Approaching Whiteness

Introduction by Anne Brewster and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey

© all rights reserved

The field of critical whiteness studies has been established for over a decade in North America and Europe, with Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992) being one of the foundational texts. During the decade following the publication of this book, critical whiteness studies proliferated in North America across a wide range of fields including literary studies, cultural studies, legal studies, feminist and masculinity studies, sociology and critical pedagogy studies. Labour historians and historians of slavery, in particular, have had a key role in its development by tracing the socio-economic (as well as corporeal) profiles of ‘whiteness’. The comparatively longer presence of critical whiteness studies in North America and Europe has meant that the field has a longer history of critical discussion about its methodologies and modes of critique.

In Australia it is now approaching a decade since the publication of foundational texts such as Ghassan Hage’s White Nation (1999) and Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s Talkin’ up to the White Woman (2000). Whereas in the US critical whiteness studies has been largely focused on whiteness in relation to African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans, in Australia it has historically been defined in relation to Indigenous people and very visibly shaped by Indigenous scholars such as Moreton-Robinson, Wendy Brady and Lillian Holt. Their work has consolidated the multidisciplinary field of Australian critical whiteness studies and points to the close relationship in Australia between Indigenous studies and critical whiteness studies. The current phase of Australian critical whiteness studies is that of consolidating a presence within the Academy, applying its analyses of white privilege in diverse cultural arenas, commonly in readings of popular culture, anthropology, media studies, history, film, feminist, queer and masculinity studies.

We felt that the Australian field is due for a moment of critical reflection. After more than a half-decade of Australian critical whiteness studies we wanted to gauge its relevance outside the academy, bring into focus its tools of critique, methodologies and the theoretical assumptions that underpin this emergent multidisciplinary field. Consequently, this special issue of Australian Humanities Review contains a variety of styles and thematic and methodological concerns, from film-making, history writing, whiteness in the ‘suburbs’, the dissemination of critiques of whiteness through art, the reading practices of ‘white readers’, and the politics of ‘whitening’ histories.

We were especially interested in the impact of whiteness and whiteness studies in creative practices outside the Academy. We are very pleased to include an essay by Rolf De Heer in which he accounts for his role as a white filmmaker in working on the award winning films Ten Canoes (winner of Prix spécial du Jury Un Certain Regard 2006 at the Cannes Film Festival) and The Tracker (2002). In both of these films, whiteness is ‘made strange’ through different filmic techniques. De Heer writes that he had come across issues of whiteness when working with Indigenous people on another project in 1992. Back then he realised that a particular film project would not get off the ground unless he “threw off the shackles of my white privileged existence and approached things in a manner consistent with their way of doing things”. In relation to Ten Canoes De Heer points out that working with the community at Ramingining meant that he had to rethink his usual film making practices and that his whiteness, his ways of going about organising his film making (including negotiating with his cast and writers, directing the action) all came under scrutiny. His account of how whiteness operates in this process is directed not only at an account of making these particular films, but at filmmaking and other creative practices more generally. De Heer’s essay provides an insight into how ‘whiteness’ constitutes a methodological challenge for film makers in Australia. It is also, we might add, a challenge that might be taken up further in critical analyses of Australian film.

Artist Adam Hill critiques whiteness from another perspective in his interview with Indigenous Historian Vicki Grieves. Grieves and Hill discuss his life experiences, his depictions of Australian political life in his art work and in particular, his sense of whiteness as being inextricably linked with territorial, ‘pioneer’ racism in ‘multicultural’ suburbs like Penrith (near Sydney), where he grew up. Grieves and Hill discuss two of his paintings from his exhibition “A SIGN OF THE CRIMES”, held at the Mori Gallery in Sydney in May 2006. Grieves draws attention to the ways that Hill’s art directly tackles whiteness in the form of governmentality and territoriality, in his depiction of landscapes, roads, (as lines of demarcation, vanishing points) and clouds which Hill describes as “a metaphor for “government”, that is, white, looming overhead, casting an ominous shadow. In later works there are seven, representing five states and two territories”. In Hill’s art whiteness is concomitant with racism and dispossession. Hill’s paintings manifest this co-presence by giving whiteness a status in ‘thing-ness’, manifesting structural dominance, everydayness and blindness in everyday objects and symbols like road signs, post office boxes, clouds, buildings, sheep. We are pleased to include reproductions of two his paintings in this issue.

Philip Morrissey discusses the function of the child in Phillip Noyce’s film The Rabbit Proof Fence and its return from exile by socio-political strategies of whiteness and ethnocidal processes of colonisation. He places this film in the context of other films featuring child characters such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Night of the Hunter and The Sound of Music and in the context of various writers’ (such as Daisy Bates) depictions and summations of the removal of half-caste Indigenous children from their families. He characterises the figure of the child as simultaneously helpless and powerful and argues that the Indigenous child actors in The Rabbit Proof Fence have a theurgical function in ‘delivering half-caste children from the netherworld to which Australia once tried to exile them’.

Fiona Probyn-Rapsey discusses the biopolitical management of Indigenous people within the contemporary nation through an analysis of white liberal discourse on Reconciliation. She looks specifically at the image of the nation as family and the pedagogic nationalist argument for extending the ‘white’ family to include Aboriginal kin and to ‘bind Aboriginality to whiteness’. She analyses how a wide range of Indigenous life narratives (including those by Morgan, Russell, Pilkington-Garimara, Lalor, Scott and Brown, Kinnane, Simon and Randall) describe familial relations between white and Indigenous family members. She argues, in her formulation of the phrase ‘kin-fused Reconciliation’, that a liberal ‘extended family’ model of the Nation is potentially assimilationist.

In his account of Australian critical whiteness studies, Joseph Pugliese suggests that it is ‘still characterised by an Anglocentricity that fails to situate whiteness within larger, transnational relations of racialised power’. Consequently, his essay aims to focus on and complicate non Angloceltic histories affiliated with whiteness, taking the diasporic histories and racialised genealogies of Calabrese Australians as an example. He returns to the village of his birth, Spilinga, Calabria, in a fictocritical mobilisation of anecdote, family oral histories and cultural fragments, in order to investigate of the lived histories of ‘otherwise invisible and unspoken transnational and diasporic spectres’.

From within literary studies, Alison Ravenscroft puts the notion of whiteness under pressure by asking whether the ‘white’ subject isn’t fantasmatic. Perhaps there is no white subject as such but only a subject-who-desires-whiteness, ‘with all the violent material effects of that desire’. This subject will seek to stabilise an ‘I’ as ‘white’ through the reiteration of practices intelligible as white within a particular discursive context. Reading is one such moment of reiteration. Rather than the so-called white reader being ‘before’ the text, forming meanings through reading, this subject might instead be thought of as a reading-effect. He or she is made and made again in such textual processes. In particular, Ravenscroft asks whether ‘settler’ readers might make themselves intelligible as white by fantasising themselves as the ‘white’ spectators of an unseeing ‘black’ other in a scene of their own imagining.

We look forward to the many different directions that this field will head in over the course of the next decade.

Anne Brewster is Senior Lecturer in the School of English at the University of New South Wales.01

Fiona Probyn-Rapsey is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney.

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