Skip to content

White supremacy, white innocence and inequality in Australia

I gave this talk a year ago, just after so-called ‘Harmony Day’. Thinking about white supremacy and white crisis’today so I thought I’d post it here in case of it’s of any use.

My 8-year old daughter was getting ready for ‘Harmony Day’ the other day, laying out her Indian clothes and choosing which bindi would go with them, and she said to me, with great earnestness, ‘white people don’t have any culture, they’re just Australian.’ From the mouth of babes.

I thought she’d hit a particularly poignant nail on the head. While once a year, those who Australians euphemistically refer to as ‘diverse’ are allowed to parade their culture in food and clothing, white Australians just are. John Howard’s decision to cement his rejection of the notion that racism exists in Australia by renaming the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, ‘Harmony Day’, has resulted in a day when white people can pat themselves on the back and say – as Malcolm Turnbull repeatedly does – that Australia is a ‘successful multicultural country’ and aren’t they a tolerant and entirely non-racist bunch while sampling hummus or samosas.

So why then are white people so uncomfortable with being called white? Why are white people in Australia and elsewhere around the global north so at pains to deny that their whiteness has any impact on the way they move through the world? And why do they tie themselves up in knots to ensure that we know it’s not ‘all white people’?

I’m going to spend a little time talking about some ideas that will hopefully help to answer those questions. But before that I want to talk a little bit about my relationship to whiteness.

I am undeniably white. I move through the world with the ease that having white skin and European features permits. So why do I say ‘they’ when I speak about white people. On the one hand, it would be fair to criticize me and say this is sleight of hand. And I have no problem owning the privilege that comes with whiteness. I am acutely aware that those privileges are not shared by my partner or my daughter. For example, no one ever doubts that my daughter is mine, although she has dark skin, hair and eyes, though I know for a fact that the same would not be true if she were the blond one.

But the reason I think about white people as ‘them’ is because I grew up Jewish in Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. There I knew I wasn’t white (although I wouldn’t have used that language at the time) because to be white meant being Irish and Catholic. The late scholar of race and settler-colonialism, Patrick Wolfe, wrote that colonialism is a ‘structure, not an event’. And a similar thing is true for whiteness: it is more than identity, it is a structure. Despite the undeniable benefits that proximity to whiteness endows even on light-skinned Black people, there are still significant ways in which racialized people can never be white.

However, structures exist in contexts. In Catholic Ireland I knew I wasn’t white. But how did that change when I moved between there and my country of birth – occupied Palestine/AKA Israel? Israel is a colonial state, running the longest occupation of any people by another in the world. Despite the narrative of the need for a homeland for the stateless Jewish people and the undeniable persecution we faced in Europe, Israel can only be understood as a white supremacist political entity, established to extend European rule over the native Palestinians and establish a regime of racial supremacy over Black and Brown Jews. As a European Jew, Israel was established for me and I was intended to be its beneficiary.

It’s easy to proclaim myself a race traitor, but I and other white people need to seriously consider what that means in practice. Unangax Indigenous scholar, Eve Tuck and her colleague Wayne Yang wrote a few years ago that ‘decolonizaton is not a metaphor’. We can decolonize and de-whiten our minds but it is an entirely different matter to create ways to achieve this materially. But we need to start a conversation about how to do so.

Talking about whiteness means treading a careful path between admitting the personal complicity of all white people in maintaining the global regime of whiteness and not reducing every statement about whiteness to individuals. Because, although we benefit from being white, we only do so because an arbitrary physical attribute – having white skin – has been made the external symbol of a system of power that still shapes global power and politics. And whiteness sometimes transcends actual skin colour, as George Zimmerman, the half-Peruvian murderer of Trayvon Martin, attests.

When whiteness is brought up in political discourse – and we see this often in social media – the immediate response is ‘but not all white people’, or ‘not me, I’m a good white person.’ To me this exemplifies the fact that white people understand the unfairness of the benefits they accrue through whiteness as a system. However, one way to dismantle that system is to refuse to perpetuate it by attempting to cleanse it from within. You cannot say ‘not all white people’, because to do so is to propose that whiteness is redeemable; but it isn’t. This should be the first stage towards better understanding.

