Friday, October 20, 2006

Whiteness studies II: real indigenes vs fictitious whites

Whiteness studies is worth a part two. By drawing out the theory a little more, you get a better sense of what is really involved in this field of studies.

Indigenous Sovereignty

The basic claim of whiteness studies is that race is a social construct, rather than a biological reality, formed to allow some people to enjoy an unearned privilege at the expense of the oppressed other.

But who is this oppressed other? According to Australian whiteness theorists it is the Aborigines. This leads these theorists to talk a lot about "indigenous sovereignty".

Damien Riggs, for instance, states that "indigenous sovereignty is the ground on which we stand", whilst the whiteness studies association has as its first aim to "respect the existence of and continuing rights deriving from Indigenous sovereignties in Australia and elsewhere".

But this creates some logical tensions within whiteness theory. Just as it's difficult to assert that whites don't exist as a race but are a racial power group, so too is it awkward to claim that Aborigines don't exist as a race but are nonetheless a real entity, even to the point of being 'sovereign' over other groups.

Whiteness theorists, in other words, are assuming Aborigines to have some real, essential existence as a distinct group, whilst at the same time treating the existence of whites as a kind of fiction to be socially deconstructed.

Furthermore, it's difficult to set up an opposition between really existing indigenous peoples and fictitious whites, given that it is whites who are the indigenes in Europe.

Do European whites have a real sovereign existence, given that they are the indigenes? I would bet anything that whiteness theorists would wish to argue no, but this is the implication of connecting indigeneity and sovereignty.


Another feature of whiteness studies is the idea of complicity.

According to this idea all whites, even the whiteness theorists themselves, remain part of the oppressor group. There is no way to separate oneself from this group, as all whites benefit from unearned privilege and are trapped unconsciously within white ways of knowing the world.

In his essay, Riggs frequently turns to the idea of complicity, as when he reports that:

all non-indigenous people are implicated in practices of oppression, and that the task is to develop ways of exploring this complicity, rather than denying our location within it.

Why stress the idea of complicity? It seems to me that whiteness theorists are trying to close any loopholes by which whites might escape "reflexivity": a discomforting confrontation with their own oppressive privilege.

The noose is set very tight. Riggs quotes another whiteness theorist, Janne Haggis, to the effect that anti-racists are just as complicit as racists:

I contend, we (the social analyst) still construct in the anti-racist position, a moral space of no more or less complicity.

Nor are whites who give up power and privilege any less complicit. Again, Riggs quotes a colleague, Fiona Probyn, who asserts that:

claims to "giving up power" only make sense in relation to having the ability to choose to do so - they only reassert white dominance.

Nor are whites who choose to identify with Aborigines off the hook. Riggs returns to Jane Haggis who informs us that the task for the 'traitorous' sociologist of whiteness (her description) is, in part, that of:

refusing the seductions of slipping into indigeneity to avoid the discomforts of being within whiteness.

So there you are. There are to be no possible ways of avoiding the "discomforts" of whiteness.

Once again, though, there are contradictions in the theory. The idea of complicity is supposed to force whites into reflexivity. It does this, but only at the cost of what whiteness studies was supposed to achieve in the first place.

Liberal moderns treat race as a social construct because they don't like the idea that individuals might be influenced in important ways by a fixed, unchosen category like biological race.

Whiteness studies is part of this liberal effort to deconstruct the concept of biological race as a fixed category. The idea of complicity, though, lets fixed categories return with a vengeance.

According to whiteness theorists, our existence is thoroughly racialised and there is no possible way to escape from our racialised category. Our position is fixed.

So much for the "multiple fluid identities" usually touted by liberal moderns!

There is one final point to be made. The idea of complicity is supposed to leave all whites stuck in a position of discomfort. Our whiteness is supposed to cling to us as a trouble.

But what healthy minded person would accept such a theory? Why would anyone willingly take on a negative self-identity? Who would willingly make themselves subservient to others in their moral status?

We are being asked to share a kind of psychological perversity. And all for the sake of a political theory which struggles to be logically coherent.

(I'll finish here, but return in a later post to look at the most unpleasant aspect of whiteness studies.)


