For our keyword project, our group decided to analyze the term alienation. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines alienation as the “withdrawing or separation of a person or a person’s affections from an object or position of former attachment : ESTRANGEMENT”. The term alienation was originally “alienacioun”, a Middle English word which was defined as a transference of property rights, derangement, or estrangement. The Middle English borrowed the word from the Anglo-French word “alienaciun”, which was borrowed from the Latin word “aliēnātiōn-, aliēnātiō”. So the history of the term goes way back and was used in many different ways and cultures. It is thought to be first used around the early 1500’s (Merriam-Webster, Alienation). This term, in most literature, simply means to cast someone out of a group, or a feeling of unbelonging. A theme of alienation can also be seen in many works of literature, including some of the books we have read in our course this year. Myriam Gurba in her memoir Mean experienced alienation because she grew up as a queer and mixed Chicana. In Claudia Rankines, Citizen: An American Lyric, she goes into depth about how people of color, specifically Serena Williams, are alienated from society through micro-agressions. Maxine Hong Kingston also shows how she was alienated from American culture because of her heritage in her memoir The Woman Warrior. And finally, Serena Williams was also alienated from the traditional tennis community and umpires because of her skin color and “outbursts”. It is critical to understand alienation when analyzing these works of literature in order to fully grasp what the authors are illustrating; that people of color or from different heritages are treated as if they have no place in society.
The term alienation can be seen as a theme throughout Myriam Gurba’s memoir, Mean. Throughout this memoir, Gurba discusses the difficulties and hardships she faced growing up during the childhood and adolescent years of her life as a queer chicana.
She faced discrimination and was isolated from her classmates, peers and teachers; this caused her to believe the world was against her.
At an early age Myriam Gurba knew she was different from most people. From the time she started nursery school, it was evident that she was not like the other children because of her race. In the second chapter of this memoir, English is Spanish, Myriam starts speaking Spanish on the first day of nursery school as she believed everyone knew the same words. She didn’t know any better and believed since she grew up speaking both languages, that everyone else did.
However, the nursery school instructors thought that because she spoke Spanish in class, she didn’t know any English, and tried to teach Myriam English; despite the fact that Gurba knew both English and Spanish.
While most people learn a second language during the adolescent years of their life in school, Myriam was already ahead of the game and started learning two languages as her first language. However, since she was Half-Mexican, and she looked Mexican, the instructors assumed that she had no prior knowledge of English and she needed to be educated in the English language. Despite the fact that these women didn’t have bad intentions and were trying to help her, they demonstrated to Myriam at a young age that not all people are the same, and in this world, people are treated differently by how they look and where they come from. Gurba says, “I didn’t know Mexcians were Mexicans, a category for some mistake for subhuman, a category my grandfather mistakes for divine. People were people, and people talked, and talking was for everyone. Today, I understand the words that are for everyjuan, but that not everyjuan is for everyword….” (5), this just goes to show that whether we realize it or not, our actions impact those around us. Children are like sponges–they’re young, fresh and ready to absorb content of their surroundings and the world around them. Even if someone didn’t have the intention of hurting or offending a child, this could shape the narrative of their childhood.
Gurba had to learn at a young age that she wasn’t like everyone else—she was different because she was Mexican; and because she was Mexican, she was going to be treated different. She was going to have a difficult life, because she wasn’t one of the caucasian girls and boys; and that’s a lot to process as a child.
Another incident where we can see how Gurba was being discriminated against, is in the chapter, Googleplex. A group of white girls made fun on Myriam and her friend, Ida for being Mexicans, so Myriam fought back and attacked one of the girls—making her cry and run away. They then were called into a classroom to discuss what happened, and Gurba carefully explained the events how the white girls were being racists towards them and called them “wetbacks and told them to go back to Mexico”. However, the English-only teacher said, “Apologize for making them cry” (20), despite the fact that these girls were racists and cruel towards Myriam and Ida.
These events only gave Gurba clarification that she was different from the people around her. She never had a chance. They were white and she was not; they were always going to look at her and treat her differently because of this.
Growing up and living in a predominantly white society was always going to make Gurba out to be the outcast.
In Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, microaggressions are used to make the reader feel uncomfortable and alienated from the rest of society. Microaggressions are defined as “verbal, behavioral, or environmental actions (whether intentional or unintentional) that communicate hostility toward oppressed or targeted groups including people of color, women, persons with disabilities, and religious minorities” (“A Guide”). The novel is filled with real stories that contain both subtle and intentional offensive remarks. Rankine uses the second person to put the reader in those situations and see how it affects us personally. We aren’t able to assign emotion to any other characters because it is us who is feeling the pain that microaggressions cause. Victims of microaggressions often find themselves asking questions like “Did she really just say that?” and “Did I hear what I think I heard?” (Rankine 9). Microaggressions relate to alienation because victims of both feel a sense of estrangement and isolation from certain groups and sometimes even society as a whole.
In Chapter II, Rankine specifically focuses on Serena Williams, who is a prime example of alienation within the tennis community. Tennis has traditionally been a predominantly white sport with very little change. When talking about the emergence of Serena (and sister Venus) onto the tennis stage, Rankine used a quote from Zora Hurston that stated “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” (Rankine 25). The white background here are the traditional customs and long-established customs of tennis, and the numerous white opponents they face. To many people, Serena’s “black body didn’t belong on their court, in their world” (Rankine 26). So one might ask, who did belong on “their court”? Rankine answers this by including a picture of Caroline Wozniacki, another tennis player who is an image of “smiling blonde goodness” (Rankine 36). In the picture, Wozniacki has her top and bottoms stuffed with clothes to mimic how Serena looks (an obvious microaggression). To the tennis community, this was the epitome of a tennis player. This symbolized all of Serena’s attributes “while leaving [her] ‘angry ni**er exterior’ behind” (Rankine 36). This is an example of alienation because Serena is not only being isolated from the tennis community but is being mocked and ridiculed in the process.
