In Search of April Raintree: Three Stems of Racism

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 In Search of April Raintree: Three Stems of Racism

 

In Search of April Raintree is the story of two Métis sisters who grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. April and Cheryl Raintree were removed from their family at a young age and raised in separate foster homes. The girls remained closely bonded throughout the separation but coped with the tribulations of being a Métis female in very contrasting ways. April spent the majority of her childhood under the foster care of a racist family who shamed her for being Métis. This compelled her, a pale skinned girl, to deny her Métis identity and pretend to be a part of the white society that she believed to be superior. On the contrary, Cheryl grew up with a family that nurtured her identity, making her proud of her brown skin and Métis heritage. While April tried to build a future for herself as a white woman, Cheryl tried to find ways to integrate Métis culture into her life. Over the years, distance developed between the two sisters. When April ended up divorced and free of the emotional burden that came with her chosen lifestyle, she returned to Winnipeg to repair her relationship with her sister. By this time, Cheryl’s pride had failed to sustain her, and she fell victim to alcoholism and prostitution. A group of white men mistook April for Cheryl and brutally assaulted her in every way possible. April survived this incident, but Cheryl did not. The story ends with April’s commitment to raise Cheryl’s newfound son with very close ties to the Métis culture that her sister was proud of. It was at this point that April’s search for her true Métis self was over.

 This story demonstrates the profound impact that racism has on the lives of Aboriginal people. One strategy which Aboriginal people have used cope with prejudices is presented through April’s life. Her strategy included disconnecting herself from her Métis identity and assimilating into white society; this tactic was used in attempt to avoid racism that was individual, institutional, and internalized. It is vital to understand how past and present racism towards Aboriginal peoples stems from multiple sources. Truly listening April’s experiences promotes empathy towards the Aboriginal peoples, an important prerequisite for achieving reconciliation.

 There were ample situations in which April faced individual racism, a type of racism used to emphasize ideological and personal attitudes of superiority (J. M. Jones & Carter, 1996). At a young age, April began to envy the white children in the park that she believed to be wealthy, “I used to envy them, especially the girls with blond hair and blue eyes. They seemed so clean and fresh and reminded me of flowers I had seen… To me, I imagined they were very rich and lived in big, beautiful houses” (16). April’s feelings toward the other children both revealed and contributed to the start of her internalized racism. The playground hosted many racist children who introduced April to labels that she would soon internalize and apply to herself, “They called us names and bullied us” (16). While experiencing this, she was living in a Métis home that was far from lavish but provided her with the love that she needed to flourish. This allowed her to keep some self-acceptance regardless of the individual racism that she was exposed to in the public.

Despite the love that the family provided, the Raintree family remained powerless against a government system that did not support maintaining Métis identity. April and her sister were forced out of their home and away from their parents to be placed in foster homes under the control of white families. Alice, the mother of the Raintree sisters was intimidated by the social workers that bombarded her home. Realizing the power of the authority figures, she was respectful and obedient while being inhibited by her internalized racist views of herself as inferior to the white social workers and as a neglectful mother. After the social worker whispered in Alice’s ear, she told her daughter, “April, I want you and Cheryl to go with these people… you’ll be alright. You be good girls for me” (18). Powerless and unable to tell the social workers to be good to her daughters, instead Alice told April to be good. This is teaching April that she must please authority but that it does not have to do the same to her in return. Despite this, April remained the brave, Métis girl she was and refused to obedience towards the social workers. However, this way of acting was not as feasible towards the racist nuns the sisters encountered when they arrived at the orphanage. They used severe punishments and abusive language to keep the children in order. To deny the girls of their Métis traditions and further emphasize their superiority, the nuns cut off all of April and Cheryl’s hair. This was the beginning of April converting into a lifeless colonial subject. The nuns took every opportunity to demoralize the children, calling against April during a meal, “Don’t gulp your food down like a little animal” (20). In fear of the physical and verbal abuse, April complied passively. This demonstrates the loss of strength and morale April began to experience when under the control of white superiors who used individual racism to assume their power.

In her second foster home, April was placed with the DeRosier family where she was faced with serious physical and mental abuse. Unlike the white children in the DeRosier home, April was treated as a slave. She was addressed with demeaning names, such as “half-breed,” “squaw,” and “Ape” (45-47) by her foster mother, Mrs. DeRosier. These terms are not only racist against Métis people, but they possess dehumanizing implications. When Mrs. DeRosier was not around, her children made sure that April’s nightmare would not end. They isolated her on the school bus by telling the other children lies about her being dirty and having lice. This caused April to associate these derogatory comments with her race, creating a dislike for Métis people within herself, “Anything to do with Indians, I despised” (42). Applying this racism created from individuals around her to herself, April refused to reveal to anyone in her school that she was of Métis descent. This created a sense of isolation and fear of rejection. These were all things that the social workers decided to look past, despite April’s attempts at revealing the truth. The buildup of individual racism from the DeRosiers and social workers each impacted April’s view of her own people.