  1. I remember very well having a debate with a woman advocating the rights of the indigenous people because they were here (in Australia) first when I pointed out that the Tasmanian indigenes were quite distinct from those on the mainland and that there was evidence that as a people that they had probably arrived earlier and been displaced by the mainlanders; pushed into Tasmania before the land bridge disappeared .I then went on to make the argument that as they were clearly "owners" of the mainland first that according to the theory of "Indigenous sovereignty" we should cede ownership of the entire continent to any surviving Tasmanian Aboriginals. She had no answer at all to taking her argument to its logical extreme.
    As I have said at mine No one can own any a territory that they cannot exclude others from, as that is the lesson of history. As your piece demonstrates "whiteness studies” is a rather nasty part of the guilt industry fostered by those who have a black armband view of history.

  2. Good point Iain.

    At one time there was a theory of three different waves of Aboriginal settlement: the negrito, the Murrayians and the Carpentarians.

    The theory was that the negritos settled an arc across SE Asia and Australia. In Australia they were pushed out of much of the south-east by the Murrayians. The Carpentarians then later established themselves in the north-west.

    There are still pockets of negrito people living in isolated parts of SE Asia today (e.g. the Andaman Islands). In the linked article there are photos of Australian Aborigines with negrito characteristics.

  3. In the main post I finished by asking who exactly would choose to adopt the whiteness theory.

    One interesting angle in answering this question is that of the 14 Australian whiteness theorists with articles published in the e-magazine I linked to, only two are men (and only one of these is heterosexual).

    So there is only one heterosexual male out of 14 whiteness theorists!

    In a sense this is good news. It seems to indicate that the left is continuing to adopt views which are repellent to men.

    This is a good thing in the sense that we (traditionalist conservatives) will only have to compete with the liberal right to attract men to our views - the left will have already alienated younger males.

  4. Why would anyone willingly take on a negative self-identity? Who would willingly make themselves subservient to others in their moral status?

    I think it may just be an extreme form of vanity or competitive altruism. If liberal society tells us that placing the interests of the ethnic other over our own is virtuous, then some people – perhaps with mental issues - will take it to illogical extremes.

    They also probably don’t see any threat from being morally subservient to non-white people. The social status they care about is among whites. Saying “I’m ashamed to be white” translates to “I’m more disembodied than other whites” – which is the ultimate act of modernist egotism.

  5. Shane, interesting. Maybe the key is not to think of these people as excessively self-abnegating, but rather as overly narcissistic.

    It makes sense for radical liberals to fall into narcissism as they cannot get their self-worth from their place within a tradition.

    Your comments also suggest the limited applicability of whiteness studies. Those not involved in "competitive altruism" have little reason to associate with this field of studies.

  6. In New Zealand, traditional Maori land rights revolved around the ablility to occupy and defend land.

    Tribes that couldn't hold their land, or left it unattended for long periods of time, were deemed to have forfeited their right to the land.

  7. I remember witnessing the reaction of a couple of my classmates who took the whiteness studies course. They were enraged after a couple of classes. It was a good thing and what I think the instructor was looking for. Their worlds had been turned upside-down. I will admit that I had a hard time, also, but I wasn't there to be comfortable. We finally had to face the ugly history of our people, a history that I've noticed has been slowly tucked under the covers in our history books. It wasn't that they (the two students - unfortunately, both white males, who obviously were from a "priviledged class") could actually dispute any of the facts of what the instructor presented, it was that we were not presented as the light of the universe. Talk about white guilt...their reaction was the most violently visible reconciliation of world full of little white lies coming crashing down and the truth it had disguised left in it's wake. Now, not only did we have to acknowledge thath the little brown people might be angry at "something" (we alays do this so dismissively), but they may actually have a legitimate gripe and an advanced understanding of class, identity, and power (at least far more advanced than most of us have). Ignorance is such bliss. I think it's white guilt that doesn't want to face the truth rather than the other way around....that's the irony.

  8. This seems to be linked in with Edward Said's Orientalism, whereby Said argues -
    1. "The first is that Orientalism, although purporting to be an objective, disinterested, and rather esoteric field, in fact functioned to serve political ends. Orientalist scholarship provided the means through which Europeans could take over Oriental lands."

    2. "His second claim is that Orientalism helped define Europe’s self-image."

    3. "Thirdly, Said argues that Orientalism has produced a false description of Arabs and Islamic culture."

    Keith Windschuttle's piece discusses this further -

    The two tied in together, both popular in the humanities departments of our universities, are attempting to deconstruct 'white' history and outlook.

    This is very racist, they ignore what other racial groups were also doing, almost as if it's ok that it's done as long as you aren't 'white' and doing it.

  9. indigenous sovereignty is the ground on which we stand

    Except in Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, etc... For some reason the indigenous of those countries have no rights, no soveriegnty at all.