White lives in focus: connecting social praxis,
subjectivity and privilege
The University of Melbourne
In dominant discursive constructions, the Australian nation continues to be imagined as white. In Australia the social significances surrounding this racial category ‘white’ are the result of social and historical processes emerging from British settler-colonialism. Whiteness has a privileged position both structurally within Australian society, and with regard to the cultural life of the nation. But what does this mean for the individual white subject? How does this positioning implicate white Australians and their social praxis? The reproduction of inequality occurs not only through institutionalised structures, but also through social practices that maintain cultural dispositions within groups. Thus unconsciously patterned behaviours help to reproduce inequality. White subjectivities and social praxis are entangled with, and help to reproduce the racialised structures of Australian society. In an effort to move beyond race as an axis of inequality and to begin to think through ways that white Australians can relinquish their hold on privilege and power within Australian society, it is therefore necessary to understand the variety of ways that whiteness is reproduced as dominant. In this paper I argue that an essential step towards the achievement of this goal is a focus on the daily lives of white Australians, in order to gain an understanding of the complex entanglement of white subjectivities, social praxis and privilege.
1. This paper aims to deepen the understanding of social processes surrounding race at work in Australian society by linking understandings of race and the operations of whiteness to social thinking around subjectivity formation and social practice. It is written from a perspective that attempts to implicate myself and my position, as a white middle class male, in these processes. However, academic convention keeps leading me to write myself out of the paper. This very tendency could be read as a mechanism for the management of my own personal investments in whiteness, and the personal conflicts that my argument confronts me with. I argue that it is important to think about whiteness in Australia because it continues to operate as an ordering principle, organising the social discourses of race and privileging those classified as white. Approaching race as a socially constructed category, I work with a conceptualisation of the social subject that attempts to accommodate the tension between social constructionism and individual agency. Within this framework I begin to think through the positioning of white subjects and their relationships to the cultural edifices of whiteness in Australia. After broadly outlining my argument, I briefly frame whiteness in the context of Australian society. In the latter part of the paper I relate this theoretical approach to whiteness to subjectivity, social practice, and cultural reproduction.
2. This article is animated by an interest in how whiteness operates as a social category in daily life, and how these operations work to reproduce it as a privileged social category. While it might seem obvious and commonsense knowledge what whiteness is, if we look closely and consider how it functions as an identity category, a number of seemingly obvious questions become quite slippery. The apparent self-evidence and commonsense that surrounds social constructions of race highlight how effectively these concepts have been naturalised. Why is someone considered white? Can someone be whiter than someone else? Who is not considered white? Is it merely an epidermal classification? What about a white skinned person who identifies with their Indigeneity, or some other racial or ethnic category considered non-white (or less white)? Is whiteness socially perceived as a biological or a cultural category, or some mix of the two? How do you explain shifts in the boundaries over who is or isn’t considered white? What is happening when the same person is considered white in one context and not in another?
3. The obviousness of what whiteness is and how it functions starts to disintegrate under critical analysis. Whilst it is highly problematic to attempt to define whiteness, it is extant as a social phenomenon and thus does present itself as an object of study. Both Australian whiteness and Australian nationhood are implicitly marked, reproduced and contested in ordinary discourses on a daily basis. I am interested in how the social construction of these categories ‘white’ and ‘Australian’ are connected, how they pervade aspects of ordinary daily life and how this relates to the reproduction of racial inequality. In other words, how do the ways white Australians live their lives and think about themselves and the nation help to reproduce racialised inequality?
4. The cultural reproduction of whiteness as socially and culturally significant plays a central role in the reproduction of racial/ethnic inequality. To combat this it is necessary to gain an understanding of how the dominant white racial grouping ‘culturally’ reproduces itself and legitimises its position of dominance and privilege through the course of people’s daily lives. This is not to minimise the importance of economic, legal and institutional factors, or to suggest that they don’t also shape individual’s lives. Indeed it would be misguided to solely consider the socio-cultural domain and exclude these other aspects of the human world. However, culture plays a crucial role in society’s reproduction. Habit, practice, and aspects of what may be labelled the non-conscious register of culture play a role in the reproduction of social categories, structures and the meanings associated with them. They impact upon the subjectivity formation of those embedded within such social formations.
