Consolidated Colors: Racial Passing and Figurations of the Chinese in Walter White’s Flight and Darryl Zanuck’s Old San Francisco

Consolidated Colors: Racial Passing and Figurations of the Chinese in Walter White’s Flight and Darryl Zanuck’s Old San Francisco

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S.
Volume 37, Number 4, Winter 2012
pages 93-117
DOI: 10.1353/mel.2012.0064

Amanda M. Page, Visiting Assistant Professor of English
Marywood University, Scranton, Pennsylvania

Narratives of racial passing frequently investigate how the boundaries of race can be reimagined. In these texts, the dominant black-white binary construction is often under scrutiny for its failure to accommodate the identifications of people who do not fit easily in either category. Throughout US literary history, many passing narratives have also challenged the logic of the “one-drop” rule, codified into law in the 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson. Gayle Wald explains how the “one-drop” principle shapes racial categorization in US culture:

By representing “whiteness” as the absence of the racial sign, [“one-drop”] has perpetuated the myth of white purity (a chimera that colors contemporary liberal language of the “mixed-race” offspring of “interracial” marriages). In a complementary fashion it has rendered the political and cultural presence of Asian Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans invisible (or merely selectively and marginally visible), thereby enabling the hyper-visibility of African Americans as that national “minority” group most often seen as “having” race. (13–14)

This construction presents whiteness as raceless, while the burden of racialized identity is shifted to African Americans. With this belief in white purity comes the expectation that racial impurity is something that visibly marks the black body. The passing subject, however, often challenges the expected hyper-visibility of the African American by subverting the cultural assumption that racial identity is visible. Though “one drop” is legally significant for a mulatta/o subject, the act of passing can resist the confines of legislated racial categorization by crossing the racial barriers meant to deny the full rights of citizenship to nonwhite peoples.

Just as the “invisible” passing subject often threatens the purity of white identity, so, too, does the existence of those other “invisible” peoples Wald describes. Because Native Americans, Latina/os, and Asian Americans do not fit into the black-or-white construction of race as defined in Plessy,1 these groups, like mulatta/o passing subjects, create problems of racial categorization. Authors of passing narratives frequently use characters from other binary-disrupting groups to draw parallels between the racial ambiguity of these groups and the passing subject. In one such passing narrative, Walter White’s novel Flight (1926), a Chinese figure is used to disrupt the conventional trajectory of the passing narrative and to offer an alternative vision of racial solidarity. In Flight, the heroine, Mimi Daquin, crosses the color line to gain the economic opportunity that would be denied to her if she continued to live as a black woman. Instead of permanently “crossing the line” to live as a white woman at the conclusion of the novel, however, White’s mulatta heroine returns to living as a black woman because of an encounter with a radical Chinese intellectual, Wu Hseh-Chuan. This Chinese intermediary, like the mulatta heroine, disrupts the US’s narrative of race as either black or white; White’s strategic deployment of these two characters works as a double challenge to the dominant construction. Furthermore, White draws on the connection of these characters as outsiders with subversive potential when Hseh-Chuan advocates for an international unity of people of color against global white supremacy. This encounter directly leads to Mimi’s racial reawakening, as Hseh-Chuan makes her realize the value of African American culture in its resistance to white racism.

Yet White’s move toward internationalism in his passing narrative does not indicate a trend toward greater inclusiveness in the culture, as even the passing trope—often a tool of African American activist authors trying to undermine racism—continued to serve contradictory agendas. Released only a year after White’s novel, the 1927 Warner Brothers film Old San Francisco puts a unique twist on the usual black-to-white passing narrative by depicting a Chinese American passing subject as a dangerous alien threat to (white) American identity. Written and produced by Darryl F. Zanuck and directed by Alan Crosland, Old San Francisco tells the story of a Spanish…

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