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  • Editor's Introduction:White and Not-Quite-White
  • Martha J. Cutter, Editor (bio)

In 1988, Richard Dyer's essay "White" considered a topic that seemed to be almost invisible; indeed, as Dyer notes, "white power secures its dominance by seeming not to be anything in particular" (44). More than two decades later, a host of works on white and not-quite-white ethnicity have been published,1 and studies such as Leslie Bow's Partly Colored: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South (2011) theorize where groups such as Asian Americans or American Indians fit within the dominant black/white binary of the US. But have we, as Dyer recommends, made "headway with grasping whiteness as a culturally constructed category" (44)? Or do we still take white to be the norm, an unmarked, invisible, absent ethnicity, while everything that is non-white is a "minority" perspective or discourse?

This issue of MELUS groups essays on whiteness with essays about individuals who are viewed as not-quite-white to probe not only white ethnicity, but also how ethnic writers challenge and complicate the black/ white binary that has dominated the US's imagining of itself as a nation. As Toni Morrison points out in Playing in the Dark (1992), a dark and abiding subhuman Africanist presence often has structured white individuals' ability to call themselves civilized, free, and human. But why, as David Ikard asks in his essay in this issue, do whites in fact need this dark and abiding presence? What is at the root of their own white subjectivity that requires this (subhuman) other to be broken off from this (human) self? Shawn Michelle Smith argues that "whiteness is a split identity formulated on the violent representation of the other" (143); in order to be white (a construction itself, as Ian F. Haney López points out), whiteness needs a dark or nonwhite other. How exactly, then, is white identity both formed and de-formed in its interactions with racial "others"? And how do not-quite-white ethnics undermine this binaristic split by creating interstitial spaces between whiteness and blackness?

Our issue begins with Lee Bebout's "Troubling White Benevolence: Four Takes on a Scene from Giant." Bebout examines four iterations of [End Page 5] an unforgettable episode in the movie Giant (1956)—a scene in which the Anglo protagonist Bick Benedict (played by Rock Hudson), who has previously been characterized as a racist, reacts violently to the color line in a segregated Texas diner by demanding equal service for a Mexican American family. Bebout's article illustrates how "white benevolence" is the dominant logic of this scene: anti-racist struggle is figured as the purview of whites who undergo self-improvement when they become advocates for passive, helpless, and disenfranchised Mexican Americans. Bebout explores the different depictions of this scene in Edna Ferber's novel Giant (1952), on which the movie was based; in Tino Villanueva's poetry collection Scene from the Movie GIANT (1993); and in Luis Alberto Urrea's novel In Search of Snow (1994). Villanueva's and Urrea's works ultimately challenge the two 1950s texts and show that "whiteness" as such is a false construction. Villanueva's traumatic memory of watching Giant as a teen in a segregated theater underscores his identification with the Mexican American family rather than with Rock Hudson's character, while Urrea's parody of the scene illustrates how whiteness is a fabricated racial category and also divulges the repressed histories of racial mixture and desire that structure the so-called color line. Bebout contends that "whiteness functions as an invisible center of meaning for these texts"; yet putting these four takes on the scene from Giant in conversation exposes how racial meaning is both created and undermined. Villanueva's and Urrea's works illustrate that whiteness has no inherent meaning but is naturalized through social fictions.

Of course, not all texts about whiteness trouble it. Some texts ultimately reinforce the inescapability of a white ideology, as Masami Sugimori's essay, "Narrative Order, Racial Hierarchy, and 'White' Discourse in James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Along This Way," demonstrates. Sugimori argues that...


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pp. 5-12
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