This week in Understanding Race, we are continuing our conversation of race, coloniality and property which began last week with a primary focus on the work of Cheryl Harris, in her seminal essay Whiteness as Property, and Patrick Wolfe’s discussion of the formation of race in relation to Indigenous erasure and the construction of blackness in his seminal Traces of History. The engagement with that work, as well as the critique of Wolfe’s conceptualisation of settler colonialism – as a structure not an event – by scholars such as Robin Kelley and J. Kēhaulani Kauanui can be found in this blogpost from last year, ‘A Process, not an ontology; a structure, not an event: Race, coloniality and property.’
Many of the themes raised by these scholars and others, such as Jodi A. Byrd and colleagues in their article in ‘Predatory Value: Economies of Dispossession and Disturbed Relationalities,’ will continue to undergird our inquiries as we move next week more fully to racial capitalism, first through Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism, and later through the work of others who have built on his analysis.
Before we get there, for our engagement with Aileen Moreton-Robinson‘s work this week I thought it would be a good idea to dwell on her discussion of scholarship on race as it exists in relationship to that which centres the experience of colonial dispossession. Moreton-Robinson’s work in elucidating the indelible relationship between coloniality, property and whiteness is groundbreaking because it marries a race critical approach that is grounded in a thorough knowledge of the literature on race with a unique focus on how race is brought to life in the context of colonial invasion and its afterlives. All of this is underpinned by a grounding within Indigenous law and epistemology which is nevertheless cognisant of how they are impacted upon, or rather denied and elided, by colonial law and epistemology. It is not that Indigenous knowledge frameworks from which the law is derived are obliterated by colonialism, she argues, but that they are dismissed even by those who claim to be on the side of anti-colonialism. Therefore, there is no way for Moreton-Robinson to dissociate a structural critique of race and coloniality from the choice of epistemological framework. In this way she questions the capacity to truly engage with the meaning of colonial dispossession of Indigenous sovereignty if Indigenous epistemologies are not given value.
Therefore, Moreton-Robinson’s critique is not only of the status quo brought about by colonial rule, and its efforts to extinguish Aboriginal life, but of postcolonial and whiteness scholarship that fails to engage with the fact of Indigenous dispossession as ineluctable to a full understanding of what race does. There are two main strands to this critique that I want to briefly attempt to do justice to:
- The elision of Indigenous epistemologies in the anti-essentialist accounts of postcolonial scholars that give primacy to the experience of migration;
- The failure of much whiteness scholarship to centre Indigenous dispossession.
The background to this is my ongoing consideration of what this means from the perspective of doing antiracist scholarship from within a (settler) colonial location. As someone who is a relative newcomer to so-called Australia, I see it as my endeavour to constantly question and attempt to dismantle my learnings about race, birthed as they were in the European context. However, as someone who was born in another settler colony – so-called Israel – it is equally important for me to consider my own positionality as a settler-migrant-settler, (albeit one who is racialized by antisemitism). There are structural conditions of society and academia that make difficult ideas more easy to be heard from a white mouth. Some have suggested – and this cannot be argued with – that the only solution is to retire. But in the current conditions, this does not ensure leaving the space to others who have traditionally been denied a seat at the table. What it probably achieves is a vacation of the space (because who after all wants anti-racist academic who will call out structural racism and your bad faith) or, worse, a granting of it to someone else without our collective interests at heart.
Eliding Indigenous Epistemologies
In Australia since the institutionalisation of multiculturalism, according to Moreton-Robinson, there has been a repackaging of the history of colonial dispossession as one which is resumed under a vague heading of sameness versus difference. The essays collected in The White Possessive were written at different periods, and quite some of them are from the late 1990s and early 2000s, a period during which the reign of Prime Minister John Howard had a determined impact on the assessment of Australian national identity, which in mainstream, progressive accounts was to this point becoming more open to the world following the end of the White Australia Policy.
Many of the accounts of contemporary political and social relations in Australia, as I encountered them when I moved here in 2012, relied on this caesura between the world pre- and post-Howard. This persists in scholarly and popular narratives which tend to see Howard as capitulating to the right-wing anti-Asian, anti-Indigenous populism of Pauline Hanson and her One Nation Party and incorporating it into the outlook of Howard’s Liberal National Party coalition, which continues to rule today. In present-day border politics, Howard’s manipulation of the Tampa Affair and his politicisation of 9/11 to associate boat arriving asylum seekers with Islamic terrorism is seen as the definitive moment that led to the hardening of sentiments after a period mythologised as open to refugees, a myth that has been amply deconstructed by the participants of this panel discussion.