This alienation and indifference also followed her onto the court during play itself. Serena was treated unlike any other player because of her skin color and “angry” outbursts. In the 2004 US Open there were five bad calls made against her in the quarterfinals that were so clear that “no one could understand what was happening” (Rankine 27). Several years in the semifinals of the US Open a foot fault is called on a serve, again another overofficiating call against her. Serena’s outburst causes her to be fined $82,500 and be put on a two-year probation. These are all examples of unfair treatment against Serena that would not have occurred to other white opponents. And, when Serena wants to speak out against this injustice she is fined and put on probation. Rankine points out this alienation when she talks about racism and how skewed the balance of rules are. She says “Perhaps this is how racism feels no matter the context- randomly the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you, and to call this out… is to be called insane, crass, crazy. Bad sportsmanship” (Rankine 30). Rankine literally explains alienation here and how it feels to be oppressed in it. For Serena, when you try to play by the rules that others have been for hundreds of years, they all of a sudden don’t apply to you; and when you want to show your frustration and anger you are quickly stifled with flagrant penalties and fines.
It is also clear within the “The Woman Warrior” by Maxine Hong Kington, that alienation is presented as a clear theme throughout Kingston’s life. Kingston’s transition from her past Chinese culture in her family to her childhood growing up in America was difficult to maneuver through. She first talks about the story of her Aunt, heard first hand from her mother, discussing the shame that was brought upon her mother’s sister for ultimately becoming pregnant with a baby and the nearby villagers ultimately punishing them by ransacking and destroying their home and all of their livestock. Kingston goes on and relays this story to her growing up in America by stating, “Those of us in the first American generations have had to figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fits in solid America.” (Kingston 2). This fixates on how difficult it is to carry her old traditions to the new world, growing up in a completely different culture compared to the stories and family traditions that still carry on with them along with adapting to American culture. Furthermore, Kingston’s view of her chinese back-round is skewed because of how little she knows about it, only able to recollect stories that her mother tells her. This inevitably only allows her to speak about her culture from a second-hand view and even then she still finds it difficult to assimilate herself between her Chinese culture and her own life in American culture. Kingston also writes about how double standards in China are unfortunately placed upon women to become a dutiful and faithful housewife through marriage. The aunt, whom Kingston has no name for, “always did as she was told,” discussing how, “Some man had commanded her to lie with him and be his secret evil. I wonder whether he masked himself when he joined the raid on her family.” (Kingston 3). She realizes that women such as her aunt have no say in China, and obeyed the commands of another man out of this fear, realizing the mistreatment a woman received for an act that wasn’t meant to be placed on her in the first place. Kingston listening to her mother’s story feels that her aunt was mistreated and alienated from her own family members as well as Kingston herself because of all the questions she couldn’t simply ask about her. Kingston stated, “If I want to learn what clothes my aunt wore, whether flashy or ordinary, i would have to begin, ‘Remember Father’s drowned-in-the-well sister?’ I cannot ask that.” (Kingston 2). Consequently, this alienates her from a family member and her culture as she looks upon this event as something that is apart of her family and life but is disassociated with the inhumane culture that her aunt had faced punishment from.
Another piece of evidence that displays alienation is Kingston’s childhood is her time as a young child growing up in an American school. Kingston became alienated from other children at a young age and by popularity was nearly ranked towards the bottom alongside another chinese girl. She goes on by illustrating a game that the students played and how, “sometimes the pitcher wouldn’t bother to throw to us. ‘Automatic walk,’ the other children would call, sending us on our way.” (Kingston 110). These memories of Kingston’s separated her and some of the other students from truly participating in the game, based on her differences of being Chinese. She also writes how one day when alone with the other chinese girl, she aggressively attempts to get her to speak by pulling her hair and tormenting her in other physical and mental ways. Kingston, desperate to talk with the girl essentially handles the situation completely inappropriately and believes she was punished for it by coming down with an illness that inherently keeps her in a hospitalized bed for months. As a young girl, Kingston’s introversion reflected on how alienated she felt, even from a girl who was simply in her same situation. She recounts afterwards that, “sometimes I hated the ghosts for not letting us talk; sometimes I hated the secrecy of the Chinese.” (Kingston 117). Additionally, Kingston takes this interaction between her and the Chinese girl to portray the silence over them that alienates the two from each other due to their family’s secrecy, as Kingston’s parents would say “don’t tell” and the girl’s parents “protect[ing] both [of their] daughters.” (Kingston 110). Ultimately, Kingston, and the Chinese girl especially, weren’t properly accustomed to naturally talking to each other, making it harder for themselves to have a conversation together or with any other kid. We see in literary texts like “The Woman Warrior” common themes of alienation that correlate with the invisible yet existing problem that separates individuals from society. This theme displays the separation and displacement of people in an environment they’re marginalized in and nearly forgotten about as a whole. Kingston’s stories gives the reader a view from a life’s perspective that is transformed mainly due to barriers of her Chinese family and culture to first generational American life.
“Alienation.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/alienation.
“A Guide to Responding to Microaggressions.” Illinois.edu, https://wie.engineering.illinois.edu/a-guide-to-responding-to-microaggressions/.
Kingston, Hong Maxine. The Woman Warrior. Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Penguin, 2015.