of stereotypes in a society can have result in numerous negative consequences; that impair the growth of a country. Often times, the presence of stereotypes establishes an unofficial caste system that society unconsciously follows. Stereotypes separate the rich from the poor, majority populations from minority populations, and native born citizens from foreign citizens.
In Obasan, Naomi’s, aunt, Emily, poses the question “Do your neighbors treat you as enemies? ” (Kogawa 95). A neighbor is typically seen as a nearby acquaintance, someone who would usually be cordial. It can be assumed that Aunt Emily’s question displays that because of the identity, or stereotype that had been created for Japanese -Canadians in this society, the people who were once friendly to her were now treating her as if she had done something to personally offend them. It is nearly impossible for hospitality and stereotypes to coexist in a society.
The effects of stereotypes extend to all aspects of the human life. Prior to the internment of the Japanese in Canada during World War II despite being “acutely in need of labour, Albertans did not want Japanese Canadians in their midst” (Marsh). This statement shows that stereotypes limit the ability of citizens to be equal in society, as well as displaying how stereotypes prevent members of society from working together cohesively. The negative consequences of stereotypes are infinite and effect all parties involved, whether it be directly or indirectly.
Every individual on Earth has adapted an identity that is composed of their natural human qualities, as well as the numerous aspects that make up their personality. Over the course of one’s life, certain events trigger changes or adaptations in the personalities of individuals. Stereotypes help develop an assumed identity that is extremely difficult for individuals to overcome. Stereotypes divide populations, prevent people from embracing their identity and limit the growth of society.