Who is the white subject? reading, writing, whiteness

By Alison Ravenscroft

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James Baldwin once said that there are no white people, only people who think they are white.1 Can we say, then, that to think of oneself as white is fantasmatic? If within prevailing discourses of race, whiteness operates as a cultural ideal, it can therefore never be secured. All ideals can only ever be approached, never arrived at. We might say, then, that there is no one who can stand in the place of whiteness, there are only subjects who fantasise themselves as being there. Instead of ‘the white subject’- conceived as calculable, known in advance-we might instead think of the subject-who-desires-whiteness, with all the violent material effects of that desire. This would be to put into effect a notion of whiteness as exceeding the bounds of bodily identifications and the discursively produced hierarchies of skin.

Among critics of whiteness there tends to be a lapse that occurs where, at some point in our own discourses, ‘white’ tends to be taken as a given-as if there are such things as white bodies that are prediscursive and which can be equated with white subjectivity, where the so-called white subject carries whiteness. It is as if there are white subjects (and black subjects) already there, waiting to be found. Even in accounts that speak of whiteness as property, or as performative, or as historically produced, in these accounts too there is always such a slip. That is, we repeat what we critique. Following Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks here, we might also propose that desire for whiteness is not the sole domain of those subjects who identify or are identified as white.2

As a starting point for looking at this subject-who-desires-whiteness in the Australian context, I turn firstly to a consideration of the subjectivity of an imagined ‘white’ reader of Indigenous-signed texts. My question becomes: what if there is no fixed white reader before reading, but only that subject who, aspiring to whiteness, attempts to make herself white through reading? A reading subject is an apposite example because the written word remains the most common site of conversation between white and Indigenous Australians. But, more than this, theories of reading also offer approaches to the production of racialised meanings more generally. We ‘read’ each other, we ‘write’ ourselves in everyday moments of meaning-making. In particular, I ask whether a subject who aspires to whiteness seeks to stabilise him or herself as white through the fantasy of being the spectator of an unseeing ‘black’ other. Do readers who aspire to whiteness fantasise themselves in this position: as the seeing ones, as the ones who see – and see all – and are not seen by the other?

A reader becomes what she has read

A reading subject is made in reading; not once and for all, but made and made again. A subject is not fixed but in process, and reading is one of those processes through which a subject is constituted-as white, say. We might say then that there is no white reader in the sense that the white reader is not fixed in place before the text but looks to the text in order to secure an image of herself as white. A white reader then might be better thought of as a reading effect and not the origin of meaning.

To say there is no white reader before reading is also to insist that ‘race’ is bound with other strands in a nexus that is constitutive of subjectivity. We know no reader who is not also gendered, classed, etcetera. But, as Judith Butler has insisted, strings of nouns, commas and conjunctions of the kind: ‘race, gender and class’ always fail to add up.3And then there is always the strategic retreat offered by the ‘etcetera’ that I have included at the end of my own list, that little word that stands in for all the things I do not know and cannot name. Neither ‘gender’, nor ‘class’, nor ‘etcetera’ can simply be added onto ‘race’, they are part of its constitution, as it is of theirs. In this way, ‘race’ does not exist separate from or prior to other mutually constitutive forms-forms which themselves always require the qualification of inverted commas. On this, Walter Benn Michaels goes further to claim that there is no such thing as whiteness: ‘It is instead-like phlogiston-a mistake.’4

To say that there is no white reader before reading is reminiscent of earlier feminist literary critics who argued that ‘there is no woman’ before the text. Gender is understood in these approaches as being textually produced, and always in flux. A reader ‘looks for the stabilising specular image of woman in the text’.5 To search for and find woman is, Mary Jacobus has argued, ‘a form of autobiography or self-constitution that is finally indistinguishable from writing (woman).’ 6 Psychoanalytic and deconstructionist feminist interventions of this kind resist those earlier Anglo-American feminist claims that a woman reads as a woman and instead posit reading as a moment in an unending sequence which splits the single term ‘woman’ before and after reading and writing: a woman reading as a woman reading woman.7 In this splitting, space is made, as Peggy Kamuf has argued about women writing, for a shift, however slight, in the single term ‘woman’. The feminine subject then in this approach is taken to be always reading, and always making herself in these textual practices.