5. Aspects of both ‘nation’ and ‘whiteness’ are marked and reproduced unconsciously as people go about their daily lives. Ordinary social practices naturalise and legitimise social structures and values within the minds of social actors. Pierre Bourdieu argues that social reproduction occurs precisely because individuals are unaware of the broader meanings and reproductive implications of their dispositions, habits and practices (1977, 79). Therefore, I argue, white cultures, privilege and practice are reproduced as dominant, without the intention of domination and oppression necessarily being present in the minds of white social actors. This argument does not excuse whites from their role in the participation in, and reproduction of racialised privilege, nor does it preclude social actors from self-reflexive or rational calculation in relation of the intended outcomes of their social actions. It simply highlights how unconsidered structural consequences flow on from social praxis, resulting in the constant remaking of social relations. To conceptualise white social praxis in this way implicates white individuals and what they ‘do’ in the reproduction of inequality, thus bringing a certain responsibility and accountability. It also empowers individuals as social agents and envisions a socio-cultural space within which their agency and action, whilst constrained, can be productive and play a constructive role in effecting structural change and impacting upon the social world.
6. Culture reproduces the possibilities for people’s daily lives, and their daily lives reproduce culture and the social structures associated with it. By understanding the operations of whiteness in white people’s daily lives, perhaps we can transform those lives into sites of resistance to racialising discourses and the reproduction of inequality. In light of these arguments, I believe, the domain of culture is one important front upon which the battle against white privilege must be waged. Before taking these arguments further it is necessary that I first engage more explicitly with the situation in Australia.
7. In 1901, when Australia federated, whiteness was enshrined in legislature by its first federal parliament. One of the founding legislative acts was the ‘Immigration Restriction Act’, popularly known as the ‘White Australia Policy’. Despite the dismantling of this policy fifty years later, despite changes in immigration policy and subsequent demography, despite changes in other state policies towards Aboriginality and racial/ethnic difference, and despite general changes against the social acceptability of open hostility towards such difference, Australian culture and society continues to be predominantly configured around (and thus privileges) the whiteness that originates in its colonial past.
8. The Australian nation emerged from a history of invasion and colonisation, thus the structures of Australian society, and its attendant cultures and ideologies, are a continued imposition upon Indigenous cultures and forms of social organisation. Patrick Wolfe argues that a relationship of invasion is not only descriptive of the nation’s origins, but also its primary structural characteristic with regard to Aborigines (1994, 93). Despite official rhetoric, contemporary government and judicial policy continues to invalidate the majority of Aboriginal people’s customary rights to land, hence maintaining discourses and structures of exclusion and dispossession, thereby linking contemporary practices to those of the initial invasion. Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s article in this edition of Borderlands, highlights how contemporary legal practice, in the recent High Court Yorta Yorta decision, continues to operate in this way, ideologically reproducing the Australian nation as a white possession.
9. As well as encompassing a marginalised indigenous population, the Australian nation includes a national citizenship that has become more racially and ethnically diverse, within world contexts of globalisation. Whilst white Australian society comes to terms with an increasingly heterogeneous social reality, resistance to these global processes often manifests in an attachment to an imagined white homogenous nation. This racialised fantasy privileges an idealised whiteness and often configures diversity as national fragmentation. It links a socially constructed racial category with a sense of national entitlement and the assumption of a right to centrality and governance within this nation. Like any social discourse this fantasy is shaped by, and emerges through, diverse modes of struggle between various groups and interests. Therefore socio-political frameworks of power structure this competition, favouring the interests of the dominant social and cultural groupings.
10. Ghassan Hage argues that this white national fantasy includes not only an imagined space but also "an ideal image of the self as a ‘meaningful’ subject" (1998, 70). This dominant cultural fantasy within the Australian nation equates true Australianness with whiteness, centrally positioning white national subjects within the good and nurturing nation. These white fantasies implicitly involve a positioning of those classified as non-white within the nation space. Jennifer Rutherford also analyses the white fantasy structure in numerous of its manifestations in Australian cultural production (2000). She links the history of a white Australian moral order and its fantasy of ‘good neighbourliness’ with an ever-present nascent aggression. This over arching national imaginary, and its manifest aggression, is understood to be present in, and to structure both collective and individual action or practice.
