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white critic of whiteness Arrow vol 3 no 2 contents
About borderlands Volume 3 Number 2, 2004


Playing chicken at the intersection: the white critic of whiteness

Fiona Probyn
The University of Sydney


Inspiration for this essay comes from the challenge to white feminists set by Aileen Moreton-Robinson - white feminists need to "theorise the relinquishment of power" (2000, 186). This is an important project, and a very difficult one, given that feminism charactistically addresses itself to issues of empowerment rather than the giving up of power. The impossible necessity of giving up power and recognising when it has been taken away is a focus of this paper. Theorising whiteness in relation to power and learning from, of all things, masculinity studies, I take up Moreton-Robinson's challenge to theorise the relinquishment of power within white feminist practice.

The real challenge for white feminists is to theorise the relinquishment of power

Aileen Moreton-Robinson, 2000: 186.

How can one question power…from a position of power? One ought to question it from its antagonistic position, namely, the position of weakness.

J M Coetzee, qtd in Morphet 1987: 465.

Try it, you might like it. Try to behave as if you are a part of the margin, try to unlearn your privilege.

Spivak in Harasym, 1990: 30.

1. This essay is written partly in response to Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s challenge to white feminists in Talkin’ Up to the White Woman (2000, 186) to "theorise the relinquishment of power" so that "feminist practice can contribute to changing the racial order". I want to examine how we white critics of whiteness challenge the privileges of whiteness and how critical whiteness studies in Australia produces anti-racist white subjects (as much as it analyses them). In the quotations from Coetzee and Spivak above, both recommend that the challenge to power and the unlearning of privilege must come through weakness or through marginalization. In the context of whiteness studies I want to ask how the white critic might represent white privilege as a weakness or as a loss? Could that be believed, let alone ethical? In this essay I trace how the call to give up power (which I see as the ethic driving the white critic of whiteness), has been met with the rhetoric of empowerment in the face of loss; a taking up of power rather than a giving up. I look at how the challenge to relinquish power, question power, and unlearn privilege can take the form of a weirdly white ressentiment which has the effect of appropriating the moral and political authority of the disempowered – the very critical strength of the Other. In the final section of this paper I argue that a Derridean reading of the gift is a useful starting point for articulating the necessity and the impossibility of the white critic of whiteness giving up power. This is a way of recognising the opposing strategies (giving-taking power) that the white critic of whiteness employs because of the specificity of their/my position as both subject, object and obstacle to analysis.

2. My reaction to Moreton-Robinson’s challenge at the end of her book led me to think through where I might find examples of writers and philosophers theorising the relinquishment of power. Not surprisingly, there aren’t many specific accounts of it around. Most models are concerned with empowerment rather than describing a situation of those with privilege who wish to give it up. My agreement with her, that yes, white feminists do indeed need to relinquish power, privilege and authority (which is how I interpret Moreton-Robinson’s reference to power), soon became complicated by the question of how this might actually be done and what strategies might articulate it. The paradox of someone like me, a white feminist, doing critical whiteness studies, might be described as the following: a white studying whiteness trying not to reinscribe whiteness. It is a bit like the position of white men studying masculinity trying not to reinscribe its power; the ‘abolition’ of whiteness (Garvey and Ignatieff, 1997), the dislodging of white privilege and the giving up of power, as professed by the white critic, arouses greater suspicion than acclaim (see also essay by Haggis in this issue). And not without good reason: the anxious white critic agitates not to be left out of the revolution while suspecting that it must be happening elsewhere. Students in a class I taught reacted to the challenge with excitement and then with suspicion – do people genuinely ‘give up power’ willingly? If I give up power here, I’m reinscribed in it there. There is no outside of power, so how can I give it up?

3. Thinking through Moreton-Robinson’s challenge I thought of strategies within postcolonial feminism which attempt to maintain the possibilities of coalitions between different groups of women by curtailing the universalising tendencies of western feminism. The politics of listening (as elucidated by Spivak) is vital to this process as it involves hearing the different voice of the Other in order to prevent ‘speaking on behalf of’. There is the ‘politics of partiality’ as advocated by Ien Ang (1995), telling feminism to stop acting like it is a nation, always ‘managing difference’ within it. There is Jodi Dean’s ‘solidarity of strangers’ (1996), stepping in and out of identity politics and always outside of sisterhood and universalisms. The collaborative works of Margaret Somerville and Stephen Muecke elucidate for me a politics of engagement with the Other that foregrounds the epistemic violence of settler speech – a poetics of failure, as I have called it elsewhere (Probyn 2002a). But do any of these modes actually equate to a ‘giving up’ of authority and privilege or are they just more or less effective ways of managing it? Are they, in the not too distant future, going to be revealed as ruses of power which entrench inequity differently, through an appeal to the particular rather than the universal?

