Book Review: Whiteness on the Border: Mapping the U.S. Racial Imagination in Brown and White by Lee Bebout

Lee Bebout, Whiteness on the Border: Mapping the U.S. Racial Imagination in Brown and White, (NYU Press, 2016). pp. 304. £ 21.99 $26.00

The work of Arizona State Associate Professor, Lee Bebout, in Whiteness on the Border is certainly topical. To date, the current U.S. administration plans to build a multi-billion-dollar border wall between Mexico and the U.S., solidifying a line in the sand across which ‘Mexican chaos south of the border must not cross’ (63). Those Americans supporting such a project are likely influenced to varying degrees by the very stereotypes about which Bebout writes. He suggests that theirs ‘is a fear not of military invasion per se but of cultural and biological influence and takeover’ (69).

Whiteness on the Border uses a range of visual and literary ‘excerpts’ meant to illustrate how Mexicans or Mexican-Americans are currently portrayed in the United States. But first Bebout recaps how historically theirs has been a contested identity in the U.S. Though legally classified as “white” due to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which ended the Mexican-American war in 1848 and ceded large parts of Mexican territory to the United States, they have existed in a no-man’s-land of ‘white but not equal’ (17) ever since. In the early twentieth-century, they were denied the right to serve on juries and subjected to the same Jim Crow laws that segregated African-Americans in the American South. Ironically, their legal status as “white” deprived them of any legal recourse to ‘the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which purported to guarantee rights for African Americans’ (17).

Bebout examines four prominent tropes through which to view the perception of Mexican-Americans today. These are white saviourism; Mexico as ‘the Infernal Paradise; the erotic, exotic Mexicana; and Mexican lawlessness’ (29). Brief descriptions of these tropes are as follows: “the white savior” dramatises a white ‘hero’ rescuing hapless people of color. The second trope is that of Mexico as an “infernal paradise” where ‘U.S. whites may go…to seek paradise, but through finding hell, they must return. The implicit return is obviously to the United States – an anti-Mexico – characterized by progress and order’ (60). The third theme is the positioning of Mexican womanhood, portrayed as submissive and sexually pleasing, as diametrically opposed to white womanhood, characterised by aggressive activism and which therefore positions them as assertive, independent and masculine. Mexicanas in this framing are cast in a primitive role as ‘charged with innocence, potential sexuality, and hyperfertility’ (63). Those south of the border are also seen as primitive in the fourth trope as they display ‘savage violence and atrocities [which] positions them as subpersons incapable of rational thought, civilized society and democratic participation’ (60).

This last stereotype additionally redirects attention away from any historical violence and lawlessness displayed by American whites. Examples of such violence might include anything from the Texas Revolution of the 1830s, when white colonists broke off a chunk of Mexico to claim as their own, to abuses by Texas Rangers of Mexicans which culminated in the Porvenir Massacre of 1919, not forgetting the infamous Zoot Suit Riots of the 1940s. Bebout suggests that by projecting the image of violence southward, it ‘foster[s] support for white innocence and white benevolence as potential victims of Mexican savagery. This undergirds and is reinforced by notions of white moral purity’ (62).

Bebout’s tropes are meant to illuminate the Hispanic minority but in actuality reflect more on the white majority. The eclecticism of his excerpts echoes approaches taken in his earlier work, Mythohistorical Interventions: The Chicano Movement and its Legacies (University of Minnesota Press, 2011). In this volume he used music, political speeches, poetry and religious images to make his case that history and myth helped propel the Chicano struggle for Mexican-American empowerment.

In Whiteness on the Border, however, the author argues from the other side of the fence. He proposes that the U.S. image of itself as “white” not only affects its perception of racially-defined “others”, but also that it continually reconstructs itself in response to this real or imagined opposition. And even though the examination of Chicana/o stereotypes consumes much of the book, it comes across mainly as a vehicle for Bebout’s larger focus on the study of whiteness itself, and the ways in which white-filters of other ethnicities are acts of violence in themselves.

Bebout’s book forms an impressive contribution to scholarship in this field, furthering the work of such academics as Professor Laura Gomez, whose book Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race (NYU Press, 2008), shared a similar viewpoint on how Mexican-Americans’ legal classification as white can conflict with their social position as non-white. Other scholarship in this field has also shown how the presence of the Mexican other (in the newly-annexed Texas and the war-acquired lands of Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and much of California) allowed marginal ethnicities in the mid-1800s, such as the Irish, to be more easily subsumed under the mantle of ‘whiteness’ in the United States.

Whiteness on the Border ultimately uses the racial filters by which Mexican-Americans are viewed as a way of inverting the perceptual lens. Bebout posits that such filters more accurately define the hidden fears of the viewer rather than the reality of the viewed. In so doing he has indeed made ‘whiteness visible and strange, simultaneously denaturalizing and decentering it’ (210). It is through examining the perceptions of those considered non-white that the foundational construct of whiteness itself becomes most obvious.

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About Diana Gill

Diana Gill received her PhD from the University of Mississippi and her background includes studies in history, social work and English literature. Her monograph ‘How We Are Changed By War: A Study of Letters and Diaries from Colonial Conflicts to Operation Iraqi Freedom’ was published by Routledge in 2010.
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