Study Guide

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Race

By Sherman Alexie

Race

Chapter 2

It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you're poor because you're stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you're stupid and ugly because you're Indian. And because you're Indian you start believing you're destined to be poor. It's an ugly circle and there's nothing you can do about it. (2.53)

In this passage we begin to see how, for Arnold, being poor and being an Indian get all tangled up together in the same knot. Poverty comes from being stupid and ugly, and being stupid and ugly comes from being an Indian. This toxic line of logic leads to some pretty dark thoughts: you begin to feel you deserve to be poor. You begin to feel totally helpless and trapped – like there's nothing you can do to change things.

Chapter 5
Mr. P

"When I first started teaching here, that's what we did to the rowdy ones, you know? We beat them. That's how we were taught to teach you. We were supposed to kill the Indian to save the child."

"You killed Indians?"

"No, no, it's just a saying. I didn't literally kill Indians. We were supposed to make you give up being Indian. Your songs and stories and language and dancing. Everything. We weren't trying to kill Indian people. We were trying to kill Indian culture." (5.40-5.42)

Mr. P explains to Arnold how the school teachers initially tried to make the school kids give up being Indians. Taking the Indian-ness out of the child was supposed to save the children, but notice how brutal the whole process was. Teachers not only beat and abused the children, they also stole away their "songs and stories and language and dancing." Which, do you think, would be worse? (We say they're both pretty darn terrible.)

If a teacher told you it was bad to be white or black or (insert your race/ethnicity here), would this change the way you thought about yourself?

Chapter 6
Arnold Spirit, Junior

"Who has the most hope?" I asked.

Mom and Dad looked at each other. They studied each other's eyes, you know, like they had antennas and were sending radio signals to each other. And then they both looked back at me.

"Come on, I said. "Who has the most hope?"

"White people," my parents said at the same time. (6.7-6.10)

Arnold wants to know who has the most hope, and his parents say that it's white people. Why? Is it because the middle-class white folks in Reardan have more money and resources? How does class also change how much hope we have? Do you think poor white people have as much hope as rich ones?

Chapter 7

I was the only kid, white or Indian, who knew that Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities. And let me tell you, we Indians were the worst of times and those Reardan kids were the best of times.

Those kids were magnificent.

They knew everything.

And they were beautiful.

They were beautiful and smart.

They were beautiful and smart and epic.

They were filled with hope. (7.33-7.39)

Arnold makes a reference to Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, a novel set in London and Paris around the time of the French Revolution. Here, though, the two cities Arnold is talking about are Reardan and Wellpinit. What does each city represent?

Also, do you think Arnold's view of the white kids in Reardan is a little idealized or over the top? How do the students in Reardan (Penelope, for example, or Gordy) see themselves?

Chapter 8

They stared at me, the Indian boy with the black eye and swollen nose, my going-away gifts from Rowdy. Those white kids couldn't believe their eyes. They stared at me like I was Bigfoot or a UFO. What was I doing at Reardan, whose mascot was an Indian, thereby making me the only other Indian in town? (8.27)

On his first day at the new school, Arnold sees himself not only through his own eyes, but through the eyes of the white students as well. He realizes that, to them, he's not Junior the weirdo Indian, but he is something foreign and alien – more like "Bigfoot" or a "UFO" than an actual person. (The only other Indian at the Reardan school is, after all, the mascot.)

Here Arnold sees himself in two ways at once. It's almost as if he is looking through bifocal glasses. Writer W.E.B. DuBois has called this state a "double consciousness."

Chapter 16
Gordy

"Hey Arnold," he said. "I looked up 'in love with a white girl' on Google and found an article about that white girl named Cynthia who disappeared in Mexico last summer. You remember how her face was all over the papers and everybody said it was such a sad thing?"

"I kinda remember," I said.

"Well, this article said that over two hundred Mexican girls have disappeared in the last three years in that same part of the country. And nobody says much about that. And that's racist. The guy who wrote the article says people care more about beautiful white girls than they do about everybody else on the planet. White girls are privileged. They're damsels in distress." (16.24-16.26)

Gordy's Google-searched article discusses the preference given to white women by Western society. As the case of Cynthia illustrates, white women are often more highly valued than Mexican women. Is Arnold privileging white women by pursuing Penelope? Why or why not? What does Gordy think? What does Rowdy think? What do you think?

Yesterday, during a game, Penelope was serving the ball and I watched her like she was a work of art.

She was wearing a white shirt and white shorts, and I could see the outlines of her white bra and white panties.

Her skin was pale white. Milk white. Cloud white.

So she was all white on white on white, like the most perfect kind of vanilla dessert cake you've ever seen.

I wanted to be her chocolate topping. (16.2-16.6)

Staring at his semi-girlfriend, Penelope, Arnold doesn't see her as human so much as a "work of art." He also sees something else that he likes: her whiteness. How many times does Arnold use the word "white" in this description? What do you think "whiteness" has to do with Arnold's attraction to Penelope? Does Arnold fetishize Penelope's whiteness?

Chapter 17

Traveling between Reardan and Wellpinit, between the little white town and the reservation, I always felt like a stranger.

I was half Indian in one place and half white in the other.

It was like being Indian was my job, but it was only a part-time job. And it didn't pay well at all. (17.1-17.3)

Arnold feels as though he's too white for the reservation and too Indian for Reardan. The result is that he feels like a stranger in both places. Why does Arnold's racial identity change depending on where he is?

Chapter 18
Gordy

"I know, I know, but some Indians think you have to act white to make your life better. Some Indians think you become white if you try to make your life better, if you become successful."

"If that were true, then wouldn't all white people be successful?"

Man, Gordy was smart. I wished I could take him to the rez and let him educate Rowdy. Of course, Rowdy would probably punch Gordy until he was brain-dead. Or maybe Rowdy, Gordy, and I could become a superhero trio, fighting for truth, justice and the Native American way. Well, okay, Gordy was white, but anybody can start to act like an Indian if he hangs around us long enough. (18.15-18.17)

Gordy and Arnold discuss how you can become white or become Indian. This suggests that race is not so much something that you are born into (something biologically determined), but a category that can be changed by your behavior. We might say then that, according to the novel, race can be socially constructed.