Once we have understood that whiteness is a system and like other unjust systems – racism, colonialism, capitalism, gender, etc. – needs to be challenged and ultimately dismantled, it is possible to think about the benefits and privileges we get from whiteness in a depersonalized way. So, we can say, ‘yes I benefit from being white but that doesn’t mean it is bad that I have white skin; it’s the way I was born, so what can I do to make it so that I don’t have privilege just because I happen to have white skin?’ We need to ask ourselves why asking this is so hard for so many people.

First, it is important to understand that race is a system that maintains white supremacy on a global scale. That is its primary purpose. And people implicitly understand this and they don’t want to be thought of as racist. The dominant understanding of racism that most people have is a moral one – being racist is bad. People don’t want to be thought of as bad and so they reject the notion that whiteness creates inequality and disadvantage because they feel that they are being accused of racism.

Now, many of these people are racist but knowing this doesn’t help us to get rid of the problem really. Race and whiteness are constructs – they are principles around which societies have been organised. They are powerful because we rarely speak openly about this fact because, officially, we are all against racism.

The main reason it is hard to have a conversation about whiteness that does not descend into petty recrimination is because there is a profound lack of racial literacy in a country like Australia. White supremacy is seen as an exclusively American phenomenon. Perhaps it conjures up images of the KKK and burning crosses, or today’s Alt Right. But what we are confronting is far more widespread and common than that. Australia was founded as a white supremacist project – to create a British outpost in the ‘South Seas’. But this did not originate with federation but with the original act of colonization which required the entire dispossession of Aboriginal people and culture for its success. This is the same in other colonial states, the US, Canada, Israel, New Zealand and South Africa being the most prominent.

The US critical legal scholar, Cheryl Harris wrote a very influential article in 1993 called ‘Whiteness as Property’. She explained that whiteness in the US – a country founded on the theft of Indigenous land and made wealthy through slavery – is not a matter of biology or identity; whiteness itself is a property that is handed down through the generations. She explains that,

‘The origins of property rights in the United States are rooted in racial domination. Even in the early years of the country, it was not the concept of race alone that operated to oppress Blacks and Indians; rather it was the interaction between conceptions of race and property that played a critical role in establishing and maintaining racial and economic subordination.’

The very concept of property was coded as only understandable to whites. We see this also in Australia through the foundational myth of terra nullius. Harris again writes,

‘The racialisation of Native Americans “embedded the fact of white privilege into the very definition of property… Possession – the act necessary to lay the basis for rights in property – was defined to include only the cultural practices of whites. This definition laid the foundation for the idea that whiteness – that which whites alone possess – is valuable and is property.’

So, in the US, like in Australia, possession of the land is established as white. In the US, following the end of slavery, despite the promise of 40 acres and a mule, ultimately Black people were denied that right because it was realized that it would terminally end exclusive white property ownership. The highly selective and utterly colonialist native title system in Australia has the similar aim of ensuring that possession of land is maintained as a white sphere of influence.

Current moral panics about Chinese participation in the property market can be seen as another example of this – loss of white control over land and property is experienced as a deep crisis. This is because whiteness is institutionalised in the moment of colonial occupation and possession.

It is why there is a whole structure of legitimation around colonialism: Indigenous societies could not have survived without the advent of white education, infrastructure, etc. The myth of progress is necessary for the justification of white possession, as Aileen Moreton-Robinson calls it.

This is exactly what we saw in the now infamous Sunrise on 7 breakfast show where an all-white panel advocated for the removal of Aboriginal children from their families ‘for their own good’. Prue McSween’s open support for the policies that led to the Stolen Generations was spoken without irony considering that there has never been a time when myths of white benevolence did not supersede the rights of Aboriginal families to care for their own kids.

This is only a partial account of how and white supremacy is institutionalised and maintained. But ask most people what they know about these systems and you’d be met with silence. Instead the response is often what Dutch-Afro Surinamese Black feminist scholar, Gloria Wekker calls ‘white innocence’. White innocence is the result of the confected ignorance and denial of knowledge of the impact of colonialism on present day societies, be it in The Netherlands or Australia where colonization is ongoing.

Wekker explains that there is a complete mismatch between how the Dutch see themselves – as tolerant, benevolent and non-racist people – and the facts; that Dutch society is founded on hundreds of years of colonial exploitation directly responsible for its current wealth.