At this point, April believed that the only way to escape the oppression was to escape her Métis identity. Because her skin was much lighter than what is stereotyped for Métis individuals, April chose to live her life as a white woman. This choice was a result of the lack of love she received after being taken away from her parents, which she blamed on her Métis heritage. She began falsifying her values and desires to those of a wealthy white woman in order to create some form of self-love. With this came a need to prove her perceived whiteness to herself and other people. Living as a white woman was a way to avoid the pain of the racism that was projected from the people around her. This led April to disconnect from her sister, presumably because her sister had a strong tie to her Métis ancestry. After trying so hard to meet the white people’s conditions of worth, which she turned into conditions of self-worth, April began to lose her identity.

In this time of identity loss, April experienced more individual racism in the form of physical, sexual, and verbal abuse. One afternoon, April was mistaken for her younger sister by three white men that had the intention of raping Cheryl. Instead, the men grabbed April and smacked her around like a “helpless animal” (127) before shoving her into their car. In the car, the men took turns sexually assaulting April, referring to her as terms such as “squaw/bitch/cunt/savage/whore” (128-130). During this scene, the men consistently remind April of her Métis identity, making it seem as though it somehow made her deserving of their actions. Justifying their sexual and racial abuse this way caused April’s sense of hatred towards her culture to fester. The shame and guilt this created within April was much stronger than the blame and hatred she felt towards her abusers. This shows that the external individual racism that April experienced in her life fueled her internalized racism.

Reading about April’s experiences with individual racism is enough to make anyone’s fist clench. It seems surreal that people are exposed to such injustice. However, it is not surreal; individual racism is a problem that is still prevalent in today’s society. Like April, people are often silent about the struggles they face as a result of the accompanied shame that they feel. Reaching out to people like this may be a way to mitigate the problem on an individual level. Teachers are prime candidates for doing this with struggling students, like April, because they are meant to be a source for guidance and support. This was seen in the story when April wrote an essay for her English teacher, Mrs. Gauthier, outlining the discrimination and inequality that she was experiencing at her foster home. Mrs. Gauthier believed all of the atrocities that April wrote about and took matters to the social workers herself, which led to April’s removal from the toxic DeRosier home. This was the first time that someone answered April’s cry for help. This was the first time that April felt a sense of hope after being separated from her family. This demonstrates that teachers have the power to make differences in the lives of their students. It also shows that in some circumstances, it is the teacher’s duty to advocate for the betterment of their students.

There were more subtle forms of thought throughout the novel that contributed to the racism that April experienced, even though they stemmed from larger institutions, such as education. Institutional racism is a type of racism in which institutions use their power as a means of implementing ideological biases (J. M. Jones & Carter, 1996). When April began attending school, she believed that she would receive a break from the abuse that she endured in the foster home. However, at school April learned history lessons about Aboriginal people that were based on racist thinking. She was being taught lies about her own culture that we so persistent that she began to believe them, questioning her own existence.

April’s social worker, Mrs. Semple, possessed an honest belief based on a stereotype that she called “the Native girl syndrome” existed on an institutional level. Mrs. Semple described this as, “[getting] pregnant right away, [being unable to] find or keep jobs… alcohol and drugs… shoplifting and prostitution… [going] in and out of jails… [and living] with men who abuse you” (64). While this was not outright racism to April, it blames Métis women instead of the social conditions that caused these issues. “Native girl syndrome” remained nothing but a theory to April and her sister, up until this theory became Cheryl’s reality. The girls developed different mechanisms to cope with the identity that Mrs. Semple imposed on them, all of which led them to complete isolation, the ultimate goal of the institutional racism. When Cheryl committed suicide, April begins to recognize the deep-rooted societal problems that are the cause of this so called “Native girl syndrome.”

To think that a large sum of the institutional racism that April faced came from the education system is frightening. The purpose of school is to promote growth in youth and to allow them to thrive in their learning. The fact that this learning is being barricaded by a subtle form of racism is concerning. This triggers the realization that teachers must be aware of their social position and require critical self-reflection in order to implement pedagogy that is anti-racist. This means many things: incorporation of topics of race and inequality into teachings, teaching from a standpoint that is continuously anti-racist, and spreading this anti-racist way of thinking throughout the school community. These required efforts imply that anti-racist pedagogy is an organizing effort for institutional and social change that extends far beyond teaching in the classroom. This is especially true because as seen with Mrs. Semple, institutional racism is often brought about unconsciously. It can be way of thinking that is ingrained in people and evolved over time without them even realizing. For this reason, it is time to pay conscious attention to unconscious thoughts in order to abolish old ways of thinking. Because teachers play a large role in shaping children, they have the ability to create this change in an environment that is safe and accepting for all individuals.