If a reader is engaged in such a practice, if the feminine subject for instance can be said to be made in reading (however provisionally), then can we say the same about a white subject: that this subject approaches the ideal of whiteness, attempting to stabilise an ‘I’ for herself around the nodes of race through reading ? If whiteness is constituted in textual terms-that is, in relations of difference-then whiteness can be said to take its meanings in the acts of reading and interpretation. There is no certain and stable white reader, instead there is only a subject in an endless process of repetition, in a continual process of coming into, and at times jostling for, a position of intelligibility in discourses of whiteness. This reader claims her whiteness through finding in the text an image which inspires her to say ‘I am this’-the image that in her eyes bears a white face-and just as significantly another image against whom this subject who aspires to whiteness can say: ‘I am not that’. To read is to write oneself; it is an autobiographical act. The reader, then, is an autobiographer, making a life as she reads, making an ‘I’ that, however temporarily, however shifting in its contours, can for that moment be imagined-felt-to be hers.

Whiteness, then, might be effected in a process similar to the way that Kamuf suggests femininity is effected. We can envisage the unending sequence as follows: a white reading as a white reading a white.where the sequence can begin anywhere. That is, a white reader is not before the text but is an effect of reading. Reading can therefore shift the whiteness of this subject, however infinitesimally. The reading subject after reading is not necessarily identical to the reader before reading nor is she identical to the image she finds of the white in the text. The reader has made herself white (again) in reading, that process whereby she visualises a scene of her own making, finding the places where she can install herself in the scene, seeking to stabilise an ‘I’ through searching out the other ‘white’ faces or conversely insisting on their absence and with this refashioned ‘I’ she turns again to the next act of reading, the next visualisation of the scene of race, and so on.

This is to make a different point than the commonsense view of reading as changing the subject through the accumulation of knowledge. This is instead to describe a process whereby a reader sees differently rather than sees more, where a reader takes up a different position in relation to the scene which the text describes. This reader, rather than simply acquiring more knowledge, may need to give up some of the ‘objects of knowledge’ she had previously held onto so dearly.

Another way of thinking about a white reader as a reading effect is to turn to the notion of interpellation where, against its earlier appearance as a singular and even catastrophic moment, interpellation comes to be seen as a never-ending process of being called, and, usually, of answering the call. There is not a single interpellating call, and therefore not necessarily a single answer, ‘yes’.8 A reader might, sometimes, give a more equivocal reply: she might say that perhaps she is not that white image after all, and that perhaps she does not find her opposite in an other, that image she loves to hate. So, one is written and one is read as white but one is not pinned down, never wholly captured. To read is also to write-oneself and others; it is to recognise oneself in the inscription and then to inscribe oneself and others. It is in this process of reading and writing that the subject comes to take on the meanings of whiteness. Crucially, then, it is a process that opens up the possibility of change, of the old re-formed through imperfect reiteration.

In particular for my interests here, what of a subject who reads an Indigenous-signed text ostensibly to discover difference, only to end up looking for the reassuring image that will, or so the reader desires, confirm her own face as white? When a reader-who-wishes-to-be-white reads an Indigenous-signed autobiography, is it not, paradoxically, an autobiographical act, an act through which the reader attempts to write herself as white?

Sidonie Smith has argued that to write an autobiography, or to perform any autobiographical act, is performative: the self and the life are made in these acts. Autobiographical acts, she says, take place every day in those moments when in front of an audience, even if only an audience of one, speakers ‘assemble.a “life” to which they assign narrative coherence and meaning and through which they position themselves in historically specific identities.’9 In these acts, Smith points out, the autobiographical speaker is a performative subject. There is no ‘self’ as a ‘thing-in-itself’ waiting to find expression in the text. Rather, the self and its telling are made in the autobiographical acts.