The abject state racism towards refugees and asylum seekers and the ramped up racism faced by other racialised peoples, in particular Muslims and Africans, and especially South Sudanese who have been the subject of much top-down vilification, has nevertheless created a schism between the white state and ‘its others’ that, following Indigenous critics such as Moreton-Robinson, elides the originary problem of colonial dispossession. Moreton-Robinson’s critique, crafted in the midst of Howard and Hansonism, continues to be relevant because, despite the greater knowledge of her work and that of other Indigenous scholars, not least because of media initiatives such as Indigenous X and the deft use of social media by Blak thinkers, as well as the exponential rise in Aboriginal academic excellence over the last decade, there has been a failure to truly engage with the epistemological standpoints she insists are integral to any critique.
Even when acknowledgement is made of the primacy and irrevocability of Aboriginal ownership and sovereignty, as is more common to witness particularly among younger students and scholars, we do not yet have the sufficient tools for that fact to deeply alter either scholarship or the material conditions in which it takes place. I wholly include myself in this criticism and part of what I wish to do as an educator is to attempt to model an open self-inquiry of my own role for students struggling with epistemological questions framing their research, often on issues of direct concern to Aboriginal people.
Part of the problem begins with what Moreton-Robinson, quoting Graham Huggan, refers to as the ‘metaphorization of migration’ in postcolonial studies, which remains the overarching reference for much work on the meaning of displacement and movement for racialised people from the Global South to the Global North, or in the case of Australia to the South that thinks of itself as North (Huggan 2001: 119). Moreton-Robinson writes that while postcolonial studies are useful in the ‘ability to reveal the operations of counterhegemonic discourses as produced by the dispersed or diasporic subject,’ they privilege a ‘metaphor of migrancy’ that centres the experiences of migrants to the detriment of that of Indigenous people (The White Possessive p. 8). That would be alright, I suppose, if Indigenous approaches were placed on an equal footing with postcolonialism. However, Moreton-Robinson is clear that the problem appears not only because Indigenous knowledges are deemed illegitimate from a white perspective, but also because they are either subsumed under postcolonial studies, and other studies of ‘difference’, and treated as suspect by them also.
There are two problems, then. The first is more direct: postcolonial studies, migration studies and the like fail to place the Indigenous experience of dispossession as central in their accounts, and they also fail to learn from an Indigenous way of knowing that would be necessary to have a complete account of the particular experience of migration to a colonial space such as Australia. These two parts of the criticism are therefore co-dependent: not only are the accounts partial in that they fail to elucidate a complete narrative of what migration and its aftermath mean for the furtherance of the colonial project, but they further compound the degradation of Indigenous knowledges (cultural genocide) by failing to place an Indigenous reading at their core.
Moreton-Robinson explains this with regards the postcolonial criticism of Aboriginal ontologies as essentialist. She describes the ontological relationship to country that ‘occurs through the intersubstantiation of ancestral beings, humans and land’ (p. 12) that is at the core of Indigenous thought systems and which grounds law and cultural protocols. From a postcolonial perspective founded on the deconstruction of certainties, this may appear as a form of (strategic) essentialism ‘because I am imputing an essence from belonging’ (p. 12). However, Moreton-Robinson argues that it is the premise from which such a critique is derived which is essentialist because it depends on the ‘Western definition of the self as not unitary or fixed’ and Aboriginal people do not define the self in the same way’ (ibid.). Ultimately, it is western structures of knowledge that undergird these assertions of essentialism with the effect of degrading Indigenous ways of knowing.
Questioning the integrity and legitimacy of Indigenous ways of knowing and being has more to do with who has the power to be a knower and whether their knowledge is commensurate with the West’s “rational” belief system. The anti- essentialist critique is commendable, but it is premised on a contradiction embedded within the Western construction of essentialism; it is applied as a universal despite its epistemological recognition of difference (p. 12-13).