Transposed into the Australian context, this can be seen every time the country has a hand-wringing moment and well-meaning liberals ask, ‘is Australia racist?’ There have been countless articles and even a TV show with this title. Every time a new atrocity occurs on Manus Island, Nauru, at Dondale or Kalgoorlie, white liberals say things like ‘we’re better than this’ or ‘when did Australia become so racist?’, ‘remember when we used to be better’. This is part of the fiction which contributes to the maintenance of white supremacy – the idea that white people and institutions are inherently progressive and that any manifestations of racism are the product of extremist behavior that is not representative.

In fact nothing could be further from the truth. The facts of the matter are, as Lisa Lowe explains in her brilliant book, The Intimacies of Four Continents, racism spreads across the globe at the same time as liberal systems of government were being expanded. A major tool of race is the underlying assumption that the majority of the world’s people do not know how to govern themselves and need white people to show them the way, through liberal government.

So, if white people are so innocent and convinced of their inherent goodness despite everything, why are they so fragile? The American sociologist, Robin Di Angelo coined the term ‘white fragility’ to explain the ways in which white people seem unable to cope with the facts of their own privileges. Di Angelo describes white fragility as ‘discomfort and defensiveness on the part of a white person when confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice.’ White fragility manifests itself in many ways. It involves distancing oneself from the consequences of owning up to the systems of inequality that racism has created, systems from which white people benefit.

I hear this in some of my students (thankfully a minority) who want to know why – although there is no truth to this – that Aboriginal people get special privileges to attend university. Because we have been taught that white systems of rule are inherently equal and democratic, many people see it as unfair if any measure is taken to try to level a situation of inequality.
The belief is that if something is given to someone who has originally been denied their rights, then someone else has to suffer. But this is inherently untrue. Affirmative action where it exists (and it does not exist in Australia) has the aim of extending equal treatment to everyone, not taking rights away from anyone. However, because whiteness is founded on possession and exploitation and the systems it founded – principally capitalism – make these into a value, people find it very hard to believe this. So, we continue to peddle the myth of meritocracy and the sufficiency of hard work.

White fragility belies a deep understanding of the deep illegitimacy of white rule. The belief that every mention of whiteness, let alone privilege, is an attack on white people means that white people understand that there is something profoundly unjust in the fact that whites continue to dominate politically, financially, in the media, education, in terms of health outcomes and so on.

Sarah Keenan, a critical legal scholar from Birkbeck College in London wrote an article in which she proposed that Peter Dutton’s offer of asylum to White South African farmers is an example of white fragility. Despite the fact that only a tiny proportion of asylum seekers reach Australia’s shores, the system of mandatory detention for asylum seekers both on and offshore is legitimized by the idea that Australia is under attack from people who don’t share ‘Australian values’ and who would usurp their good will.

As Sarah Keenan has explained, Dutton sees Australia as part of a global alliance of white nations and people under attack. So, white farmers who will undergo a process of returning land to rectify the highly unequal system in which white people make up 8% of the population yet control 72% of the farmland, are interpreted as being in need of humanitarian protection. The hypocrisy of this in the face of the plight faced by refugees currently locked up by Australia goes without saying. Over and above this, the signal that Dutton is sending out is that whites in Australia and South Africa are more deserving of protection, that the plight they face is greater than people facing actual humanitarian crises because white life is more fragile, and ultimately of higher value!

It is easy to distance ourselves from Peter Dutton and call him a potato and a Nazi, or a Nazi potato but this is another arm in the arsenal of white supremacy – white comfort. We like to tell ourselves that Dutton does not speak for us. We comfort ourselves by distancing ourselves from his words. But the very point is that we cannot pick and choose which elements of the whiteness project we can live with and which are beyond the pale. We cannot say things – which are common everyday things heard in Australia – like ‘wouldn’t Aboriginal people be better off without welfare?’, or ‘isn’t Islam incompatible with the Australian way of life?’ and see this as disconnected from other statements that make us feel uncomfortable, that go a little bit too far, that we can’t live with.

To dismantle white supremacism we should really be unable to live with any of the daily realities that mean that white people don’t have to hear their way of life discussed as though it were a mere matter of neutral debate with no effect on people’s actual experience. A start to end white supremacy is to stop and think every time we reach for answers that sound like white innocence, white fragility or white comfort and ask, why they trip off the tongue so easily, and maybe next time, say instead, ‘I know I benefit from being white, what can I do in my small way to make this less so?’

Alana Lentin