11. These fantasies of the dominant group help to reproduce national society, its structures and hierarchies, and to naturalise these constructions within the minds of national subjects. However, the contemporary Australian national ‘subject’ has diversified through changing policies of immigration and the official recognition of Indigenous subjecthood. This has led to a decrease in the widespread relevance of the dominant white versions of Australianness, upon which the nation is founded. Contemporary Australian social reality challenges this idealised fantasy, particularly for those whites marginalised within white society, provoking various modes of white resistance and anxiety. Those who cling to such models face increased contestation for control of the meaning of ‘the Australian people’, as both historical object and contemporary subject. Yet those for whom the dominant white versions hold more meaning generally have greater access to social, cultural, economic, political and thus symbolic power. Therefore the contest to expand the category of Australianness is by no means an even one.
12. The contestation of white hegemony in Australia has resulted in, amongst other things, policies of Multiculturalism and Reconciliation. These policies were not simply bestowed by some benevolent white power, but came about in response to political claims and challenges from various groups of marginalised ‘others’. They can be read as official state attempts to re-imagine the nation, responding to changed domestic and global conditions. Multiculturalism and Reconciliation are attempts to re-establish national legitimacy, reconfiguring national narratives and truths in the process. In effect they are cultural interventions within the nation attempting to generate new national subjectivities.
13. In some ways these policies have destabilised certain white discourses while trying to create space for non-white others in the margins of the national imaginings. However, they have done very little so far, to alter social structures and power relations and have thus acted to ideologically mask and maintain white cultural hegemony. This is evidenced by the continuing predominantly white public face of power at all levels of government, in big business, the police forces, and in media representation. Cultural diversity is ostensibly relegated to an essentially aesthetic role. Yet Multiculturalism and Reconciliation have not been entirely inefficacious. Obviously, a range of white responses exist to these policies. For many within the white majority, the discursive inclusion of non-white narratives and perspectives within the national story has generated a sense of unsettlement and resistance. The later half of the nineties brought a mainstream backlash against Indigenous issues such as land rights and Reconciliation and against Multiculturalism, and more specifically Asian immigration. This can be read as a reconfiguring and re-centring of centuries old white discourses of racial entitlement and exclusion. Similar concerns can be seen underlying contemporary discourses linking Islam with terrorism, and around the construction of Middle Eastern refugees as a threat to the implicitly white nation and the integrity of its borders.
14. In contemporary scholarship there has been an increased focus on whiteness within the context of critical race theory. It is not my intention to categorise or critique this area of thinking here. In keeping with the aims of this special edition of Borderlands, my paper speaks to the topic ‘why whiteness studies?’ I argue that it is important for us to think through these issues raised by critical studies of race within a social theory framework that engages with Australian contexts. In this section of the paper I briefly outline my approach to whiteness, implicitly drawing on all those who go before me, many of whom are represented in this edition of this journal, amongst whom it is an honour to be included.
15. Ruth Frankenberg describes a socio-cultural ‘terrain’ of whiteness that is constituted by three linked dimensions: "a location of structural advantage"; a white "standpoint", that is, a white worldview or perspective of self, society and other; and "a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed" (1993, 1). These three dimensions may be loosely categorised as the domains of society (and it structures and institutions), subjectivity, and culture. The cultural, the social and subjectivity are intensely inter-connected and inter-dependant. No term in this tripartite division could exist without the other two. In societies structured by white hegemony each of these aspects contributes to the reproduction of racialised inequality.
16. Frankenberg also distinguishes between material and discursive dimensions of whiteness. These combine within the terrain of whiteness to generate spatially and temporally specific experiences of whiteness. As a social construct whiteness is constituted, contested, normalised, naturalised and concealed within numerous discursive domains. Struggles over whiteness (and within it) are framed by the structures of power and dominance through which they emerge. As a category of identity, particularly in Australia, whiteness is inextricably entangled with that of nation, and is further complicated by its intersections with other social categories. This range of positionings within whiteness means that the privileges with which it is associated are not evenly distributed or experienced by all those considered white. As a social category whiteness is a complexly constituted heterogenous grouping. It encompasses numerous interests, and intersects with other categories of social significance such as class, gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, age, and sexuality. Yet in relation to non-whites in Australia, whites as a group do occupy a position of privilege.
17. In many ways, whiteness could be said to function similarly to the category of nation in that through the presentation of homogeneity it can act to suppress other categories of difference with which it intersects. In particular contexts, it may operate to override or mask other social categories of difference. Yet conversely, a diversity of complex representations of whiteness (and white characters) pervades Australian and western (global) media. This is particularly the case in comparison to portrayals of other racial stereotypes, most evident in popular/mainstream media. While alternative media sources and stations do often work against this tendency, their current impact on the mainstream media and culture is perhaps limited.