4. Of course the question of how to ‘give up’ power cannot be divorced from the complexity of power itself. Foucault’s formulation that "there are no relations of power without resistances" (Foucault 1980, 142) allows us to situate white resistance to power as being an intimate part of power itself. It also reminds us that it is impossible to ‘give up power’ just as it is impossible to avoid breathing air. Following on from Foucault’s formulation Derrida imposes "three conditions" on speaking about the subject of power. Firstly, that rather than speaking of power we should speak of qualitative and quantitative differences of power. Secondly, that different powers can always mutate: "the ostensibly greater force can also be the ‘lesser’ (or the ‘strongest’ force is not ‘strongest’ but ‘weakest’)". Thirdly, that the paradoxes or ruses of power (such as the second condition and my essay here) cannot "avoid being caught up" in those paradoxes themselves (Derrida 1988, 149).

5. To me the challenge to give up power, like the challenge to ‘own’ whiteness, operates as a strategically essential challenge that animates the debate and forms the ethical engagement for the white critic. But it is not an easy manouvre, as Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s rhetoric of ‘challenge’ suggests. In fact, there is no ‘giving up power’ without power being taken/transmuted into another form; taking responsibility, taking a good hard look at yourself, taking care, taking part, taking on ressentiment, taking up the challenge, taking time, taking to task, taking over. I argue here that this incontrovertible link between giving up power and taking up power, marks the difficulty and poignancy of the project of critical whiteness studies for the white critic – and it is the white critic that I wish to focus on specifically here.

6. Before I go on, it is necessary to justify why more work needs to be done on understanding what the ‘problem’ is in relation to white critiques of whiteness, if only to register a dominant rhetoric which disavows the problem of whiteness by presenting the white critic’s consideration of the problem as THE problem. I take heart from Mannoni warning in "The Decolonisation of Myself" where he criticises the "optimistic denial of the terms of the problem…presented as its solution" (Mannoni 1966, 78).

7. The political project of critical whiteness studies is, to quote Richard Dyer (1997, 2), to ‘see’ whiteness (or ‘own’ it) and then to dislodge it: "[t]he point of seeing the racing of whites is to dislodge us/them from the position of power". The difficulty of ‘seeing’ the racing of whites or, more specifically, the difficulty of whites seeing the racialization of whites (because, as Ahmed, 2004, and Haggis & Schech, 2000, point out, it is clear to others), is thus linked to the difficulty of dislodging us/them from positions of power. The claim to ‘be’ white forms the premise for the second move which is to give up power. As I will go on to suggest, claims to ‘be white’ more often than not reveal a logic of ‘yes, but’, or a putting into place a straw white woman who may be sacrificed in place of constructing a genealogy of the problem which would tend towards irreducibility rather than resolution, counterposed as ‘yes, and’. The ‘terms of the problem’ is that critical whiteness studies renders whiteness both object, subject and obstacle for the white critic and that this creates problems for the project of critical whiteness from the perspective of whiteness. And, I think we need to take seriously Homi Bhabha’s very negative reading of the field which holds that "[r]ecent work on the experience of whiteness…makes the Foucauldian line [that power is always invisible] practically axiomatic" (Bhabha 1998, 21). Bhabha argues that this occurs through the attempt to prioritise the ‘gaze of the other’ which has the effect of revealing or mapping the differences which can then be incorporated. I want to think through what resistances to the power of whiteness the white critic can muster, and whether or not proximity to the problem (being white and critiquing white) might offer the white critic a uniquely effective (because complicit) standpoint.