Sidonie Smith’s point that the life is formed in the telling takes a particular twist in the case of an Indigenous autobiographic subject in a settler-coloniser context such as our own. To take as an example the lifestory of Rita Huggins, written by Rita Huggins and her daughter, Jackie Huggins.10 In producing this lifestory, Rita Huggins uncovered parts of her own life that had been hidden from her, and which reoriented the lifestory. In the process of gathering materials for the book, Jackie and Rita Huggins gained access to personal files held by the Department of Family Services and Aboriginal and Islander Affairs, and Rita Huggins found that for thirty-two years she had been under secret surveillance, perhaps for her activism in Aboriginal affairs, perhaps simply for being a Murrie. As Jackie Huggins writes: “Nothing could really have prepared my mother for the experience of reading her files. The first entry was 1942 and the last 1974.The file told of bills outstanding from Myers in 1968, a thirty dollar rent bill. It told of the time my mother ran away from the mission.”11 This proud Murrie woman in her late years discovered herself to be written into the subject position of ‘black’ in the prevailing Australian discourses of white and black where ‘black’ is associated with theft, even theft of life itself: ‘Anyone would think I was a murderer’, says Rita Huggins.12

What might readers-who-aspire-to-whiteness do with this Indigenous woman’s life in order to make themselves appear as white? The readers to whom I first turn are the government agents, these men and women who were eyeing Rita Huggins, spying on her, assembling an archive: men and women who read and then wrote Rita Huggins’s life in order to read and write themselves into whiteness. The discovery of the government agents’ efforts to write Rita Huggins’s life is the discovery of Rita Huggins’s secret biographers. We can read these agents in their act of reading Rita Huggins and writing down what they saw-what they thought was there to be found but which they themselves produce through their narratives of whiteness and blackness. In these narratives, the covert observers are inscribed as ‘white’ to the Indigenous ‘black’. Through the terms offered by these narratives, the agents can write Rita Huggins’s life and in doing so they are offered the terms through which to write themselves as white. That is, they must read and write an Indigenous other into the colonising scene of black and white in order to make themselves intelligible as white. And so to write the biography of this other is also an autobiographical act: it is a moment in the formation of a white ‘I’ that turns out not to be a thing-in-itself but something produced in the very reading and writing practices which are meant to describe what is already there. The production of these files then is productive of whiteness: through them not only is this Indigenous woman produced as black but the settler-colonisers produce themselves as white.

That is, the violence of colonisation that Rita Huggins found in the archive-in these records of surveillance-should not be understood only in terms of the impulse of a colonising subject to control, order, and discipline an Indigenous subject. It is this, and more. At the very heart of these acts of surveillance are acts of interpretation and inscription, of reading and writing, and their imperative lies in the desire of colonising subjects to secure their own claims to whiteness.

But I suggest that the agents are most white when they enjoy the pleasures of spectatorship that their role affords-they look. Indeed, they not only watch, but are unseen by those whom they observe-sometimes really so, sometimes only in their imaginations. They look upon this scene of race which is the scene of their own imagining, producing the Indigenous subject as the object of their looks in a tableau framed in such a way that they are always outside it, looking in.

Whiteness and the look

bell hooks describes how, historically, ‘black looking’ in the American scene has been strictly controlled: ‘Black slaves, and later manumitted servants, could be brutally punished for looking, for appearing to observe the whites they were serving, as only a subject can observe, or see.’13 hooks and other commentators of the US scene of race have argued that this remains the case. Looking, it seems, is what subjects do, which is to say it is a defining right of whites. These subjects might be said to be white not only because they take upon themselves an exclusive right to look, but because they assume that the ‘black’ other is unseeing. The ‘black’ is not another subject, according to this view, and is therefore unable to return the look.