18. The dominant constructions of whiteness within Australian society are not the only versions. Whitenesses also exist within non-white discourses and experience, yet are generally configured in entirely different ways. Perspectives from outside of whiteness in a society structured around a white ‘core’ culture are far more likely to experience whiteness as dominance and exclusion, and to see it within the context of a social system of racial hierarchy. For most whites, oblivious to their structural location of privilege or to the causes of their social positioning, ignorance is bliss. This ignorance, or repressed awareness, is a central mechanism in the reproduction of racialised systems of knowledge, power and privilege. Naturalising such knowledge systems, and the social structures with which they are entangled, helps to maintain them as simply commonsense orderings of the world, justifying the entitlements that flow from them: "it’s just the way things are".
19. Attempts at theorising whiteness need to negotiate the tension between, on the one hand, the continuity of white hegemony and homogenous aspects of various white discourses, mythologies and traditions, and on the other hand, the diversity of localised, lived whiteness’ and the social contexts of race. Culture is dynamic and changes through, amongst other things, the agency of subjects. Yet power relations and hierarchies also continue to be reproduced, despite contestation. Race is one axis around which power relations continue to be configured, and whiteness continues to be its dominant organising principle in Australian society. Thus whiteness operates in both localised/situated contexts and at a more generalised collective/structural level. In an effort to understand the socio-cultural aspects of whiteness’ reproduction I argue for the need to engage with the relationship between subjectivity and social practice. This points to a consideration of actual white subjects; how do the ways that they negotiate these various aspects of whiteness participate in and maintain the reproduction of racialised inequality? For the remainder of this paper I begin to explore the interaction between white subjectivities, social practice and the structures of Australian society.
Social Praxis and Cultural Reproduction
20. A distinction can be made between conscious and unknowing/non-conscious registers of culture. For the anthropologist James Weiner the conscious register of culture includes overt and publicly elaborated symbols of community. This he contrast with habits, practices, sensibilities and other elements which constitute "patterned behaviours that are not explicitly taught at the verbal level" and whose ordering principles reproduce without "rising to the level of consciousness or discourse" (2002, 3). Weiner goes on to argue "all human behaviour is a product of the intersection of such conscious and unconscious patterns" (2002, 3). Constructions of whiteness exist at both these levels of culture, which overlap in daily social praxis. As white Australian subjects go about their lives, their whiteness, and their Australianness, is marked in their daily discourse, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. Culturally patterned behaviours draw on racial categories and constructed stereotypes and help to reproduce racial (and other tropes of) inequality. These socially constructed symbols and meanings circulate in both broader public discourses and at the vernacular level of ordinary daily life. Thus race implicitly informs communal and national symbols as well as individual white subject’s sense of self, and of otherness.
21. At a non-conscious level, whiteness manifests through the ordinary social praxis of white subjects. I don’t intend to provide a definitive taxonomy of the unconscious manifestations of whiteness in daily praxis here, just to briefly illustrate this point. Ideas about whiteness may feed into a white individual’s feeling uncomfortable in the presence of racialised difference, which can impact upon their personal behaviour in such contexts. It may manifest in a gaze; that is how a white subject ‘looks’ at racialised otherness and the attitudes that this act of looking actually communicates. Race can inform patterns of association or the physical characteristics that white subjects find attractive, potentially impacting upon friendships, intimacies, and access to social networks. Race may influence where a white subject chooses to go to shop or whom they patronise with their custom. Race may inform the assumptions some policing power makes as it approaches a non-white subject. These are examples of some subtle and non-conscious ways that race insinuates itself into the texture of daily life. Through such unthinking ways whiteness shapes the social worlds and communal spaces of contemporary Australian life. Racism is not only overt and explicit, but unconscious and structural. Being classed as non-white in such contexts can impact directly and negatively on the experience of daily life and the range of opportunities that it presents. Constantly being made aware of one’s difference from the socially valued norm, and being held accountable for, or representative of, the rest of ones racial grouping is a burden that most white Australians don’t have to face on a daily basis.