The strongest form of racism that has connections to both the individual and institutional forms that April faces, is internalized racism. Internalized racism is a type of racism characterized by acceptance by members of the stigmatized races of negative messages about their own abilities and intrinsic worth (Jones, 2000). Starting from her childhood in the park, April derived a strong sense of shame for her Métis identity. The isolation between April and her sister began when they were placed in separate foster homes; this did not alter the love that existed between April, Cheryl, and their family. However, the sense of togetherness deteriorated quickly. April’s shame grew into disgust for her heritage and she developed negative feelings towards her parents for abandoning her. Despite this, April stayed close to her sister, “No matter what, we’ll always have each other” (41) she said, “To hell with my parents! To hell with everyone, except Cheryl” (43).  The internalized racism that April acquired caused her to shift her perception of her Métis culture and the anger she associated with it onto her parents. The same eventually became true of April’s relationship with Cheryl. April saw her sister, a visibly Métis woman, as a threat to her desire to assimilate to white culture. On the first page of the novel, April describes her family as:

My father, Henry Raintree, was of mixed blood, a little of this, a little of that, and a whole lot of Indian. My sister, Cheryl… had inherited his looks: black hair, dark brown eyes that turned black when angry, and brown skin. There was no doubt they were both of Indian ancestry. My mother, Alice, on the other hand, was part Irish and part Ojibway. Like her, I had pale skin, not that it made any difference when we were living together as a family. (11)

This is interesting because April uses vague terms and refers to her father with the generalized term, “Indian”. She describes their angry, dark-coloured eyes that he and Cheryl possessed, implying negative emotionality when speaking of the two of them. On the contrary, April emphasizes specific details about her mother’s heritage She refers to her pale skin in a less negative context. This appears to be a harmless description of her family, realistically, this is the first reveal of the prejudice that exists deeply within April.

It is not until the end of the novel that April admits to Cheryl that she is ashamed of her Métis identity and purposefully tried to distance herself. Before leaving Manitoba to live with a white man in Ontario, April said:

I can’t accept being a Metis. That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever said to you, Cheryl. And I’m glad that you don’t feel the same way I do… being a Metis means I’m one of the have-nots… I want what white society can give me… I’m different from you… You have to do what you believe is right for you, but I have to go my way… I’ll always be there if you need me. (111)

While April was consumed with getting away from her ties to the Métis culture, Cheryl became alienated, starting to embody the “Native girl syndrome”. This drove Cheryl to dropping out, an abusive relationship, alcoholism, and prostitution. Unfortunately, it was this point that triggered April’s desire to reconnect with her sister. Cheryl’s death was the final push towards April’s acceptance of her full identity for the first time in her life. With this, April promises to honour the legacy her sister left behind.

It is not uncommon for members of marginalized communities to have a buildup of internalized racism. This is especially true of students placed in inequitable educational conditions (Kohli, 2014). Inequitable learning conditions are not always apparent, a simple example could be when students of a minority group are being taught in a school that is predominantly white. This lack of diversity can produce feelings of inferiority in minority students. The perception of being inferior can cause minority students to conform to the cultural normal of their group or to dissociate from their group (as seen in April) as a way of preventing alienation. Teachers may contribute to the prevention of this conformation by creating ongoing efforts to cultivate ethnic pride. Cultural diversity needs to be celebrated both inside and outside of the classroom in a way that allows students of all backgrounds to thrive.

 In Search of April Raintree is a raw retelling of the tragic encounters that April Raintree faced growing up Métis in Canada. She was challenged with individual, institutional, and internalized racism that inhibited her from a healthy, prosperous life simply because of her Aboriginal identity. This story exposed how racism is an ideology deeply rooted in many parts of Canadian society and politics. It is time for Canada to defuse this ideology and advance reconciliation and renew relationships with Aboriginal people in order to give them the rights, respect, cooperation, and partnership they deserve. Bearing this in mind, these changes begin at the individual level and can be facilitated by informed educators. Stories like In Search of April Raintree have the ability to open people’s eyes and change their way of thinking; this is what is required in order to have true reconciliation

References

Jones, C. P. (2000). Levels of racism: a theoretic framework and a gardener’s tale. American Journal of Public Health, 90(8), 1212–5.

Jones, J. M., & Carter, R. T. (1996). Racism and White racial identity: Merging realities. In Impacts of racism on White Americans (2nd ed.). (pp. 1–23).

Kohli, R. (2014). Unpacking internalized racism: teachers of color striving for racially just classrooms. Race Ethnicity and Education, 17(3), 367–387.

Mosionier, B., & Suzack, C. (1999). In search of April Raintree. Winnipeg, Man: Portage & Main Press.

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