Deconstructing the Epistemic and Cultural Whitewashing in William Deverell’s Whitewashed Adobe

William Deverell’s 2005 Whitewashed Adobe illuminates the chronicle of Anglo American perceptions to Mexicans from the 1850s to the 1930s, a period where the development of Los Angeles saw an increase in racial discrimination. Deverell argues that due to the barrioization of Mexican neighborhoods forced upon from gentrification processes, as well as a sudden outbreak of Black Death (Bubonic plague) in these areas, Anglo Americans formed a distasteful disposition toward their Mexican Angeleno counterparts.

As a student engaged in postcolonial thought, my reaction to Los Angeles’ history was “why.” Why did Anglos barrioize Mexicans, or on a deeper level, why did they develop an aversion and prejudice toward Mexicans? The postcolonial theorists, Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha, lend a hand in helping me clarify the “why” in Whitewashed Adobe. 

Through the lens of Spivak and Bhabha, I thought differently about Deverell’s Whitewashed Adobe, proposing that white Angelenos developed a disdain for Mexican Angelenos because they were unsuccessful in hybridizing Mexican culture to Anglo American culture. As consequence, white citizens in Los Angeles imposed colonial regulations onto their Mexican neighbors, which irrevocably caused L.A. Mexicans to suffer violence epistemically and therein, predisposed to Americanization programs and whitewashing.

Two sets of theories render a new proposition in reading Whitewashed Adobe. Spivak’s notion of epistemic violence (1984) argues that “imperial powers” have imposed a shared consciousness of oppression onto colonized or disenfranchised groups to better maintain and “manage crisis of controlled peoples.”[1] Bhabha’s cultural hybridity (1994) argues that culture, which Bhabha defines as “the articulation of everyday life between classes, genders, races and nations,” is a base and medium for power inequalities between colonizers and the colonized. He states that cultural hybridity, “the revaluation of the assumption of colonial identity through the repetition of discriminatory identity effects,” proposes that the colonized can choose to resist cultural imperial notions of political and social trends or learn pieces from those trends and integrate those pieces into their own identity and culture.[2] These theories help support Deverell’s history by proposing the existence of different levels of conflicts.

One of the major changes that occur when re-conceptualizing Deverell’s book is why Anglo Angelenos wanted to Americanize Los Angeles popular culture. Why would Anglos need or want to limit bilingual communication or limit bicultural influence in the city; applying Spivak’s epistemic violence alters the subject and cause of Deverell’s statement. Instead of a “great Anglo presence meant far less bilingual communication,” colonial forces imposed cultural imperialism upon subaltern peoples because the colonial power (Anglos) “desired to form a collectivity foreclosed through the manipulation of power.”[4] Anglos migrated to a city that was foreign to them because their “epistemic privilege” of being Anglo mandated that they maintain control ownership over the language, music, food and overall society of their city.[5] In the case of Los Angeles – which featured a large Mexican population – Anglos could not fathom sharing a city with a people or culture that was inferior to them. Anglo Angelenos’ attempt to “whitewash the adobe” of Los Angeles is rather an attempt to superimpose their colonial power over any ‘other’ through the imposition of learned degradation onto the ‘other.’

Just as “ethnic tension” is deconstructed using Spivak’s epistemic violence to mean “colonial power struggles,” so too is the reasoning behind why Anglo Angelenos viewed their Mexican counterparts as “dirty,” and “disease-ridden.” Deverell explores how the Black Death, “which killed around forty Mexican Angelenos,” caused Anglo Angelenos to redistrict their Mexican counterparts into barrios.[6]  Bhabha’s cultural hybridity elucidates the issue of why white Angelenos categorized Mexicans as dirty. Anglo Angelenos failed in hybridizing Mexicans because they had “placed them in rigid boxes,” and underestimated the complexities of Mexican culture and identity. Once Anglos realized that their Mexican counterpart culture could not be infiltrated, they then decided to classify themselves as apart from Mexicans and to script Mexican Angelenos as “dirty.”

The theories of Spivak and Bhabha articulate how Deverell’s thesis of “ethnic tensions”  explains the whitewashing of Los Angeles because through their eyes, “ethnic tensions” are not the root of the conflict, but a symptom of a deeper level of conflict. Deverell’s work provides his reader with an in depth genealogy of crimes and institutionalized racism propagated by Anglo Angelenos. With the intervention of Spivak and Bhabha, Deverell’s narrative illustrates power, political and economic structures that speak directly to the relationship between the individual and the forces around him/her.

[1] Sarah Harasym, The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues (New York and London: Routledge, 1984): 95. It is necessary to point out that Spivak builds upon the theory of epistemic violence. Epistemic, first proposed by French psychiatrist Franz Fanon in his 1961 book, Wretched of the Earth, meant ‘systems of epistemology,’ or the study of the institutions that teach people how to learn.

[2] Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994): 159 and 41.

[3] Deverell 2005, 18 – 19; bold type added for emphasis.

[4] Ibid 19; and Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Urbana and Chicago: UIllinois UP, 1988): 275.

[5] Epistemic privilege is the epistemology of class privilege, which has always been perpetuated through ethnicity and race. The term, “white privilege” is one example of epistemic privilege.

[6] Ibid 2005, 181.

Categories: Methodology | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Deconstructing the Epistemic and Cultural Whitewashing in William Deverell’s Whitewashed Adobe

  1. As I recall, you were a bit more critical of Deverell in your original essay. This seems to be edited.

  2. Pingback: Borderlands History Blog Turns 1 « Borderlands History

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