Denouncing a part of oneself

8. The white critic of critical whiteness studies is in a problematic position to say the least, just as the colonizer-who-refuses was back in Albert Memmi’s day when he was describing the relationship between colonised and coloniser in 1957. According to Memmi the colonizer who refuses "lives his life under the sign of a contradiction which looms at every step, depriving him of all coherence and all tranquility. What he is actually denouncing is part of himself" (Memmi 1957,20). If colonialism makes the coloniser-who-refuses a melancholy subject, critical whiteness studies then reveals the coloniser-who-refuses to be melancholy, paranoid, sado-masochistic and nostalgic, which is why we’re not great company at conferences. The white critic of whiteness lives without tranquility and without coherence. For instance, Fiona Nicoll tells her reader that "you won’t be shocked when I tell you that since coming out as white…I periodically have panic attacks and think: ‘I’ve got to get out of here. Beam me back to terra nullius’" (Nicoll 2000, 382). Haggis and Schech point out that as white feminist critics of whiteness they must "risk being ‘bad’ in terms of the Others we are endeavouring to forge bridges with" (Haggis and Schech 2000, 397). As white critics of whiteness, our work is often an example of the very thing that we are critiquing. The white critic of whiteness is both target and wielder of those words from Jackie Huggins et al aimed initially at Diane Bell: "You were and still are, a part of that colonising force" (Huggins 1991, 507). While the white critic of whiteness critiques Bell she must do so from a position of proximity to her, and even complicity.

9. Complicit critique is the postcolonial position par excellence, as Spivak has observed: "This impossible "no" to a structure, which one critiques, yet inhabits intimately, is the deconstructive philosophical position, and the everyday here and now named "postcoloniality" is a case of it" (Spivak 1991, 172). The white critic of whiteness is in that impossible position, saying no to an intimately inhabited structure. But it seems also that the white critic can disavow this complicity by adopting a mode of white resentiment which I will discuss in the next section. White resentiment shows the critic attempting to ‘unlearn privilege as a loss’ by learning how to re-present that privilege as already diffuse, impotent and ‘incoherent’ as Haggis and Schech have noted in their work on settler life histories (Haggis and Schech, 1999). This mode of white resentment demonstrates, despite itself, that a giving up of power is always also a taking up of power.

Critically Injured Whiteness Studies

10. In States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (1995), Wendy Brown argues that ressentiment describes the current home of politicised identities. Brown argues that ressentiment encourages individuals to identify themselves along the lines of injuries that need re-dressing through State power. She argues that seeking such redress comes with an attendant danger: if we give the State the power to recognise and redress our injuries then we are encouraged to identify with it and the ‘wounded attachments’ that it allows. Ressentiment encourages a focus on injury which become individuated and intentional, rather than indicative of broad social and political patterns that include the State. Brown worries that in contemporary liberalism, a politics of grievance (as grounds for identity) actually represents an entrenchment of disciplinary power. She quotes Foucault on the kind of power that will "categorize the individual, mark him by his own individuality, attach him to his own identity, impose a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others have to recognize in him" (28-29). When I read that sentence I am reminded of critical whiteness studies and its production of white anti-racist disciplinary subjects, the forms of which I will go on analyse.

11. Brown situates a feminist tradition within the politics of ressentiment (see also Elspeth Probyn’s reading of Australian women’s studies and ressentiment, 1998). In order to address power, the feminist critic adopts a politics of grievance, disempowerment and an assertion of moral authority based on the injury of gender discrimination. She argues that as a strategy and as a mode of address ressentiment is common to (though not exclusive to nor entirely descriptive of) aspects of contemporary white and black feminist theory, masculinity and contemporary liberal accounts of the State, all of which can claim different expressions of moral and political authority based on vulnerabilities to power, disempowerment and the need for redress. Brown does not deny these ‘states of injury’, but she is concerned that if they are used to articulate politicised identities then they become a means by which those injuries are expressions of disciplinary power itself. She also points out that the state can also become attached to seeing persons in terms of those injuries. Sara Ahmed has pointed out that Brown’s use of a generic model for the ‘wounded subject’ does not account for the differences between the positions of those wounded and the present, ongoing nature of those wounds. From Brown’s work it is clear that ressentiment is not exclusive to any position within the political spectrum but it is important to stress the differences between injuries and those injured. This is particularly the case in the event of white ressentiment.

12. In Australia white ressentiment would probably first conjure up an image of Pauline Hanson and her One Nation Party. Hanson and the party adopted a discourse of what Hage describes as "anglo decline" (1998) which positions ‘whites’ as the ones without ‘special privileges’ and at the mercy of unfairly privileged groups ie. ‘it’s not the Aborigines who are disadvantaged, it’s ME, it’s whites who lack ‘special privileges’. Hansonism is unable to recognise the privileges of whiteness because being ‘underprivileged’ is seen as affectively more powerful and therefore more privileged or ‘special’. It is an argument over access to the entitlement of ‘underprivilege’. Such a use of ressentiment demonstrates the wide appeal of ressentiment as a strategy which articulates weakness. But it is not only Hansonites who might wish to use ressentiment, because it is a strategy which effectively disavows privilege and reconfigures it as underprivilege and therefore is also useful for the white critic of whiteness. Let me be clear at this point that I am not suggesting that white critics of whiteness who use the discourse of resentiment are Hansonites. What I am suggesting is that the strategy of ressentiment is not foreign to any particular ‘side’ of politics and that its usefulness to white critics of whiteness is in its capacity to articulate weakness and marginality. If, as Brown suggests, ressentiment is a predominant mode of address within contemporary cultural debates, then it is not surprising that the white critic of critical whiteness studies has adopted it.