22. Drawing on Bourdieu, Hage talks of whiteness and its various cultural associations as functioning as a type of cultural capital in Australian contexts (1998, 55-67). For Bourdieu, domination occurs not only in the economic and political realms but is also reproduced through symbolic (and epistemic) violence. Denial of access to valued social and cultural capitals limits cultural competence of individuals who operate within the fields that such capitals are valued. It can also limit the perceived legitimacy of social and cultural practice within such fields. The more cultural capital a person has the greater the degree of freedom they have to manoeuvre themselves through various social fields and to pursue their own interests. Thus we can conceive of whiteness as a type of currency that smooths one’s daily passage through social life in Australian contexts. Social and cultural capital is thus linked to the power a subject has to transform and direct their own social praxis. This can also be linked to their power to impact upon or transform other’s practices, and in doing so, to effect structural change.
23. Bourdieu expanded the notion of capital in the context of analysing class relations but, following Hage, it can also be applied to the operations of race. As discussed earlier, whiteness is a cultural construct that is fluid and context specific. Certain white Australian capitals can be acquired and accumulated by individuals such as an Australian accent, competence with appropriate Australian language, linguistic expressions and slang, and other relevant social and cultural codes and appropriate interests. These can assist individuals in the negotiation of Australian cultural milieus. However, whilst various multi-form capitals can be accumulated, the manner in which they are accumulated is also important. This logic, which Hage calls an aristocratic logic, differentiates and privileges those who are ‘naturally’ white Australian from those who have accumulated their whiteness. The most valued forms of capital (within in the dominant milieu) are not available on the socio-cultural ‘market’ and are hence unavailable to those aspiring to what Hage refers to as the national aristocracy. Embodied whiteness, or white skin is the capital that one cannot acquire, but is bestowed by birth. Thus the dominant naturalise the value of their capital (white skin) and the position of privilege within the national field of power that results from possession of this capital. This process of naturalisation creates symbolic barriers and undermines the legitimacy of the claims of other (non-white) citizens to entitlement to share in the nation, equating the dominants’ own valued capitals, ideals and practices with those of the nation.
24. Thus the reproduction of inequality occurs not only through institutionalised structures, but also through social practices that maintain cultural dispositions within groups that legitimate and support these structures. Social practices are a fundamental mechanism in socio-cultural reproduction. They embody implicit knowledges of the social world. For whiteness to function as a form of socio-cultural capital, it must be constantly recreated as socially valued and desirable. A white individual’s relationship to whiteness as a form of cultural capital manifests through their daily social praxis. Practices re-iterate, perform and make public their personal cathexis in whiteness. The non-conscious foundations of practice manifest in what the subject does and how they do it. Cultural forms and modes of practice and communication are embedded within and emerge through relations of power, distributions of privilege, and systems of domination and exclusion. Cultural practices and languages are intertwined with these systems of power, and therefore so are the very foundations of our subjectivities.
25. Judith Butler argues that social subjects hold passionate attachments to the structures of power that position them and give meaning to their world (1997). Here power is conceived as productive, in the Foucauldian sense, and considered to have psychic implications. Butler argues that the individual’s subjection to power paradoxically marks the limits of, and the conditions for, their social existence and agency (1997, 12). It is only through culturally patterned behaviours and socially sanctioned systems of meaning that we can speak, act or simply be. Thus to merely exist as a social being, to become a subject, the individual is subjected to, and internalises the external orderings of power that shape society. One must submit to power in order to wield it through agency. To act, through social practices, is a form of exerting a particular mode of power, and as I am arguing here, helps to reproduce the social world. The personal is political in a profoundly pervasive way. We are all implicated in, and socially positioned through the mundane, ordinary activities of our daily lives, through the choices we make, and the knowing/unknowing preferences and dispositions we hold. Through ordinary daily practice, as social subjects go about their daily lives, they participate in the reproduction of privilege and disadvantage along numerous social axes, not necessarily knowingly.
26. Within this broader socio-cultural context, how do we position the individual white subject? A deeper understanding of this must necessarily entail an exploration of how individuals construct and reproduce their own individual whitenesses, and how the processes that this involves interacts with, feeds off, re-configures, resists and reproduces broader public and national manifestations of whiteness and discourses of difference.
