Exploring Racial Stereotypes In Flight Patterns English Literature Essay


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Entrenched within the racially charged dialogue between the main character and the taxi driver in Sherman Alexie's Flight Patterns is the following declaration: "I have a story about contradictions" (Alexie 58). However, the contradictions that permeate the story exist merely as smaller building blocks of the greatest contradiction; in seeking to address, surmount, and break through common stereotypes, Sherman Alexie actually reinforces perceptions of the American Indian as angry and bitter against the dominant population, the African American man as a victim of his minority's social immobility, and the white American as the narrow-minded workaholic. Consistently berating the reader with ways in which William, a Spokane Indian, views his world through the lens of culture, Alexie does not succeed in dissolving any stereotypes but, instead, fortifies them so completely that there is little hope of an unbiased interaction within the Flight Patterns' universe.

The most successful stereotype fortification is manifested within the main character. Alexie attempts to create accessibility to William by affording him the characteristics of the everyday, race-less American. William hits the snooze button at 5:05am, longs to stay home with his family, has a fear of flying, but still goes to work in spite of his inclinations (Alexie 49). However, William quickly develops as an angry Native American who perceives the world in terms of race, gender, and, most saliently, separateness. Alexie describes William as follows: "He was an enrolled member of the Spokane Indian tribe, but he was also a full recognized member of the notebook-computer tribe and the security-checkpoint tribe and the rental-car tribe, and the hotel-shuttle-bus tribe and the cell-phone-roaming-charge-tribe" (53); this is indicative of how the working, traveling man is somehow contradictory to the American Indian man. In highlighting the differences between the two identities, Alexie is fortifying the stereotype that the American Indian is not typically a hard-working business man. William grapples with this apparently contradictory identity, consistently reconciling his everyday life with his culture: "I am a Native American and therefore have ten thousand more reasons to terrorize the U.S. than any of those Taliban jerk-offs, but I have chosen instead to become a civic American citizen, so all of you white folks should be celebrating my kindness and moral decency and awesome ability to forgive!" (Alexie 54). William is the embodiment of resentment and unresolved pain, both characteristics birthed from perceptions of his ethnic culture as not conducive to a lifestyle that so ostensibly corresponds to the American ideal.

Existing in parallel to the angry Native American is the stereotype of the African American man as a victim of his circumstances. Fekadu is an Ethiopian taxi driver who regales William with his life-tale as an Oxford-educated fighter pilot who defected after a soldier's moral dilemma, leaving his wife and children to be potentially killed. Fekadu proudly contends that Ethiopia has never been conquered by "white people," and yet he continues by admitting that he was a "coward for leaving" (Alexie 59-60). Fekadu drives a taxi cab in Seattle because returning home would be dangerous, with "too much history and pain" (Alexie 60). In attempting to frame Fekadu as a brave man who had the courage to leave a life in which he was forced to kill innocent people, Alexie fortifies the stereotype of the Black man as victim of social immobility. Fekadu has made no attempt to go home to see his family and is apparently contented to drive a taxi cab in Seattle for the "rest of [his] days" (59).

Fekadu and William bond over their common enemy, cementing the third, most prominent, racial stereotype in Flight Patterns. When William recounts his fear of flying following September 11th, admitting that he was hoping to be surrounded by "twenty-five, NRA-loving, gun-nut, serial killing, psychopathic, Ollie North, Norman Schwarzkopf, right-wing, Agent Orange, post-traumatic stress disorder, CIA, FBI, automatic weapon, smart-bomb, laser-sighting bastards" while he flew, Fekadu exclaims "imagine wanting to be surrounded by white cops!" (Alexie 58). Fekadu and William are united only by the fact that they are a minority who has been burned by the stereotypes of white men. However, both Fekadu and William exude excessive hatred toward white men, in general. While this framing of white Americans as naught more than ignorant, conservative workaholics was likely purposeful in conveying Alexie's dominant message that "we are all trapped by other peoples' ideas-" and the dominant population may be just as trapped by stereotypes as minorities- the author uses such racially charged descriptions of white Americans that there is no hope for the transcendence of those stereotypes (57); this is the crux of problem with Alexie's message.

Presumably, the author wants to alert the reader as to the ways in which stereotypes can frame entire populations in terms of their history, beliefs, and other culture-specific traits. The "flight pattern" is the tendency to perceive races in terms of us-versus-them. However, in presenting such a racially permeated story without hope of transcending stereotypes, Alexie has placed a wide crack in the foundation for his message. The only positive words in the story come from William's daughter, who seems to be the only character to recognize the unimportance of appearance: "I don't want long hair, I don't want short hair, I don't want hair at all, and I don't want to be a girl or a boy. I want to be a yellow and orange leaf some little kid picks up and pastes in his scrapbook" (Alexie 51). In failing to address the potential for a future in which stereotypes do not exist, Alexie closes William's world as a place in which Native Americans will forever be bitter, African Americans will forever be victims, and white Americans will forever be responsible for all racial oppression.

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