Farewell to Manzanar portrays a Japanese-American family who are interned during World War II as a result of the US government’s racist assumption that Japanese immigrants cannot possibly be loyal to their adopted country. Although Jeanne spends much of her childhood in circumstances directly caused by racism, she doesn’t encounter overt prejudice until she returns to California to attend middle school and high school. Focusing on implicit prejudice rather than open insults, the memoir shows how quietly-expressed racism shapes and mars Jeanne’s school days. Later, as an adult, Jeanne reflects that anti-Japanese hysteria and internment reflected class insecurities and latent greed more than a concern with disloyalty. In this way, she connects her own experience to that of all marginalized groups, and makes it into a warning about the extent to which fear and xenophobia can warp society.
At Manzanar, Jeanne is largely insulated from the prejudice that forced her family there. Since Jeanne is only seven when her family leaves home for Manzanar, she can’t truly understand prejudice against Japanese people or comprehend the frightening injustice of forced internment. Moreover, since everyone at Manzanar is Japanese and the camp is largely administered by inmates, she never experiences racism there. For example, the schoolteachers understand and appreciate the students’ multifaceted racial identities and make sure they have a rigorous education despite the dismal circumstances.
Despite this, prejudice does crop up in internees’ relationships with each other. For example, when he returns early from Fort Lincoln, Papa is smeared as an “inu,” or a collaborator with their jailers. Suspicion over collaboration and disloyalty turns inmates against each other and even leads to a riot (the only incidence of overt chaos at Manzanar). In this way, the memoir suggests that tribalism within any society—whether it’s the small world of Manzanar or the United States at large—is highly pernicious and easily leads to violence.
Jeanne’s first personal experiences of racism occur when she has to attend majority-white schools after the war ends. At some moments, she faces overt hostility: once, she and her brother Kiyo are waiting at a bus stop when an old woman spits at them and says, “Why don’t all you dirty Japs go back to Japan!” Besides the obvious injustice of the comments, the spectacle of an elderly person showering abuse on children shows how xenophobia erodes society’s most basic norms of decency.
At Manzanar, Jeanne craves a typical American childhood, constantly dreaming about the good things life “outside” will bring. However, although after internment she grows up alongside this blissful American experience, she never quite achieves it. Her middle and high school years are marred by racist slights: her exclusion from Girl Scouts and high school sororities, friends whose parents refuse to invite her home, and a feeling of social exclusion despite the fact that she’s one of the best and most involved students at her school. Generally, Jeanne expresses her experience of racism not through what people do, but what they don’t do. Her exploration of these tacit biases illuminates the extent to which racism can warp a society even when it isn’t clearly visible or when its perpetrators don’t seem overtly hostile.
Although the memoir grapples with racism mostly through Jeanne’s personal experience as a student, it occasionally zooms out to show how white society benefits from stripping Japanese-Americans of their rights. While never rich, before the war the Wakatsuki family had many possessions: they owned a house, Papa had two boats and was paying off a car, and Mama owned many valuable furnishings from Japan. Although Mama pays to store her possessions in a warehouse during internment, they’ve all mysteriously disappeared by the time she returns for them. Similarly, no records remain of Papa’s boats or car when he tries to find them; their old house is occupied by other people and they live in a derelict public housing complex. Essentially, they have to begin life over again. Moreover, when internment ends, Mama and Papa are especially worried about the transition to mainstream society because they know that farmers’ unions have been stirring up anti-Japanese sentiment, saying that internees will take low-paying jobs away from white people. By acquiescing to internment and racial prejudice, Anglo-Americans are able to profit materially and find an outlet for economic anxieties.
While Jeanne’s compelling evocation of her own experience makes the effects of racism tangible and hard to ignore, her larger analysis of the racial climate, which both precedes and outlasts internment, links her own plight to that of all marginalized groups. The memoir argues that racism is not about the qualities of a particular group, but is rather inextricably linked to greed, economic anxiety, and competition over jobs and resources. In an afterword to the memoir, Wakatsuki compares racism against Japanese to the Islamophobia that rapidly sprang up after the September 11th attacks. Reminding readers that “the readiness to react along ethnic lines” is always present, the author argues that without vigilance against this sort of racism, injustices like Manzanar can easily occur again.
Racism and Prejudice ThemeTracker
Racism and Prejudice Quotes in Farewell to Manzanar
For a man raised in Japan, there was no greater disgrace. And it was the humiliation. It brought him face to face with his own vulnerability, his own powerlessness. He had no rights, no home, no control over his own life.
Three years of wartime propaganda—racist headlines, atrocity movies, hate slogans, and fright-mask posters—had turned the Japanese face into something despicable and grotesque. Mama and Papa knew this. They had been reading the papers. Even I knew this, although it was not until many years later that I realized how bad things actually were.
The physical violence didn’t trouble me. Somehow I didn’t quite believe that, or didn’t want to believe such things could happen to us. It was the humiliation. That continuous, unnamed ache I had been living with was precise and definable now. Call it the foretaste of being hated … At ten I saw that coming, like a judge’s sentence, and I would have stayed inside the camp forever rather than step outside and face such a moment.
I smiled and sat down, suddenly aware of what being of Japanese ancestry was going to be like. I wouldn’t be faced with physical attack, or with overt shows of hatred. Rather, I would be seen as someone foreign, or as someone other than American, or perhaps not be seen at all.
I couldn’t understand why [Papa] was home all day, when Mama had to go out working. I was ashamed of him for that and, in a deeper way, for being what had led to our imprisonment, that is, for being so unalterably Japanese. I would not bring my friends home for fear of what he would say or do.
I wanted the carnival to end so I could go somewhere private, climb out of my stuffy dress, and cool off. But all eyes were on me. It was too late now not to follow this make-believe carpet to its plywood finale, and I did not yet know of any truer destination.
These rock gardens had outlived the barracks and the towers and would surely outlive the asphalt road and rusted pipes and shattered slabs of concrete. Each stone was a mouth, speaking for a family, for some man who had beautified his doorstep.