Review of Whitening Race

Whitening Race edited by Aileen Moreton-Robinson (Aboriginal Studies Press, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra. 2004).

Reviewed by Fiona Probyn

© all rights reserved

During a tutorial last week a white Australian student informed the class that she had never heard of the White Australia Policy. She added that this might have been due to the fact that her Australian History teacher had died and had not been replaced. But this student was not alone. Other students (whose history teachers were alive and kicking), also could not remember whether or not they had come across the White Australia policy during high school. This gap in student knowledge suggests both the need for a book like Whitening Race (edited by Aileen Moreton-Robinson) and the difficult climate for its reception. If students have not heard of the White Australia Policy, then they might also wonder what all the fuss is all about: what ‘whiteness’? But obviously Whitening Race is not about the White Australia Policy, it is much more broad in its scope. While the selection of migrants on the basis of racial homogeneity suggests something governmental and deliberate, whiteness studies looks equally at the everyday aspects of how whiteness organises the way that whites ‘know’ and how they/we imagine the ‘nation’. Hence the two sections of the book: nine essays in a section called “Whiteness and Knowing” while another eight essays in the second section “Whiteness and Nation”.

This collection brings together a number of articles which reveal “the many ways in which whiteness is socially and discursively constructed” (vii). Critical whiteness studies draws attention to the fact that whites are racialised in such a way that they are the ‘invisible’ (to ourselves) centre of categories like nation, identity, culture, the law. Whites are accustomed to thinking about the problem of racism as a problem effecting Others and not as something which is tied to the very definition of whiteness. Whiteness here refers to not only skin colour, but also to a certain set of behaviours that are historical variable, contested and often invisible to those who are marked by it, in it.

Whiteness Studies has been big in the US for a while now. I think back to Ruth Frankenberg’s White Women Race Matters published in 1993, more than ten years ago, and then Richard Dyer’sWhite, published eight years ago in 1997. In Australia, it was not really until Ghassan Hage’s White Nation (1998) and Jon Stratton’s Race Daze (also in 1998) that ‘whiteness’ became an object for mainstream academic critique – it was taken up in popular circles too. Whitening Race represents a further consolidation of Australian critical whiteness studies, a field that is distinguished in Australia by its contributions from Aboriginal academics and authors, of whom Aileen Moreton Robinson (the editor) is the most well known. Moreton-Robinson is author of Talkin’ Up to the White Woman (2002) and numerous articles. She is also President of the Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association (ACRAWSA).

By and large, most of the articles within the collection contribute to establishing the scope of the field of critical whiteness studies, demonstrating for instance that it has a role to play in decentring whiteness in the following fields: masculinity studies, feminism, social work, education, anthopology, Aboriginal history, Literary studies, public debates, and in government policies on refugees, migration and borders. Collections can sometimes come together to give an indication of the breadth of the field, which is the strength of Whitening Race. Bob Pease criticises masculinity studies for its underexamined whiteness in “Decentring white men: critical reflections on masculinity and white studies” and finds many “parallels in the debates about hegemonic masculinities and about whiteness” (126). Susan Young finds that whiteness has to be self reflexively invoked in social work practices so that white social workers can learn to cope with rejection: “offer themselves as allies while recognising their positioning will always be contested and not always accepted” (118). Young challenges the radical tradition within social work practices and seeks a more fluid, postmodern understanding of race and identity. Moving away from radical and liberal humanist learning strategies also occurs in Sue Shore’s article called “Destabilising or recucperating Whiteness? (un)mapping ‘the self’ of agentic learning discourses” where she finds that learning needs to be ‘un-mapped’ in order to reveal its white core. Her essay calls for the ‘historicising of the learning subject’ (102) in order to consider “whiteness as a category of analysis” (103) while wary of the implications for re-centring whiteness. In relation to Aboriginal studies in Australia, Moreton Robinson is suspicious that de-essentialising race is most often aimed at Aborigines and not at the whites who write about them and that when it comes to whiteness: “conventional ways of deploying race have not been radically destabilised” (82). Consequently, Moreton-Robinson destabilises race by outing the whiteness of the white writers of Aboriginality. It is the lack of clarity around their ‘whiteness’ that Moreton-Robinson pulls the critics up on, lack of clarity being one of whiteness’ principal features. For this she also invokes the gesture of ‘unmasking’ which has become a key term in Australian critical whiteness (see for example Unmasking Whiteness Ed Belinda McKay), a term which also marks the field’s investment in critiques of liberal humanism. I wonder if the emphasis on ‘unmasking’ whiteness is a bit tired now; situating critical whiteness studies within the repressive hypothesis mode, over and over again (Probyn, 2004).

