Race Space and Place


Private and public spaces highlight the complexities of gender and racial identity. Race-based identity politics are directly linked to power dynamics, gender roles, and their spatial dictation. In this paper, I will examine texts in which race, gender, and the allocation of ‘who belongs where’ are created by sociological restrictions and spatial boundaries. This piece will explore two narratives that delve into public and private constructions of femininity in relation to violence and stigma that subjugate the female protagonists. Mary Crow Dog’s “Lakota Woman” and Hisaye Yamamoto’s “The Legend of Miss Sasagawara,” display feminine identity politics within both the public and private realm. Mary Crow Dog delves into the mistreatment of women who are victims of sexual violence on her reservation in her memoir “Lakota Woman.” Hisaye Yamamoto’s short story “The Legend of Miss Sasagawara,” details how one woman is ostracized by her community in a Japanese internment camp. Such acts of horrific force and exclusion are symptoms of the American patriarchal society, as described in these texts. Mary Crow Dog’s memoir and Hisaye Yamamoto’s short story both serve as testaments to the negative effects of constructions surrounding femininity in relation to race and embodied hegemony.

Color determines the violence Native American women face both within and beyond the boundaries of the reservation. According to Mary Crow Dog, sexual violence in the hands of white men awaits Native American women who venture beyond familiar reservation territory. She describes the rape of Native American women as “a favorite sport of white state troopers and cops.” The sadistic officers in the story extracted pleasure from the pain of Native American women. In a patriarchal society structured to benefit white men, Native American women serve as exotic objects of sexual abuse. Historically, Native women’s bodies, much like their land, have been subjected to exploitation.

However, white men were not the only ones to abuse Native American women in the narrative.  Mary Crow Dog not only holds white men outside of her reservation accountable for their horrific actions, but she is also critical of violence Native American men within her own community.  She claims that “rapes on the reservation are a big scandal” and mostly happen to “full-blood girls, too shy and afraid to complain.” Mary Crow Dog emphasizes that the darkest women were the most common targets because the shade of their skin represents more intense forms of marginalization even within an already marginalized community. This abuse is a symptom of internalized patriarchy, a by-product of western colonization.

Another symptom of a male dominated system is sexual victim shaming. Mary Crow Dog describes the courage of the few women who reported their rapes, only to have the white officers dismiss them and accuse them of instigating the crime. The white officers claim that the Native American victims of sexual assault “…are always asking for it.” As a result, the white officer takes the accountability away from the rapist and places it on the victim.  The notion of victim blaming becomes ordinary and accepted, leaving victims to experience the guilt of their their rapist’s crime.

The manifestations of this internalized shame can be subtle and difficult to identify. Without realizing it, Crow Dog blames herself for the sexual violence she endured.  She writes, “I fell for it” when her rapist offered to buy her a soda.  As a woman of color, Mary Crow Dog learns to distrust men from both inside and outside her ethnic group, leaving her in a shattered emotional state. She describes her experience as a Native American woman and how shame is transient regardless of her geography.

Mary Crow Dog was not the only individual to document an incident within her ethnic group; Hisaye Yamamoto’s short story “The Legend of Miss Sasagawara” shows the extreme ostracization experienced by a woman residing in a Japanese internment camp. Yamamoto describes the protagonist Kiku’s disdain for an estranged single woman.  While gossiping with her friend Elsie, Kiku hears of a rumor about Miss Sasagawara, the old spinster, throwing water at a young man, Mr. Sasaki. The rumor finished with Elsie relaying Mr. Sasaki’s last sentence “Mad-woman he called her.” Miss Sasagawara is not the first woman to be labeled crazy or hysterical by a male dominated society for living alone into old age. Not only is she deemed insane, but Miss Sasagawara is also unmarried and wears “coarse-textured homespun” traditional clothing. She is made to be an outsider and her image becomes negatively constructed by the internment camp community.

Kiku dictates ‘who does not belong’ by dictating her internalized Western values. Miss Sasagawara represents traditional Japan, portrayed negatively by Kiku. Kiku draws attention others’ faults in order to distract from her own imperfections. Kiku’s judgmental tone, directed against Miss Sasagawara, speaks to internalized hegemony, and reflects the dominant disdain for Japanese tradition. Kiki and Elise dream of “two nice, clean young men, preferably handsome, preferably rich, who would cherish us forever and a day.” By American standards, her goals are obediently prescribed for her gender. She never clarifies what type of a job she wants; instead, she is only able to convey the type of lifestyle she desires. Her goal is the American Dream. Kiku is not only concerned with integrating herself into the internment camp, but also into the dominant culture outside of the camp. Kiku is so concerned with aligning herself with the white-majority, she has completely forgotten who in fact placed her in the camp. Miss Sasagawara, therefore, becomes the most logical scapegoat. In his “Sins of Omission: Hisaye Yamamoto’s Vision of History,” Matthew Elliott claims that the two young women “psychologically distance themselves from this victim of trauma and replicate the rhetoric of the dominant discourse which led to internment.” The fact that she is not reflective of her construction of ‘the other’ is a symptom of her alliance with the dominant white culture. Additionally, Elliott cites Caroline Chung Simpson’s notion that the two young women not only “have fully internalized the discursive practices that victimize them” but also reflect “the larger wartime suspicion of Japanese Americans.” Kiku, Elsie’s, and the rest of the internment camp community’s ideas come from the United States government which dictated the separation from their homes in the first place. In essence, Miss Sasagawara becomes more than just a lone hysterical woman in the verbal witch-hunt perpetuated by the internment camp community; she embodies the internalized racism of the community. Hisaye Yamamoto successfully shows how communities create an outcast.

Reservations and internment camps are places where non-white women are detained based solely on their identity. Often women in these spaces bear the brunt of shame thrust upon them by the oppressive outside majority. Negative aspects of feminine identity, particularly internalization of shame, were keenly displayed in the works by Mary Crow Dog and Hisaye Yamamoto. As these stories show, documentation of the realities that are often tossed aside can help create a better understanding of female identity construction and spatial relationships to white privilege. Opening our minds will allow for more space for everyone, women of color included.

by Anna Stusser, Contributor

Works Cited

Crow Dog-Brave Bird, Mary, and Richard Erdoes. Lakota Woman. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990. Print.

Elliott, Matthew. “Sins of Omission: Hisaye Yamamoto’s Vision of History.” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S. 34.1 (2009): 47-68. Print.

Yamamoto, Hisaye. “The Legend of Miss Sasagawara.” Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories. Latham, NY: Kitchen Table–Women of Color, 1988. 20-33. Print.

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