Her critique here reminds me of Lewis Gordon‘s mobilisation of Frantz Fanon’s questioning of the role of methodology, when he wrote in Black Skin, White Masks, that ‘[t]here is a point at which methods devour themselves’ by which he meant, according to Gordon, that ‘the fetishizing of method turns one away from reality’ (Gordon 2014: 98). What this means in practice is that,
if the grammar of our method is a colonial one, then we could be producing colonial relations even in the ways we claim to be fighting them (ibid.)
Africana thought, as defined by Gordon, Paget Henry and others, is effectively involved with the questions of ‘(a) What does it mean to be human? or, What are the standards by which we understand our humanity? (b) What does it mean to be free? To be liberated? And (c), How do we justify our reasoning behind the first two questions?’ (ibid.). In order to get to these questions, Gordon centres a critique of western reason which is necessary in order to understand how Black people have been placed in a position of not being able to theorise freedom given the extent to which they have ‘suffered colonization and racism.’
As an aside, it is important to note that Gordon addresses directly the status of Aboriginal people in Australia as Black when he notes the differences yet commensurability of African and Black thought:
Australian Aboriginal self identity of blackness is not an appeal to an African identity. Similarly, the longstanding non-black populations in Africa are none other than African by now, but they are not necessarily black. That being African has not been without challenges in the modern world, and that being black is similar in kind, the challenges faced by a black philosophy and an Africana philosophy are about the same (ibid.).
Gordon critiques the centrality of reason to a western thought that denies the validity of non-western (Africana or Indigenous) thought because reason has been used in ‘dehumanizing practices’ (ibid.). Although the aim of freedom is as central to western as it is to non-western philosophy, the fact that reason has been a justificatory strategy undermining the domination of Black and Indigenous peoples means that freedom is applied differently and is thus not universal from a western standpoint despite appeals to the contrary. As Gordon notes in relation to Fanon’s puzzlement:
Reason, or, given our particularizing of false universals, western reason, had a way of becoming unreasonable when blacks came on the scene. To make matters worse, this unreasonableness had been passed off as reasonable (ibid.).
To resume this part of the argument, much postcolonial studies have, in Moreton-Robinson’s analysis, paradoxically failed to centre what Huggan calls the ‘imperial legacy’ that birthed the conditions of ‘migration and other patterns of human movement in the modern era’ (Huggan 2001: 119). In other words often the actual workings of colonial systems of rule are lost in these accounts that privilege ‘voguish academic categories of nomadism, migrancy and displacement’ (ibid.). What that means for doing scholarship on colonised lands is that very often what gets lost is a detailed analysis of how the racial order is maintained which, to be sure, necessitates discursive practices of all kinds that variably order differently racialised populations against the ‘white core’. But, I think that what Moreton-Robinson and others such as Huggan are arguing for is that this will remain a partial analysis if we don’t pay attention to the mechanisms, for example in law, that give these practices legitimacy.
In general, the metaphorisation that is at play, formerly of ‘migrancy’ and more recently of colonisation and decolonisation, as Tuck and Yang argue, enables a slippage between the treatment and experiences of differently racialised groups to the detriment of building up a clear picture of how race functions precisely by applying differential treatments to differently categorised populations. This is why I am not supportive about the tendency to argue that we should be attentive to how civil liberties for example have been denied groups such as Black people and in the context of the War on Terror, Muslims, because this is a gateway to the removal of these liberties for everyone else. While I can understand the campaigning appeal of these types of statements, they nonetheless conveniently elide the fact that for the vast majority of those not racialised in these ways, these erosions will not have the same effect. For more on this topic, Simone Browne’s discussion on her excellent book Dark Matters is recommended (see my blogpost here).
The need for specificity in laying bare the mechanisms through which race is reproduced can be observed in Moreton-Robinson’s discussion of the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australian states’ twenty year long deliberations over the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. She examines the statements made by the various governments in forensic detail in this talk, making clear the extent to which these states manipulated an image of themselves as virtuous participants in a discussion made ‘unfair’ due to Indigenous people’s attachment to their sovereign rights.