Fiona Nicoll’s reading of perspective in “Reconciliation in and out of perspective” follows her account of her curatorship of the Auntie Nance exhibition where she outlines the ‘violence of perspective’. In a fascinating account Nicoll argues that she reconceived ‘perspective’ as something coming from “within my skin, rather than presuming to know them from some point outside it.” (30). The strength of this piece is in its account of coming to realise this through her work with Aunty Nance – a process that Nicoll shows to have been intensely challenging and destabilising. The point of ‘losing perspective’ though is that she begins to recognise the value of the process of ‘coming to know’ difference through losing a prior claim to perspective/knowledge.

Alison Ravenscroft examines how “whiteness stuctures histories and counterhistories alike” (3) and focuses mainly on representation of the Viet Nam war and she calls for white scholars to make themselves the “objects of critical historical enquiry” (16). Maureen Perkins’ contribution is a fascinating essay on the English and Australian histories of ‘passing’ by reference to nineteenth century literature and popular texts. She ends by pointing out that colour blindness is misguided and that “seeing all colour, including white, and challenging colour’s power to demarcate boundaries of community goes hand in hand with naming the hypocrisies of the past.” (175). In an essay called “Whiteness in Constructions of Australian Nationhood: indigenes, immigrants and governmentality” the three authors Catriona Elder, Kath Ellis and Angela Pratt examine governmentality and indigenous people and migrants. They conclude in a Hage-like way that whiteness is managerial, invisible and normative. The conclusion to this essay also reiterates one of Australian critical whiteness studies’ central theses that “getting white people to see their power and then..relinquish it will be a continual process” (221). The challenge of ‘relinquishing power’is one which Aileen Moreton-Robinson brought to the Australian field in her book Talkin’ Up to the White Woman back in 2002.

As well as Moreton-Robinson, the influence of Ghassan Hage’s work is central to this collection, leading me to think at one stage that ‘unmasking’ critical whiteness studies in Australia would ‘reveal’ Ghassan Hage waiting for something else to come along! And of course, unmasking Hage would reveal…..). Sonia Tascon also utilises Hage’s work on internal and external refugees and adds that while whiteness situates itself as invisible it can be traced back to colonialism or ‘coloniality’ (247). Another very interesting contribution which builds on Hage’s work comes from Toula Nicolacopolous and George Vasiliacopolous who argue that the role of the Southern European migrant who is “white yet no white” is to “supposedly supply… the form of recognition that ought to have been given to and received from Indigenous people” (47). Nicolacopolous and Vasilacopolous argue that this substitution role is a symptom of the contemporary ontological condition of white Australian whiteness, pressing all Others into service of its original terrors.