13. The discourse of ressentiment holds a promise of perpetual vulnerability which is particularly useful for the white critic whose privilege renders their performance of vulnerability unconvincing. Katrina Schlunke has asked: "how can one be ‘strategically’ heterosexual, ‘strategically’ bourgeois, ‘strategically’ white?" (Schlunke, 174). In other words, there is no point in being ‘strategically white’ because that is associated with the fight for empowerment which surely whites don’t need? According to Moreton-Robinson (2000) we need to ‘relinquish power’ not appeal to more of it.

14. So how might the white critic of whiteness begin? Memmi asks how the colonizer who refuses might "visualise sharing any future liberation, being himself already free?" (23-24). How does the white critic of whiteness begin to analyse the power and the privilege, and/or own it, when the traditional (or only) mode of addressing power (from a position of weakness), is not appropriate to the task of acknowledging privilege? Austin and McMaster (1999, 238) ask the following question: "if one chooses not to accept an identity that is based on oppression, then what options does a white person have?". It is a good question, but I wonder how "not accept[ing] an identity that is based on oppression" might also be a disavowal of complicity which starts the critic on a spiral of searching for a more recognisably disempowered subject position from which to begin. In this essay I am particularly interested in the tension between wishing to ‘move’ white subjectivities out of places of privilege but without that privilege being disavowed though an identitarian slippage away from that privilege. I agree with and hope to build on Robyn Wiegman’s article "Whiteness Studies and the Paradox of Particularity" (2002), an account of US whiteness studies in which she warns of the "identificatory mobility" of "antiracist white subjectivity" (285). Wiegman argues that this ‘identificatory mobility’ allows the anti-racist white subject to recast themselves as symbolically black, disempowered and marginalised, which has the effect of claiming a universalised position that whiteness studies was supposed to reject. The question is then, how does one take on privilege, question privilege, without turning-towards-privilege becoming a turning-away from it? How do we sustain the gaze, making that melancholic rumination useful (see Eng, 2003) for sustained critique? We need to develop conceptual tools to write privilege while holding ourselves accountable for it.

15. On the subject of questioning power and challenging privilege from within, Spivak suggests "un-learning privilege as a loss" (Harasym 1990, 9). Spivak uses an example of a white male student who feels so overdetermined by colonial history that he cannot speak. Spivak tells him that this ‘cannot speaking’ (which is reserved for the subaltern) is a kind of abdication of his responsibility to challenge the history of his own privilege. Therefore, he must revisit this burden and speak it, in the meantime "unlearning privilege as a loss". But this is not as straightforward as it first appears, because how might that privilege be seen as a loss as well as accounted for at the same time? A similar problem of challenging power from within is expressed by novelist J M Coetzee, whose own position as a white male South African is so overdetermined that he, like Spivak’s student, depicts his own voice as marginalised. Speaking (characteristically) in the third person about his own writing position, Coetzee has described himself thus:

In the first half of this story – a story spoken in a wavering voice, for the speaker is not only blind, but written as he is a white south African into the latter half of the twentieth century, disabled, disqualified – a man who writes reacts to the situation he finds himself in of being without authority, writing without authority (Coetzee qtd in Attwell 1992, 392).

16. J. M. Coetzee’s observation that his position as a white male writer in South Africa leaves him "without authority" runs counter to the images of power and privilege associated with white men in South Africa. Importantly, the paradox of the white man "without authority" is generated by Coetzee’s rejection of the power and privilege conferred on him by a history of colonialism. Coetzee is ‘disabled’ and ‘disqualified’ because his position as a white male South African renders him complicit. But as I have argued elsewhere, Coetzee’s strategic deployment of white women narrators in his novels embody this position of complicity (Probyn 2002b). It is their relative silence which allows him to speak, just as, presumably for Spivak’s student, it is re-imagining privilege as a loss, that allows him to speak also. In an uncharacteristically direct statement on the subject of power, Coetzee has questioned the capacity of the powerful to question power and again, it is a point that has resonance for the white critic of whiteness (which is what Coetzee also represents). Coetzee says: "How can one question power ("success") from a position of power? One ought to question it from its antagonistic position, namely, the position of weakness" (Morphett 1987). We might question the ability of a straight white male to do this, take up a position of weakness in relation to power, and in fact I have done (Probyn 2002b), as have others. I have criticised Coetzee’s taking on of the voice of the white woman and I do so implicitly through ressentiment, a white feminist response to patriarchy. Coetzee cannot take on power through power and so he ventriloquises. But is that a useful critique or is it merely a description of the difficulty or impossibility of speaking power back to power?