27. John Cash writes that "accounts of subjectivity typically vacillate between a foreclosing of the radical openness of subjectivity … and a disavowal of the power (the invested effectivity) of contingently formed, yet for the moment organised particular subjectivities" (2003, 197). This tension in social theory debates about subjectivity complexifies thinking through the problems of whiteness. While external influences play a dominant role in subject formation, subjectivity is more than simply an "effect" of social construction. Social subjects are also active participants within discourse. Cultural constructions are personally and emotively experienced and engaged with. Thus conscious and unconscious individual investments in various socially constructed identity categories are highly personal. Individuals believe in, and are attached to the systems of meaning through which they make sense of the world.
28. Subjectivity and culture are implicated in each other. Cash notes that ideology and culture are ‘radically mind dependant’. Thus, he argues, ideological formations bear the mark of human psychological characteristics (1989, 707). Unconscious motivations influence social behaviour and practice. Identity and social praxis also involve affective dimensions and emotional investments that are impacted upon by unconscious desires and motivations. Therefore the operations of the unconscious have some bearing on the socio-cultural world and its processes. Similarly, any attempt to make sense of the formation of white subjectivities within the context of social and cultural forces must consider the role of the unconscious and its impact upon identification and subjectivity formation. Thus we need to consider not only how whiteness is reproduced as socially significant, but also how this social significance functions in the formation of subjectivity. How or why is whiteness internalised by the white subject as an aspect of the self? How are subjects raced? What do unconscious investments in whiteness involve and why do they persist? Psychoanalytic theory provides concepts and a framework to begin to think these problems through.
29. In a Lacanian framework, the individual (infant) becomes a ‘subject’ through their encounter with language as they enter the symbolic (and thus social) order. Given the nature of signification this emergence is never fully complete. The structuring of language and signification mean that absence, or lack, remain at the core of a subject’s identity. The symbolic only ever stands in for reality, that which lies beyond language. The subject continually forms and enacts identifications attempting to fill this lack. Lack is thought of here as actually constitutive of subjectivity. Cash notes that this is the first moment of the subject’s double decentring (2003, 189). Here the subject is decentred in relation to language. The second moment of decentring occurs in relation to the unconscious. Here the subject is inherently divided or split – between consciousness and unconsciousness, meaning and being. The ego constructs a fictive sense of self, with the illusion of wholeness. However, the autonomy and completeness of this ego is undermined by the psychic agency of the unconscious, which disrupts attempts at identification. Both these decentring’s result in an identity that is never stable or complete. Thus subjectivity is always unfinished and in process.
30. Attempting to achieve an impossible wholeness and to fill its ‘lack’, the subject internalises identifications with external objects. In a sense, the social subject comes into being through this process of identification. The external objects that are internalised and through which identity is constructed can include things such as people, ideas, ideologies, nations and other cultural constructions. They are ‘things’ whose meaning is constructed within the socio-cultural realm of language. The external social worlds, and identifications with aspects of it, are the building blocks from which the self is constructed. At the same time, these very acts of identification are infused with ideology. They help to reproduce subjects as social and culture’s symbolic structures, as well as to inform a subject’s social practice. Thus the social is reproduced through (and within) the individual, just as the individual is reproduced through (and within) the social.
31. Drawing on this Lacanian framework, Cash talks of the social subject as caught between the pull of the ‘shifting, though persevering "I"’ of the ego, and of the nameless ‘It’ of the dynamic unconscious; at once subject and object. This tension forms the very grounds of subjectivity, as it is "constantly reworked within the moving field of rules, reasons and emotions which we can denote as ideology or culture" (2003, 189). The process of enacting identity is a fundamental link between subjectivity, social praxis, and the reproduction of cultural forms and structures. Subjectivity and the social world are recreated from moment to moment as individuals go about their lives. If we understand subjectivity formation to be about the actions and discourses that produce the "I", that is, a sense of self, then it is an inherently social process. This self comes into being through its identifications with the social world and its subjection to socio-cultural systems, rules and structures, which it reproduces in its constantly shifting social re-enactment of selfhood. This performance of identity is not a consciously considered thing, although self-reflexivity may enter the picture, and it is by no means free.