Echoing the current Australian government’s intransigence on the Uluru Statement (noting there are various views among Aboriginal people about the proposed Makarrata commission), she shows how the governments consistently attempted to portray the recognition of Indigenous rights as their demand for special and separate treatment, something former Prime Minister Turnbull also said in his rejection of the Makarrata as a separate governing body (‘third chamber of parliament’) despite the fact that this was never demanded by the signatories at Uluru. Obviously, there are many ways in which groups in the population are treated separately and differently, not least as Moreton-Robinson says Aboriginal people during the Northern Territory Intervention which necessitated the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act precisely in order to legislate for targeted Aboriginal communities as a ‘race apart’.
As Moreton-Robinson puts it in relation to postcolonial studies that centre migration and the diasporic experience, ‘social constructions of home, place, and belonging depend not just on ethnicity and ties to an imagined homeland. They are conditional upon a legal and social status as well as the economic and political relations in the new country and its imperial legacy’ (2015: 9). Non-Anglo migrants to Australia, she says can belong but not possess. Although, whiteness remains the marker of who can claim possession due to the history of colonial invasion, ‘nonwhite migrants’ sense of belonging is tied to the fiction of terra nullius and the logic of capital because their legal right to belong is sanctioned by the law that enabled dispossession’ (p. 6). A postcolonial framework that doesn’t work through the ramifications of this for living on colonised Aboriginal land will not only be unethical, it is suggested, but runs the risk of being partial and less founded on what Lewis Gordon refers to as ‘committed to truth and reality’ (2014: 96). The work of scholars such as Suvendrini Perara, Jospeh Pugliese and Maria Giannacopoulos in the Australian context, or Sherene Razack in Canada (and now the US), is exemplary of work that shines a spotlight on the complexities and complicities of migrancy and settler colonialism with their sharp focus on the colonial derivations of racial violence as it affects both Indigenous people, for example in situations of incarceration and refugees detained indefinitely by the state. The ‘Deathscapes’ project is a good example of that kind of work.
Nevertheless, there continues to be an intellectual separation between work on race that centres the migrant experience and that which focuses on ‘the racial state‘ and its reproduction of racial-colonial rule. Very often this is to be found in ethnographically informed work on migrant communities that, in my view, centres the Du Boisian question ‘how does it feel to be a problem‘ but asked from the other side; in other words this is research that arguably further problematises non-white groups as ‘matter out of place’. However, beyond this, there has been a focus on whiteness that privileges it as a category of identity that also contributes to the colonial forgetting that Moreton-Robinson warns against.
The limits of whiteness
The second part of Moreton-Robinson’s critique of the scholarship takes a look at the US field of whiteness studies, a field which as also made a large impact on Australian scholarship, not least via the Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association which she founded. An abiding criticism of whiteness studies, similarly to the way in which cultural studies has largely moved away from its roots in the radical antiracism of Stuart Hall and others in the Birmingham School, is that it has become too focused on the construction of white identities and insufficiently concerned with how to dismantle them. Added to this, as Gilbert Caluya argues in this piece, there has been a popularisation of the terms of white and whiteness that are not well grounded historically and which tend to simplify a range of interrelated but distinct processes and structures (‘whiteness, white, European, Western European, western, race, racism, colonialism and imperialism’).
For Moreton-Robinson, the problem is not that ‘whiteness studies scholars [do not] share in common their commitment to racial justice, antiracism, and a more humane society’ (2015: 47), but that much of it has been insufficiently attentive to the particular commitment to Indigenous sovereignties. This problem is not dissociable from the the historical fuzziness that has accompanied the intensification of interest in whiteness. While the foundational whiteness studies scholars such as Du Bois and later, George Lipsitz, David Roediger, Noel Ignatiev, David Lloyd, and Karen Brodkin among others were primarily grounded, in their case in detailed historical accounts of how the US was founded on an institutionalisation of white domination across all spheres, the focus on identity within cultural studies in the 1990s led to the discussion of whiteness becoming unmoored from these historical accounts. In fact, as David Lloyd notes, ‘Whiteness is in the first place not a “racial” position, an ethnic identity among others, but is the formal subject that lays claim to a universally representative position: that of the human as identical to itself.’ Furthermore, the dominance of the US in the field of whiteness studies, and the particular relationship of domination between white and Black people, due to the primacy of slavery, has led to a particular US-American account of whiteness being unhelpfully mapped onto the specific histories of other states, such as Australia, where whiteness continues to play an equally significant but differently oriented role, as Caluya also notes, when he rightly bemoans the ‘general Americanisation of racial politics in Australia.’