17. Spivak has also pointed out that the "historical state of being a woman is something that poststructuralism has tried to appropriate a little, in order to articulate for itself a space that is not phallocentric" (Harasym 1990, 102). Here Spivak complicates her previous call to ‘unlearn privilege as a loss’ – if poststructuralism does this by appropriating the margins, then it is problematic. If her male student begins to ‘speak’ by speaking with and through the voice of ‘woman’ might not that also be problematic for her solution of unlearning privilege as a loss? This suggests that the project of ‘unlearning privilege as a loss’ is only unproblematic when it stays within the confines of that privilege. Is this possible? Can I question power from a position of power? Can I challenge my own privilege without somehow underestimating it, symbolically castrating it, neutralising it, blackening it? It seems to me that my own criticism of Coetzee illustrates Coetzee’s own point – that one cannot speak power back to power; we look for spaces that are not phallocentric, not privileged, not white, not part of the problem that we are trying to elaborate. And here lies the rub for the white critic of whiteness, because we are very much part of the problem that we are trying to articulate and doing critical whiteness studies as a white necessitates that we place ourselves in it, otherwise we’ve missed the whole point. And this is what makes doing critical whiteness studies so difficult and so interesting. (Time and again I’ve heard whites say, yes, but it’s not about ME though…which reminds me of Vicky Kirby’s reading of feminists reading Irigaray’s ‘lips’ and saying, not these lips, it’s figurative! Or not the ‘real’ body but the body! (See Kirby 1997 and more recently Wilson 2004). We do not yet have a language to challenge privilege from within privilege or, to adopt a phrase used within critical whiteness studies in Australia, to challenge whiteness in the first instance.

18. Moreton-Robinson argues that white feminists in Australia "position themselves as variously classed, sexualised, aged and abled…[and] are not represented to themselves as being white" (xxv). Thus it is time to locate ‘race’ in the first instance, to borrow Fiona Nicoll’s phrase (2000), giving priority to race in the lives and practice of white theorists. But whiteness in the first instance is the first thing to disappear. What is owned is whiteness as something Other, privilege displaced by an other related history of oppression and into, as Wiegman argues, particularity. As Haggis and Schech point out, following Alistair Bonnett, "some of us are more white than others" because of class (1999). Coming out as a white woman, Fiona Nicoll installs queerness prior to whiteness, as in her "embodied standpoint as a queer, white woman." (2000, 385). Karen Brodkin calls the "hidden heart" of whiteness its investments in "gendered identities" (1999, 25). The qualifiers of class, sexuality and gender place white in quotation marks, instantiating Jane Durie’s point that whiteness continually slips into gender, class (1999, 154) and sexuality. It also suggests that privilege asserts itself in moves to appropriate margins that are now sites of particularity:

For a white person to step forward and be visible as part of a cultural group that is seen as the oppressor is frightening and painful…Many ask ‘what can I do to change this?’ and the reply often received is to shift the gaze of ‘otherness’ back on to themselves, to connect to their ethnicity and find out who they are, since many share histories which have involved attack, colonization and marginalisation. (Movsessian, 167)

19. Coming to the field through an entry point marked ‘privilege’ the white critic finds an exit point also marked ‘privilege’ unless they can re-present it as a position complicated by other entanglements of power. One ‘solution’ for the white critic is to re-present themselves as (at one time) colonized, even ancestrally. The implications of this re-presentation of privilege as at-one-time underprivileged, is that they/we cannot then ‘own’ that privilege or power as power, despite explicit claims to do so.