32. Identity is constrained by the cultural forms and norms that are the context of its performance, which it is ultimately framed by and draws upon, even if it acts to challenge them. An individual’s performance of identity is also shaped by their personal history. That is, by their passage through time and various cultural milieus. Given that race, like gender, is constructed as biological and marked on the body, performances of racial identity are also constrained by the physicality of the body and how it is read. This embodiedness of race results in a primacy given to it as visually marked. In the hierarchy of the senses, sight generally dominates, and thus visual signals are more immediate in their conveying of meaning. Kalpana Sheshadri-Crooks discusses race as a regime of visibility in which whiteness acts as the Master-signifier, which organises and orders the system of human phenotypic difference (2000). Thus the socially constructed and contingent aspects of whiteness are masked by popular understandings of race as located on, or in the body. Discursively produced whiteness (race) is taken for granted as natural and prior to language and culture. This understanding feeds into white Australian subjectivities. Individual social subjects are racialised as they negotiate their way through cultural worlds. Within Australian milieus, whiteness continues to be constructed as a privileged marking of race, and white subjects continue to maintain their investments in it. In doing so they continue the reproduction of its social significance.
Subjectivity and Cultural Reproduction
33. The dynamism of the socio-political world within which subjectivities are (per)formed inevitably impacts upon these shifting subjectivities. The political contest between competing discourses for legitimacy and institutionalisation therefore has implications for the modes of subjectivity prevalent within a society. Cash writes, "the struggle between discourses carries with it a struggle over subjectivity and intersubjectivity; a battle about which particular forms of subjectivity and intersubjectivity will come to count as the proper forms" (2002, 88-9). This public contest over what counts as commonsense informs public understandings which are drawn upon as individuals go about their lives making particular sense of the world. Cash goes on to argue that "what counts as proper – the proper way of being, relating, feeling, or construing – is recurrently fought over in the ongoing making and remaking of social and political relations" (2002, 91).
34. Public debate is ultimately about the institutionalisation of particular forms of social organisation. However, a shift in dominant discourses is never immediate or without resistance, nor is the re-organisation of subjectivities that such a shift may entail. Social reality is obviously not defined by the simple overt rule of one discourse over another, it is messy and complex. Challenges to dominant discourses not only have to battle the institutions and structures out of which they have grown, but also come up against the resistance of prior conscious and non-conscious subjective investments in these dominant forms. Multiple and contradictory discourses co-exist, even within the dominant ideological fields. For instance, the contemporary attempts at national inclusion of racial/ethnic difference exemplified by Multiculturalism and Reconciliation (however flawed they may be) co-exist with, and many argue are actually based upon, modes of national belonging founded implicitly on racial constructions. Individuals, therefore, must constantly re-negotiate race in the context of contradictory and competing discourses.
35. As previously discussed, these competing discourses impact upon subjectivities, providing both context and content for the processes of subjectivity formation. White individuals must manage their socio-political, affective and psychic investments (both conscious and unconscious) in their own whiteness, and the contradictions and ambiguities that social conflict and debate throws up. As the discursive production of whiteness (as normative) is often submerged and invisible within mainstream Australian cultures, it is not so publicly contested and thus is more stable. Thus a lot of writing about whiteness discusses it as invisible, normative and naturalised. While it does function in this way at a general cultural level, particularly in public written discourse, white subjects must also navigate various contexts and discourses where their whiteness carries differing significances.
36. While this significance may not be consciously acknowledged, a kind of repressed awareness of white entitlement and privilege circulates, as their social practices embody knowledge of the social contexts they navigate. For while social agents may be unknowing or unthinking in their enjoyment of, and assumed entitlement to, the privileges that their skin colour affords them, they are also often quick to protect or justify them should they feel that these privileges are being questioned, encroached upon or threatened. Such a response implies an underlying awareness of this sense of entitlement and of transgressions that are perceived to threaten it, even though this awareness may be repressed or denied. In a variety of ways, white subjects negotiate and manage an often simultaneous knowing/unknowing awareness and protection of this privilege, at both collective cultural and personal subjective levels. This seemingly contradictory simultaneous knowing and not knowing, and its implications, need to be further explored. It complexifies my call at the beginning of this paper for whites to begin to understand their positioning and to relinquish their hold upon privilege and power. How can one relinquish what one isn’t aware of having or whilst one is repressing or denying the awareness of possessing it?
37. When whiteness is contested the contradictions and challenges must be managed by white subjects, to protect or maintain their foundational subjective cathexis in their own racial categorisation and its connection to their understanding of the nation. Through such challenges repressed and unacknowledged privilege and the violences that maintain it erupt into daily life and consciousness. The epistemic, symbolic and physical violences which sustain the racial hierarchy, in both the past and the present, are repressed to maintain both personal and collective fantasies of being good selves and a just and equitable society. Thus repression and denial are psychic mechanisms that function to manage the incompatibility between this manifest aggression and the fantasised good self.