These two problems lead, as Moreton-Robinson writes citing Stephen Knadler, to the slippage between ‘the fiction of race and the fiction of racism.’ The fuzziness around whiteness as it is discussed in much of the literature gives way to a fuzziness around racism particularly, for Moreton-Robinson, in that which concerns ‘the study of Indigenous sovereignties.’ While she recognises the contribution of Black writing on whiteness, particularly Toni Morrison‘s, but also Cheryl Harris with whose work she has engaged most profoundly, Moreton-Robinson argues that most white writing on whiteness in the US centres the experience of immigration to the exclusion of First Nations experience. So,
White possession of the nation works discursively within these texts to displace Native American sovereignties by disavowing that everyone else in the United States are immigrants, whether they came in chains or by choice. The only displacement that is theorized is in relation to African Americans (p. 50).
The elision of the originary act of white possession which made the US possible as a land to which enslaved people first, and later migrants could be brought, leads to the fact that ‘the dispossession of Native Americans was tied to migration and the establishment of slavery driven by the logic of capital’ being overlooked (p. 51). And as she says most clearly,
the question of how anyone came to be white or black in the United States is inextricably tied to the dispossession of the original owners and the assumption of white possession (ibid.).
She argues that the history of Native American dispossession is repressed in the United States in order to ‘protect the possessive white self from ontological disturbance’ (ibid.). Quite simply, if you have no family history of involvement in slavery, it is easier to extricate yourself from this history than it is from that of Indigenous dispossession with which everyone is involved by nature of living on stolen land. This knowledge is less easy to ignore in Australia where the binary relationship is between settlers and Indigenous people without the mitigating factor of Black descendants of enslaved people (though Australia had its own slavery). Nevertheless, the centering of the migrant experience in Australian race scholarship and in the new popularisation of whiteness has a similar effect of ‘parking’ the possessive relationship between settlers of all kinds (those who can ‘belong but not possess’) and Indigenous people. This and the fuzziness around history and colonial law and logics and the emphasis instead on discursive strategies of national identity formation yielding white identities all contribute to a failure to think profoundly about what colonial-racial dispossession continues to look like from all its angles.
This is the tenor of sociolegal scholar Maria Giannacopoulos’ excellent critique of Ghassan Hage’s seminal book, Against Paranoid Nationalism (2003). Giannacopoulos argues that while Hage’s work is appealing because he places colonial white australia on the therapist’s couch, ‘his arguments are effectively tokenistic, reductive and disembodied, since their overall effect is of an implicitly perpetuated anglocentricism which does not effectively challenge the legitimacy of white institutions of power (Giannacopoulos 2011: 9). Giannacopoulos’ central critique is that Hage sees the period of John Howard’s prime ministership in the 1990s as exceptional because it heralds a time of greater ‘paranoia’ and the ‘structural entrenchment of the culture of worrying’ (Hage 2003, p. 23).
The psychoanalysing of Howard is a theme in this clip from ‘Howard’s History’
This way of seeing things, in my opinion, has set the tone for the way ‘progressive’ conversations in general are had in Australia, asking ‘what have we become’ in relation to the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees (but not, tellingly, Aboriginal people). The refrain that Australia used to be a generous country and has become unrecognisable or, as expressed very often on progressive social media, that Australians are ‘better than this’, accompanies the idea that Howard and Hanson are the main architects of Australia’s inexorable slide into being a human rights violator par excellence. Even this language centres white emotions as Australia – now externalised – becomes an embarrassment for those who once felt pride. Giannacopoulos argues that the reason for the widespread appeal of Hage’s argument is that it gives succour to these sentiments by ‘gently critic[ising] the white state even as it reproduces colonial logic’ (2001: 10).
