Racism and Ethnicity in Interpreter of Maladies and Ceremony


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One’s ethnicity or their cultural beliefs and traditions are what make people different in addition to their physical appearance, and in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, these are the two key aspects of life that are focused on as characters determine how they wish to interact with one another. Lahiri’s short story exemplifies the struggles that make themselves visible when people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds interact, similar to the way Silko’s Native American fictional novel does, specifically when having white people interact with Native Americans like Tayo. Racism and ethnicity are two concepts that drive the actions of characters, such as Lilia and Mr. Pirzada as well as Tayo and the white people that surround him, because it provides something for the characters to focus in on as differences between one another. Regardless of the efforts by characters in both texts to get rid of these preconceived notions based on physical appearance, there remains people who refuse to see past it, which is evident in the case of whites versus Native Americans in Ceremony, along with those who focus in on minutia in order to differentiate themselves from others, as shown in Interpreter of Maladies.

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Initially, Lilia determines that Mr. Pirzada is different than she is for what she presumes is a racial or ethnic reason, and it is that idea that drives all of her actions in building a relationship with him. She observed that something about Mr. Pirzada was not the same as what she was used to in a person, which drove her curiosity to find out what exactly it was that caused this feeling. She stated, “Now that I had learned Mr. Pirzada was not an Indian, I began to study him with extra care, to try to figure out what made him different. I decided that the pocket watch was one of those things. When I saw it that night, as he wound it and arranged it on the coffee table, an uneasiness possessed me; life, I realized, was being lived in Dacca first” (Lahiri 30). The fixation that Lilia admits she has over his pocket watch reflects on the idea that no matter what, she is already determined to find something that makes Mr. Pirzada different from herself and her family. Over time, Lilia does take a strong liking to Mr. Pirzada once she is able to allow herself to dismiss any preconceived notion she had, and then formulate a relationship with him that was greater than any racial or ethnic difference.

However, the progression that Lilia goes through does not mirror that of the white people in Ceremony because they do not undergo the same transformation of bias that Lilia does when it comes to Native Americans. Tayo along with the other Native Americans in Ceremony are aware of the way white people view them as different simply because of their race, yet they do not even consider their ethnicity, which drives Tayo’s ideology towards white people throughout the text. For example, “The first day in Oakland he and Rocky walked down the street together and a big Chrysler stopped in the street and an old white woman rolled down the window and said, ‘God bless you, God bless you,’ but it was the uniform, not them, she blessed” (Silko 38). The author allows Tayo to show how deeply he wishes to be looked at as an American in the same way a white man is looked at as an American because ethnically speaking, he feels as if he is one. Her intent may not have been malicious towards Tayo specifically by any means, but her attitude towards solely blessing the uniform he was wearing, as opposed to Tayo himself, is a clear example of racism impacting the actions of a particular character in Silko’s novel. Tayo believes that regardless of the way white people want to believe Native Americans are different because of the color of their skin, they ought to understand that from the perspective of ethnicity, they are Americans just like they are underneath their skin color. Racism in Ceremony is a conflict that white people force Tayo and the other Native Americans to face throughout the entire course of the text; however, it is this battle that fuels the development of Tayo’s own ideology towards the issue of one’s race. Tayo focuses on the idea of racism by fixating on its literal definition when he says, “The skin. He saw the skin of the corpses again and again, in ditches on either side of the long muddy road — skin that was stretched shiny and dark over bloated hands; even white men were darker after death. There was no difference when they were swollen and covered with flies” (Silko 6). Silko demonstrates the conflict that race cultivates in Tayo’s thought process by having him highlight the idea that all people, regardless of their respective race, look the same after death. No matter what race somebody is when they are alive, Tayo states how everyone as the same after death, which shows his desire to have all people viewed upon as the same with no racial prejudice while they are alive as well. The way in which racism is used as a way to create divides between groups of characters resembles the way in which Lilia attempted to differ herself from Mr. Pirzada in Interpreter of Maladies.

Race at its surface is a simple term, which is in reference to one’s physical appearance and skin color, however, characters in both Interpreter of Maladies and Ceremony used this as a means of differentiating themselves from one another, regardless of ethnicity. Jhumpa Lahiri’s character Lilia attempts to use race to separate herself from Mr. Pirzada initially, but eventually allows herself to form a bond with him by accepting what is under his skin. The same ability to progress was not shown on behalf of the whites in regards to the Native Americans in Silko’s Ceremony because unlike Lilia, they refuse to attempt to see under the skin of those who physically appear different than them, even though they have the same ethnicities.

Works Cited

  • Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter Of Maladies: Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. Print.
  • Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. Penguin Books, 2006. Print.
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