Jon Stratton builds on a reading of the ‘border’ as a characteristic feature of modernity and calls for it to be rethought as characteristically postmodern instead, that is, with an ‘unsettled identity’ (238) rather than a stable one. Gillian Cowlishaw contextualises the return of ‘race’ to the Anthropological agenda through the years when it was rendered impolite (and switched to culture). She seems to relish this return as it invites the return of other pressing questions that were rendered equally impolite. Cowlishaw’s essay is a particularly interesting contribution to this edition, as it directly engages the question of white “moral embarrassment on the basis of racial positioning” (67). Cowlishaw suggests that doing critical whiteness studies does not mean running round identifying white privilege in others but in looking at the modes of address that are possible within it. She locates what might be at stake for the white critic: “the fear of seeming, or accused of being, or indeed being actually exposed as, racist in some way. Then there is the fear of inadvertently silencing black voices. Finally there is the fear of having one’s racial identity named, that is, being positioned as being a specific rather than a universal intellectual, a difficult thing for academics whose occupational hazard is hubris” (67). Cowlishaw also raises the question of whether Australian critical whiteness studies relies on the creation of an “unarguable Indigenous authority” (72) and white “obsequiousness towards black voices” (258). Articles like Cowlishaw’s and Nicoll’s, both of which take on the question of white perspectives in one way or another, demonstrate that the ‘unmasking’ of whiteness is really only the beginning.

In this regard it would have been interesting to read more engagement with critiques of the field and in particular it’s central themes/tools of self-reflexity, particularity and unmasking. Critiques of whiteness studies have been around for a while now too. For instance, there is Homi Bhabha’s argument that “[r]ecent work on the experience of whiteness…makes the Foucauldian line [that power is always invisible] practically axiomatic” (Bhabha, 1998: 21). Bhabha argues that this occurs through the attempt to prioritise the ‘gaze of the other’ which has the effect of revealing or mapping the differences which can then be incorporated. Robyn Wiegman’s article “Whiteness Studies and the Paradox of Particularity” (2002), is an account of US whiteness studies in which she warns of the “identificatory mobility” of “antiracist white subjectivity” (285). Wiegman argues that this ‘identificatory mobility’ allows the anti-racist white subject to recast themselves as symbolically black, disempowered and marginalised, which has the effect of claiming a universalised position that whiteness studies was supposed to reject. More recently, (too recently for this Edition), Sara Ahmed has critiqued the ‘declarative speech acts’ of the “self-reflexive turn in whiteness studies” which fail because “the conditions are not in place that would allow such declarations to do what they say” (Ahmed, 2004). The lack of critical engagement with critical whiteness studies contained within this edition suggest that the Australian field is still in the mode of consolidating itself, looking outward at more subjects to cover rather than questioning the ‘how’ of the field’s operations and strategies.

One last thing from this reviewer – the title of the book. It makes strange things happen. It makes possible sentences like this: ‘Whitening Race contributes to the displacement of white privilege in this country’; or ‘Whitening Race will disrupt the way we think about race’. To ‘whiten’ race can be, in the terms of critical whiteness studies, to make it disappear, to turn it into a norm, allowing whites to recentre themselves again. But surely Whitening Race seeks to do the opposite, to racialise whiteness, to render its specific characteristics up for discussion and debate in the context of race and racism. The title demonstrates the risks inherent in the field. Whitening Race does a great job of racialising whiteness and demonstrating the need for whiteness to be taken more seriously within academic and non-academic forums. The contributors and Editor demonstrate the importance and timeliness of this collection. And if anyone from the Department of Education is reading, please note that copies should be sent to all History teachers before they die.


Fiona Probyn lectures in the Department of Gender Studies at the University of Sydney.


Ahmed, S. (2004) “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism”, Borderlandsejournal 3:2

Bhabha, H. (1998) “The White Stuff” Art Forum International.

Dyer, R. (1997) White London: Routledge.

Frankenberg, R. (1993) White Women, Race Matters : The Social Construction of Whiteness, Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press.

Hage, G. (1998) White Nation, Sydney, Pluto Press.

Moreton-Robinson, A. (2002) Talkin’ Up to the White Woman, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Probyn, F. (2004) “Playing Chicken at the Intersection: The White Critic of Whiteness” Borderlandsejournal, 3:2,

Stratton, J (1998) Race daze : Australia in identity crisis Publisher Sydney : Pluto Press,

Wiegman, R. (2002) “Whiteness Studies and the Paradox of Particularity” in The Futures of American Studies, Ed. Donald E. Pease and Robyn Wiegman, Durham: Duke University Press, pp.269-304.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]