In his introduction to Black on White: Black Writers on What it Means to be White, the white American critic David Roediger invites his reader to:

Consider a slave on the auction block, awaiting sale. Imagine the slave being seen, indeed examined, by the potential bidders. Imagine what she felt. Imagine her trembling and crying, breaking down, even fighting back. Such attempts to imagine looking in on the auction block and to empathize [sic] with those for sale have found a hard-won place in the mainstream of American culture. But little prepares us to see her as looking out, as studying the bidders. And yet.slaves on the block often searched out every clue in sizing up the whites who would own them. Did that scar represent a history of violence? What did that leer suggest? Was that accent familiar, or did it point to the possibility of being transported great distances, away from family and to the master’s home? What could be learned of the buyers from other slaves? What strategies of self-presentation would discourage the attention of the bidder most feared, or encourage the potential buyer judged to be the best of terrible options?14

Neither Roediger nor his assumed reader is prepared for the woman looking back: ‘little prepares us’, Roediger writes, ‘to see her as looking out, as studying the bidders’. Roediger’s assumed reader is therefore white and, surely, another white man ?15 Roediger’s hopes are that his reader will be shifted from a position where the ‘black’ female other is unseeing. At the moment that Roediger can see (read) this woman on the auction block returning the bidders’ gaze, and at the moment when his narrative achieves the same shift in his readers, then whiteness has been imperfectly repeated. The reader before the text is not the same as the reader after; and the reader will perhaps differently read the image of another in the next act of reading. The white subject is not the same subject as before reading; in particular, the white subject has been installed in the scene as appearing in another’s gaze.

Or has he? For neither Roediger nor his assumed readers appear in front of the woman: his assumed readers are-again-lookers, according to Roediger. If we stand in the position Roediger has given to his readers, we can only see the woman and the bidders, looking at each other but not at us. The shock and the shame of being looked at by the woman on the block is reserved for the anonymous bidders. Roediger’s assumed white readers- still -escape the moment of the woman’s gaze falling upon us. As his readers, we are invited to stand at a critical distance from the scene, looking upon both the woman and the bidders, tracking an exchange of looks, a gaze that, in Roediger’s imagining, cannot fall on us, even as he claims that it does. In the scene that Roediger has written and in which he invites his readers to install themselves, a ‘white’ is once again located in the position of observing the ‘black’ unseeing other.

And in the Australian scene, do ‘whites’, too, imagine ourselves as spectators of a ‘black’ other, one who drops her gaze? Are we aspiring to make ourselves white-again-in a reading process whereby we fantasise that we look upon another who does not see us looking, who does not look back? How then to read-in the broadest sense of that term? How to read such that an other, an Indigenous other, becomes the seer, our interlocutor, seeing, writing us?

A blinding whiteness

Rita Huggins once told me the story of her courting days. It went something like this.16

Thursday evenings were spent at the Boathouse-that old haunt where a couple of hundred people, more on a good night, would dance to the old music, waltzes, pride of Erin, the foxtrot. The Boathouse wore huge verandahs on three sides where lovers ‘spooned’, and others flirted, or spoke softly to each other and watched smoke from their cigarettes drift on the moist darkness of a Brisbane night. But in the daylight hours, without any better place for their intimacy, they would hold hands and kiss in the park in George Street, behind the statue of Queen Victoria and her stone skirts.

Jack Huggins was tall, handsome and free. He ‘had a string of white lady friends chasing him’ but it was Rita Holt, ‘this little black duck’, whom he loved. They were married the next year, in 1951, at the All Saints Church at Wickham Terrace, and spent their wedding night at the railway hotel before boarding the train to Jack’s hometown of Ayr, in northern Queensland, sugar cane country. And so a new life began for Rita, away from the working life she’d known since she was a girl of fourteen, as a domestic servant taking care of the boss and mistress.

