Monday, November 13, 2006

Whiteness theorists hit back!

I've had a response to my recent series of articles on whiteness studies.

The body representing whiteness theorists, the Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association (ACRAWSA), has a forum where the articles are being discussed.

Whiteness studies, you might recall, is based on the theory that the white race doesn't really exist, but was socially constructed as a means to exploit indigenous peoples.

I criticised the theory for its inconsistencies. However, if you read the three comments posted on the ACRAWSA forum so far, none of my specific criticisms are responded to. Instead, the line taken is that my criticism of whiteness studies only proves that I am desperate to avoid recognising my own "complicity": the unearned privilege I accrue from being fictitiously white.

According to whiteness theory, all whites are guilty of complicity. In her comments on the forum, Robinder Kaur, a Sikh woman working (studying?) at York University, tells us that for whites:

there is no "safe space," no haven of guiltlessness to retreat to.

Following this is a comment by an Australian woman, Veronica Coen. She tells us her own personal story of recognising her "complicity": before undertaking an Aboriginal Studies elective she thought herself to be "thoroughly non-racist". Then she discovered that her pioneering family had used Aboriginal labour on their cattle station and she,

began to recognise that my privilege as an educated middle-class white woman was directly attributed to my ancestor's theft of Indigenous land and their exploitation.

She then,

took a frightening journey into Australia's violent history ... The path was at times very distressing. My study journal was often wrinkled with tears

Which leads her to suppose that in resisting whiteness theory I too am struggling with complicity:

Clearly Mark is experiencing discomfort with the contentions about his white privilege.

Which is all a bit of a surprise to me. I'm not a teary kind of person, so I wouldn't feel "distressed" even if I accepted that "complicity" was legitimate. As it happens, though, I think there are good reasons to reject the notion of complicity outright.

Why? One reason is that complicity depends on the idea that the wealth and status of whites was taken at the expense of indigenous peoples. This doesn't seem likely. Aboriginal labour in Australia was only a very minor part of the economy; it was tiny, for instance, in comparison to white convict labour.

One of the most prominent Aboriginal leaders today, Noel Pearson, explicitly rejects the idea that the problems in Aboriginal communities are a result of loss of land or the exploitation of Aboriginal labour:

It seemed to me that the problems are pretty similar between communities that have never been dispossessed of their land - like in the western Cape York peninsula - and those that had been positively uprooted. It wasn't about poverty, and it wasn't about land, and it wasn't about the degree of trauma experienced in history.

Pearson blames a misguided transfer of welfare money into Aboriginal communities for the current level of dysfunction, and describes in comparison the relatively intact nature of the Aboriginal community he grew up in:

Everybody in Hope Vale of my generation or older grew up in a family, or household, where parents worked hard, the kids were looked after. They were bequeathed a real privilege.

And Pearson is exactly right to identify these social norms as a real privilege - something the whiteness theorists don't seem to understand.

Let me put it this way. The whiteness theorists want me to think of myself as enjoying unearned privileges. Yet my daily reality is one of hard work, both at my workplace and in my role as a husband and father. This is what adult men have to adapt to, and it's much easier to succeed in this if you have role models in the men around you.

This is the "privilege" I recognise: that the men in my family have a tradition of hard work, of commitment to family and financial responsibility. But this is not a "privilege" which inspires guilt or tears, but rather pride and admiration.

I admire my grandfather who started out laying railway lines, who pioneered a country town, and who worked two jobs up to his retirement to support a modest lifestyle for his family. I admire my father who has shown tremendous strength and stamina in maintaining long hours of work in a 45 year career.

And what else is a true privilege? Think of what Aborigines want. They want to maintain a sense of ancestral connection to the land and their culture. They want to enjoy a pride in their identity. They want a confidence in their future as a people.

Am I enjoying an "unearned privilege" as a white in such matters? Clearly the answer is no. Whiteness studies itself is part of a process in which such privileges are made illegitimate for whites. How can we enjoy such privileges when whiteness itself is treated as a fictitious category and when all whites are held to be inescapably complicit in an evil history of exploitation?

Which brings me to my final point. The attitude encouraged by whiteness studies is an untrue expression of our natures. It leaves an individual like Veronica Coen feeling hostile and guilty toward her ancestry.

Compare this to the case of Robinder Kaur, who wrote the comment on the ACRAWSA forum about whites lacking any haven of guiltlessness.