38. Psychoanalysis describes various psychic mechanisms which are employed in responding to the ambiguities and contradictions of social existence. I don’t intend to provide an exhaustive taxonomy of these mechanisms and how they relate to race and whiteness, but merely to point out their usefulness in social critique. They can be used to help understand the processes underlying white responses to the world around them. See for example the work of Damien Riggs who provides an insightful analysis of how both projection and repression operate in the context of race, and how they function in the management of white subject’s personal investments in their own whiteness (Riggs in press; 2004; Riggs and Augoustinos 2004). This approach highlights that the operation of these psychic mechanisms underlies social praxis and thus plays a part in the reproduction of the socio-cultural world. The individual subject and their daily practice form the nexus of agency, unconscious desires, social discourses and cultural forces. What they do and how they talk and think have broader reproductive implications for the culture that produced them and in which they participate.
39. In summing up, I shall briefly relate this understanding of whiteness and culture to some trends in Australian political life. Dominant national discourses within Australia have long maintained whiteness as a central aspect of national identity. Whilst a long history of contestation exists, whiteness has maintained a central and institutionalised position. The deep structures of Australian society continue to be informed by ideologies of race and to privilege whiteness. Public resistance to moves to include various forms of difference, and support for political agendas winding these policies back is indicative of a perception of the continued existence of a white core to Australian culture and identity, and of the assumption of its right to centrality and governance within the Australian nation. A prevalent popular experience then, is that this attempted inclusiveness is actually a challenge to the centrality of whiteness within the Australian nation. Under certain conditions, especially those inducing social uncertainty and anxiety, race can be called to the fore of public discourse, showing that it is easily activated. This demonstrates that race is still circulating as a meaningful and significant social discourse, and that it thus continues to structure social reality. Daily repertoires of social life are informed by vernacular stories, myths, and narratives and embody particular ways of making sense of the world. In contemporary Australian society they continue to draw upon circulating colonial narratives of nation and race.
40. The cultural presence and symbolic power of such exclusivist mythologies is evident in the effectiveness with which they have been politically wielded, thus showing that race still holds social currency and that perceived threats or challenges to whiteness and its centrality arouse responses indicative of anger, anxiety, and fear. The locally felt effects of globalisation, economic rationalism and deregulation have added to a climate of instability and uncertainty, as has the cultivated fear of terrorism. Since the late 90’s Australian subjectivities have proven responsive to the political reactivation of race by the Howard government, which has resulted in its re-election on a number of occasions. This has had real world effects on governmental policy, impacting on the shaping of Australian public institutions and the social imaginary. At the time of writing we are in the midst of the campaign in the lead up to another federal election. The ‘race card’ has yet to be explicitly played, but it lingers just under the surface of the discourses on terrorism and national security, as well as both major party’s unwillingness to specifically make Indigenous issues central to their political campaign.
41. Diverse social positionings, reproduced through discourses and practices of race, class, nation, and gender feed into the formation of white Australian subjectivities. Within Australian milieus, whiteness continues to be constructed as a privileged marking of race. Both the conscious and unconscious investments in whiteness by white Australians are deeply personal and continue to inform their social practices and the psychic mechanisms that maintain these investments. This helps to explain the continued power of the white cultural myths and narratives circulating in Australia. Those interpellated by them and who identify through them, and who also hold greater access to power, are reluctant to give up the racialised foundations of their subjectivities and the resultant privileges that Australian social structures afford them. Social discourse, subjectivity and social praxis are complexly entangled in the reproduction of the socio-political world in which we live. Locating the individual within this context may be a useful strategic move to bring about a greater sense of accountability and responsibility for the broader reproductive effects of individual’s action and practice. The critical study of whiteness in Australia will be enriched by engaging with the implications of this theoretical framework. I hope that a deeper understanding of this aspect of the socio-cultural reproduction of racial inequality will prove useful in increasing the success of future interventions to bring about a more equitable distribution of resources and opportunity in Australian society.
Simeon Moran is a doctoral candidate studying within the Australian Centre and the Ashworth Program in Social Theory at the University of Melbourne. His current research project focuses on the reproduction of white subjectivities in a middle class urban community in Melbourne. Email: email@example.com
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