What scene can I make of the Boathouse, this old building which I imagine with its timber frame giving a little under the weight of men and women in motion-dancing, swinging each other around in a room made hot with bodies and breath? Can you (and I mean now my imagined white reader) see this scene, of hundreds of Indigenous men and women dressed up and doing the old waltzes? Did it take work for you to see it as it did for me? Could you step out onto the dance floor? Would you have imagined, for instance, any captains in this scene? Where might they have stood in this press of people? Did they touch the skins of young women, were their eyes staring, or drunken and downcast? Do the young women avoid their hands but take their money? Do the women mock them?

Rita Huggins in her lifestory Auntie Rita recalls her encounters in the 1950s and 1960s with the ‘white’ men who sought the sexual attention of Aboriginal women, and who were manipulated in turn by the women who worked at extracting a material benefit from the situation: ‘In those days’, she says, ‘there were plenty of “captains” who were willing to share drinks, smokes and their company with us. But they didn’t get it all their way because sometimes we’d beat them at their own game. The power for once was in our court until we tired of it all, then we’d leave. They’d get gooly up, but who cared?’17

The captains are making their whiteness through the women. It is a form of self-making: part of the gendering and racialising processes, inextricably tied. In his sexual practices the man becomes white. His sexuality is always racialised: we might even say that his desire is not so much for the young girl as it is for himself: an idea of what he might become, what this country and its experiences might make him. In this sense, his sexual encounter is not so much an expression of self, as a making of a self, a moment in the performativity of whiteness.

The captain, this particular masculine subject, is one way of imagining white sexual desire in the scene. What about his female counterpart? Do women like myself reading Rita Huggins’ story see ourselves in the scene at the Boathouse? Are white women in the scene of such encounters, or do we tend to remain always spectators, standing in the observers gallery? Are we apart, looking but not being seen? Are we imagining ourselves as never moved by the dance, not caught in a stranger’s arms?

In fact, as Jackie Huggins has recently told me, the Boathouse was exclusively for Indigenous patrons. Unlike Brisbane hotels, for instance, where Aboriginal and whites mixed, however desultorily, however antagonistically, the Boathouse was a more private affair, for once outside a white spectator’s gaze-making its scene perhaps even more unimaginable to the white ‘seeing’ subject.

The scene of these men and women dressed up and dancing was unimaginable to me in significant ways when Auntie Rita Huggins first told me the story of her dancing days. I wasn’t able to step into this scene until certain pressures were brought to bear on my whiteness and its viewing position, and reading critical theories of whiteness together with Indigenous-signed lifestory and fiction were among these pressures, calling me into another position. Here, I’ve raised James Baldwin, Walter Benn Michaels, Judith Butler and bell hooks, who describe white and African-American relations in the US scene; Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks whose theorising of whiteness includes the postcolonial setting; and Rita Huggins whose lifestory describes some of the specificities of the Australian colonising context. There are of course many more writers to whom I am indebted, Jackie Huggins, Alexis Wright, and Kim Scott among them.18 Reading their various and differing work has shifted my white viewing perspective so that I am not standing always, necessarily, and only in the position of a spectator of ‘black’ others. Instead, I am also touched, moved, jostled onto a scene in which I can no longer settle so comfortably for the ideal of whiteness and its necessary counterpart, a blind blackness which whiteness makes but says it has found.


Alison Ravenscroft teaches Australian and American literature and feminist theory in the English Program at La Trobe University. Her recent work arises out of an ARC-funded project, “Whiteness: reading, writing, ‘race'”.


1. James Baldwin, ‘On being “white”.and other lies’, reprinted in David Roediger (ed.), Black on White: Black Writers on What it Means to be White, edited and introduced by David Roediger, New York, Schocken Books, 1998:180 (177-180)

2. Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks argues for seeing whiteness as a master signifier through which other positions are ordered in discourses of race. See her Desiring Whiteness: A Lacanian Analysis of Race,London and New York, Routledge, 2000.

3. Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”, New York and London ; Routledge, 1993

4. Walter Benn Michaels, ‘Autobiography of an ex-white man: why race is not a social construction’, Transition, Spring 1977, p.143 (122-143)

5. Mary Jacobus, Reading Woman: Essays in Feminist Criticism, New York, Columbia University Press, 1986 p.5


7. Peggy Kamuf, ‘Writing like a woman’ in Sally McConnell-Ginet, Ruth Borker, and Nelly Furman (eds), Women and Language in Literature and Society, New York: Praeger, 1980.

8. See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York and London, Routledge, 1990; and Bodies that Matter, op.cit.

9.Smith, Sidonie. “Performativity, autobiographical practice, resistance”, a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, 10(1)

Spring 1995, p.17 (17-33)


11.Ibid., p.5


13. bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation, Boston, South End Press, 1992, p. 317

14. David Roediger ‘Introduction’ in Roediger (ed.) Black on White: Black Writers on What it Means to be White,

New York : Schocken Books, 1998, p.3.

15. Ruth Frankenberg critiques Roediger for mobilising nineteenth-century European genres of the ‘suffering female victim’. ‘Mirage of an unmarked whiteness’, in Birgit Brander Rasmussen, Eric Klinenberg, Irene J. Nexica and Matt Wray (eds), The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness, Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2001, p.78 (72-96)

16. The story is recorded in Huggins and Huggins, op.cit., pp.51-6

17.Ibid., p.66

18.Huggins, Sister Girl, St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1998; Alexis Wright, Plains of Promise, St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1997, and Wright, Carpentaria, Sydney, Giramondo, 2006; Kim Scott, Kayang and Me, Fremantle, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2005; and Scott, Benang: From the Heart, Fremantle, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1999.


Baldwin, James (1998) “On being ‘white’.and other lies”, in David Roediger (ed.), Black on White: Black Writers on What it Means to be White. New York : Schocken Books, pp. 177-180.

Butler, Judith (1993) Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. New York and London : Routledge.

Butler, Judith (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London : Routledge.

Frankenberg, Ruth (2001) “Mirage of an unmarked whiteness”, in Birgit Brander Rasmussen, Eric Klinenberg, Irene J. Nexica and Matt Wray (eds), The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness. Durham and London : Duke University Press, pp. 72-96.

Hooks, Bell (1992) Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston : South End Press.

Huggins, Jackie and Huggins, Rita (1996) Auntie Rita. Canberra : Aboriginal Studies Press.

Huggins, Jackie (1998) Sister Girl. St Lucia : University of Queensland Press.

Jacobus, Mary (1986) Reading Woman: Essays in Feminist Criticism. New York : Columbia University Press.

Kamuf, Peggy (1980) “Writing like a woman”, in Sally McConnell-Ginet, Ruth Borker, and Nelly Furman (eds), Women and Language in Literature and Society. New York : Praeger.

Michaels, Walter Benn (1997) “Autobiography of an ex-white man: why race is not a social construction”, Transition ( Spring): 122-143.

Roediger, David (1998) “Introduction”, in David Roediger (ed.), Black on White: Black Writers on What it Means to be White. New York : Schocken Books.

Scott, Kim (1999) Benang: From the Heart. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press.

Scott, Kim (2005) Kayang and Me. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press.

Seshadri-Crooks Kalpana (2000) Desiring Whiteness: A Lacanian Analysis of Race. London and New York : Routledge.

Smith, Sidonie (1995) “Performativity, autobiographical practice, resistance”, a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, 10:1 (Spring): 17-33.

Wright, Alexis(1997) Plains of Promise. St Lucia : University of Queensland Press.

Wright, Alexis (2006) Carpentaria. Sydney : Giramondo.

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