She is of Sikh ancestry. As it happens, there is actually a magazine called Kaurs edited by a woman called Robinder Kaur (I don't think they're the same person). This magazine celebrates the identity of Sikh women along the following lines:

The magazine will encourage the Sikh woman to rediscover herself in the light of the glorious heritage and current meritorious achievements of the Sikh community.

And how does the magazine think that people get ahead? According to the editor life is full of challenges, which leads to this advice:

... how to overcome these challenges and emerge as a winner? Hard work, confidence, dedication and, of course, the blessings of the Almighty are a sure recipe for success.

So we have one Robinder Kaur telling whites that they should feel guilty about their heritage and that their success is not due to their own hard work but to exploitation; whilst the other Robinder Kaur tells us that Sikhs should enjoy their glorious heritage and attribute success to their hard work and dedication.

Are we going to fall for the double standard? Will we accept the denatured view for ourselves, whilst others adopt a more positive, supportive stance?

I hope that most of us reject whiteness theory in favour of the more positive, life-affirming option.


  1. What these digbats do is think that the world is full of "noble savages" and that the biggest affront to morality is any one who would dare to take their soverignty away from them .They however forget the lesson of history and that is that any group of people can only ever "own " a land that they can exclude others the absense of the ability to exclude others then their disposession is inevitable ,thta is the case in the animal kingdom and human beings are no different.

  2. Hi mark I have engaged the enemy on their home ground;o)
    check out the acwsa forum
    best wishes

  3. I spent some more time reading some of the papers, both from Australian and American “Whiteness studies” sources, and felt that they raised more questions than answers – most of them illiberal:

    - Considering the narrative applied to White history, are ethnic minorities who migrate into White majority societies actively seeking out oppression and/or is it a case of ethnic aggression?

    - Is the normalisation of an ethnic type peculiar to White majority societies? Do non-white majority societies not stamp some form of ethnic hegemony and inherited privilege over their cultures? Isn’t that what a “culture” is?

    - Would it be less “racist” if nations like Australia, USA and Canada did not actively seek out ethnic diversity, and instead pursued a policy of homogeneity, thereby limiting what effect “Whiteness” could have over other ethnicities? I cite other democratic nations such as Japan and India as examples, both with racial discriminatory immigration policies, neither of whom come in for academic cultural critique.

    - Seeing that the denaturing of Whites has achieved little in terms of addressing interracial problems, is it morally better that Whites revert to embracing their own ethnic heritage?

    - In light of the circular critique on Western cultural norms – “racist” if ethnocentrism is embraced, “ignoring complicity” if aracial - is the liberal idea of the egalitarian “open society" unattainable? Was it ill considered, na├»ve and anti-intuitive to begin with?

    If “Whiteness studies” is the question, what is the answer?

  4. Some really fine comments. Thanks, Bobby, Iain, Shane.

    Iain, the ACRAWSA people are in for a surprise when they read your post (I especially like the bit: "whiteness studies" can be summed up in two words "guilt industry".)

  5. Hi Mark
    I spent a bit of time on that post knowing that the academics would pick on anything to dismiss my critisim of their position .there have as yet been no responses (i enabled email notifacation of responses to my post.
    What I'm wondering is if they will ban me from the list? Watch this space. :o)

  6. Notice that it tends to be middle class types with old money that seem to to feel the most 'white guilt'.

    I would like to see a few of these whiteness studies students sent to work in a restored Victorian coal mine, or cotton mill, for a few weeks, and then ask them again if they feel guilty about being white.


    Mark check out my link .It seems that Damien does not like to be criticised at all:o(

  8. Hi Mark,

    The editor's Note that you quoted in KAURS magazine is actually written by myself- ROMA KAUR and not Robinder Kaur and even though she is one of the two editors of the magazine.

    Roma Kaur

  9. Roma Kaur, thanks for the clarification.

  10. Hello Conservatives...

    Don't be upset us whiteness heads aren't getting back to you. We just learn what's worth attending to and what isn't. You've simply got the wrong end of the stick and it'll require a bit of explaining to help you out. That takes time. You are entitled to disagree with the crazy liberal or to refute the ideas of 'whiteness studies' but lets get some of the basic assumptions right. You see coming from a conservative position predisposes you to make various assumptions which obstruct an ahysterical view of the ideas. I'll see if I can offer some insights...

    all the best

    Am Ha Wad