Giannacopoulos claims that in this move the role of the state in perpetuating racial-colonial violence internally and at the border is left unexamined. The state and Howard become synonymous even as the latter is given primacy as the architect of a politics portrayed as draconian. However, Giannacopoulos claims that Hage’s argument is that a general culture of worrying in the population drives Howard’s politics even as he institutionalises that culture through his hardline policies against refugees. Clearly, however, worry (a similar concept to Appadurai’s ‘fear of small numbers,’ I suppose) is driven by the institutionalisation of laws and policies that discriminate against asylum seekers who are construed as posing a threat to ‘our’ security not the other way around: ‘Hage’s analysis fails to name the specific instances of ideological legitimisation since he prefers to leave the structures of power unnamed and refers to them simply as “worry”’ (ibid.).
Gianncopoulos goes on to show how the use of the word ‘even’ when Hage describes the institutionalisation of a ‘culture of worrying’ implies that he sees this as aberrant and ‘places the institutional violence that founds and maintains the Australian state out of view’ (p. 11). Leaving aside the fact that the word ‘worry’ is an unusual euphemism for racism, suggesting that racism has foundations in fear, rather than stressing the manipulation of the idea that fear of the other is justified, the idea that this institutionalisation is either new or an aberration in colonial Australia is indeed deeply problematic.
Furthermore, Hage, while identifying the fact that this white paranoia (or culture of worrying) is foundational to Australian history, he nonetheless finds it strange because he sees the colonial project in Australia as complete because of a lack of serious anti colonial resistance. So, while paranoia could be justified in the case of Palestine where the anti colonial resistance, as he sees it, is strong, it is particularly paranoid in the Australian case. Clearly, as Giannacopoulos points out this underplays the extent of Aboriginal resistance to colonial rule both in the past and today :
It is from this position, one that dismisses the work of countless Indigenous academics, activists and elders who continue to battle against the Australian state (ibid.)
Giannacopoulos quotes Moreton-Robinson’s assertion of the ontological basis for Aboriginal sovereignty, as discussed above, to again reiterate the fact that clearly Hage, from his Eurocentric standpoint, is unable to read Aboriginal sovereignty claims as anticolonial and on a par with similar struggles in the Arab world. Clearly, the inspiration that Palestinian activists in Australia gain from Aboriginal people’s struggles and vice versa is highly significant, a solidarity that is on display each year at Invasion Day rallies when Palestinian speakers declare their conjoined struggles.
Nevertherless, as Giannacopoulos puts it, ‘Hage’s thesis… does not account for sovereignty in non-western terms’ (p. 12). The problem for doing whiteness studies within the colonial nation state of Australia is that the failure to engage with Aboriginal standpoints that discomfit certainties derived from Eurocentric readings, all while claiming a position of decolonisation, is that it remains at odds with the struggle for freedom. This, we recall is what Gordon claims is at the heart of Africana/black thought and which drives the epistemologies developed by those who have been racialised under colonial rule, and in Fanon’s terms ‘negrified’. This is both a scholarly problem, in terms of what gets taught and studied, what gets cited, and what therefore comes to stand for Australian scholarship on race and coloniality. It is also, relatedly, a problem for the political economy of knowledge, because driven as it is by citation counts, chairs, and other markers of academic kudos, the elevation of Hage’s brand of ‘whiteness’ studies’ above Indigenous scholarship both locally and internationally further squeezes that knowledge out of sight. Giannacopoulos’ general point is that this is made possible because ultimately Hage’s ‘anglocentrism’ (p. 12) is palatable for a white readership that while being criticised as paranoid, can remain comfortable because the paranoia is either new or aberrant, and in any case the preserve of those underdeveloped Australians who blindly follow Howard, Hanson – and today Morrison and Dutton – into the abyss.
At the same time, reading Hage, from the perspective of those of migrant origin, particularly students and others coming to the literature for the first time, is affirming because it gives succour to the feelings they have that white Australians are unformed and childish in their fear of difference. What gets lost is how this ‘white innocence’ is structured into the colonial enterprise, and that no one knows this better than Aboriginal people. As I am a participant in social media conversations on race I am surprised to learn through these channels that there are writers who think that Hage should have the first and last word on race in Australia. Given that the media and events such as writers’ festivals, while generally inattentive to race, tend to give platforms to those writers with the largest and most visible platforms, their reproduction of partial historical accounts, and often imported US-American theorisations onto the particular racial-colonial trajectory taken in Australia should be of concern. This warning is sounded in Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s work, work that is receiving increasing attention and birthing new thinking from within the Aboriginal scholarship community, a fact for which we should all be thankful.