Throughout “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” Jackson encounters well-intentioned white people who try to help him in controlling or condescending ways. The pawnbroker offers to let him buy his grandmother’s stolen powwow regalia—but only if he can come up with an impossible amount of money. Big Boss, the man who runs an anti-poverty organization, gives Jackson a token number of newspapers to sell, as though that will help him at all. Officer Williams, who finds Jackson passed out drunk on the railroad tracks, gives him a small amount of money and asks him, since he’s so smart, why he’s living on the streets—a question that reveals the officer’s profound ignorance of the centuries of colonialist oppression that have contributed to Jackson’s circumstances. These white people have genuine sympathy and goodwill for Jackson, but they’re reluctant to do anything to meaningfully improve his life, and they seem incapable of recognizing that the racist systems and ideas that benefit them have also caused Jackson’s misery. In this way, the story satirizes how small acts of “generosity” can make white people feel moral while failing to actually improve the lives of those they ostensibly wish to help.
While the pawnbroker admits that the right thing to do would be to give Jackson the regalia back for free, he still tells Jackson he has to buy the regalia for $1,000, which shows that he’s unwilling to act morally if it comes at a financial cost. In this way, his actions mirror those of modern white American society at large. Many people have sympathy for American Indians and other marginalized groups, but few seem to want to give the economic support required to actually improve their lives. Instead, the pawnbroker sends Jackson out on what he knows is an impossible mission: to earn $1,000 in 24 hours. In the end, however, when Jackson returns with five dollars (just like he had when his quest began), the pawnbroker judges that Jackson has worked hard for the money and thus deserves the regalia back. While this is certainly a meaningful gesture to Jackson, who is reunited with a beloved family heirloom, it’s odd that the pawnbroker justifies giving him the regalia in terms of how hard he has worked for his money. In fact, the regalia is stolen and rightfully belongs to Jackson’s family in the first place, so he shouldn’t have to work hard to deserve it—he inherently deserves it because it’s his. So the sympathy and goodwill of the pawnbroker are somewhat condescending and manipulative, even as he does something kind for Jackson.
Big Boss and his organization, Real Change, reveal how the efforts of non-profit and charitable organizations are not enough to remedy the root causes of poverty. Big Boss is unwilling to give Jackson the 1,000 or so newspapers he would need to earn his $1,000 because he knows that selling that many papers is an impossible task. He reminds Jackson that, on average, someone can make $30 in a day selling papers—but because Big Boss feels bad for Jackson, he decides to give him 50 papers for free, hoping that he can make a $50 profit. Jackson sells papers for an hour, and in that time, he only makes five dollars. At that rate, he’d have to sell papers for 10 hours in order to make a mere $50. In this sense, Big Boss’s gesture is an empty one, and it represents the reality that non-profits and charitable organizations offer sympathy but aren’t addressing the root causes of the problems they’re claiming to fix. “Real Change,” in other words, can’t offer any change at all.
Finally, Jackson insists that Officer Williams is a “good cop” who is more interested in helping people than punishing them—but Williams’s actions only further fuel the vicious cycle that Jackson is trapped in. Officer Williams has been encountering Jackson on the streets for years, but he doesn’t do anything to truly help him, nor does he really know him. For example, at one point, Jackson muses that Williams has been giving him candy bars for years, and he wonders if Williams knows that he’s a diabetic. What Williams thinks is a kind gesture is actually bad for Jackson, and this mirrors how white American society contributes to the poor health outcomes and subpar quality of living that American Indian communities face.
Officer Williams tells Jackson that he’s too smart to be on the streets, which he seems to believe is a compliment. It’s an insulting statement, though, that reveals Williams’s ignorance: Jackson’s intelligence has nothing to do with him ending up on the streets, as his circumstances are the result of centuries of systemic oppression of American Indians. But Officer Williams’s belief that Jackson is homeless because of some kind of personal failing, rather than a systemic issue, illuminates his behavior: he thinks he can help Jackson by tweaking various aspects of his life—such as repeatedly dropping him off at a detox center—when helping Jackson would require a much more significant change in American culture. In this way, the routine between Williams and Jackson (where Williams makes futile and misguided attempts to help Jackson) represents the greater cycle that Jackson is trapped in as a homeless, alcoholic American Indian. Williams the other white characters Jackson encounters on his quest highlight how sympathy and good intentions aren’t enough to make real social change. Instead, white people merely use these acts of generosity to make themselves feel better. In the end, they are unwilling to give what is truly needed, which is economic support.
Racism and Colonialism ThemeTracker
Racism and Colonialism Quotes in What You Pawn I Will Redeem
Probably none of this interests you. I probably don’t interest you much. Homeless Indians are everywhere in Seattle. We’re common and boring, and you walk right on by us, with maybe a look of anger or disgust or even sadness at the terrible fate of the noble savage.