20. This is a fantastic manouvre. Fantastic in the sense of fantasy, unmoored. For it allows the reconfiguration of white privilege into a complicated particularity of underprivilege. This then allows a second equally amazing manouvre: whiteness as a Thing to be liberated from, a liberation from disempowerment (of being an oppressor). As Dyann Ross argues "the conference allowed some space for unmasking whiteness as owned by ‘white’ people and to the extent that this happened it was a space of empowerment for me" (1999, 253). Fiona Nicoll writes: "the relief I experienced in coming out at Unmasking Whiteness was linked to the realisation that my whiteness was something that Indigenous people had always known about me. Finally the mental gymnastics of whiteness could cease" (2000, 382). This declaration of whiteness couched as a liberation from repressed/masked whiteness thus makes ‘owning’ whiteness something like a release from the oppression of invisible, universal whiteness. This is a good example of the giving up and taking on of power. Nicoll describes this as a cessation of the "mental gymnastics of whiteness" but I would suggest that her reading of ‘coming out’ as white is actually an example of those gymnastics in action or, more specifically, the way in which whiteness acrobatically reconfigures itself along the lines of disempowerment.

21. Whiteness cannot here be directly portrayed as privileged, it must be portrayed as disempowered to warrant the use of the rhetoric of liberation (relief) and must therefore, be redressed in/by other subject positions. Resituating whiteness as equivalent to (in the sense of requiring a strategy of empowerment like ‘coming out’) or as particularised, as in I’m white but queer, working class etc. does not tackle white privilege but recontextualises it in more palatable (less privileged) terms. This is the case with any single issue movement – it is impossible for other factors not to be considered. But the impact of this for critical whiteness studies is to problematise the critical movement of the field. Robyn Wiegman argues that critical whiteness studies attempts to resolve the universalising tendencies of whiteness through patient particularity, though the demonstration of whiteness as not universal but as residing in specific fields of identity. But, as Wiegman points out, universalising is not contradicted by particularism, but is the specific grounds of its articulation: "the particular is the necessary contradiction that affords to white power its historical and political elasticity" (298). Here I am NOT suggesting that the white critic of whiteness is wrong to situate other particularising factors in relation to whiteness, but that their articulation of other factors demonstrates the impossibility of owning whiteness in the first instance and as the final solution: whiteness soon dissipates into the intersectionality that we play chicken with.

22. Whiteness cannot be owned directly, despite the explicit claim. Why? Why can’t whiteness be owned directly? Why must it appear mitigated by other subject positions? Firstly, and obviously, there is no such thing as being only white, all subjects are simultaneously and already imbricated in a multitude of other subject positions, as Nicoll and others have argued. Thus we are always white and…. But the challenge that the white critic of whiteness has is to ‘own’ whiteness without ‘masking’ that privilege through ressentiment (weakness) supplied by other subject positions. White women have historically used the ‘women’ part to qualify and even wriggle out of, the ‘white’ privilege which has had the effect, as Moreton-Robinson shows, of leaving whiteness uninterrogated. Queer and class can also help to soften the hard edges of privilege. Thus the challenge is (impossible as it is sounding now) to raise whiteness to the first instance and thereby isolate the whiteness of white, the privilege of white, from its expressions in other subject positions. But this is for the white critic impossible to maintain. What can be perceived is a moment where being white is mitigated by the ‘refusal’, which is expressed in the form of white ressentiment (masking). The self loathing inherent to the white critic of whiteness has to go somewhere, be re-presented as deserving of consolation, relief, approval, acceptance; articulating a desire to be the white woman who gives up power that Moreton-Robinson implies is possible.

23. Owning whiteness, unmasking whiteness or releasing whiteness from the closet is often presented as a liberation. But it is a liberation into being an oppressor, which is the very thing that the white critic of whiteness is but does not want to be. Because a liberation into the role of the oppressor is not satisfying (!) the option is to re-present that liberation into whiteness as relief from repression and/or as akin to other oppressed subject positions. Faced with the horror of the role of the oppressor there is the option to think through the ambiguity and the ambivalence of this position and trace its paradoxical nature in one’s praxis. The other option when faced with the horror of a liberation into the role of the oppressor is more liberation and fast. Here the rhetoric of liberation is not countered by the fact of white privilege, on the contrary, it becomes more urgent, more insistent, it becomes moralising (beseeching other whites to ‘own’ their whiteness like they have) and it is expressed through a politics of white ressentiment that expresses the desire for disempowerment from the throne of whiteness but not the actuality. It is possible that the white adoption of ressentiment allows the white critic to re-present their position (as oppressor) as being of secondary importance to the liberation from the repression of this fact. Thus critical whiteness studies maintains an investment in the repressive hypothesis and keeps itself busy by unmasking whiteness, over and over again. It becomes stuck in the act of unveiling, unmasking, proclaiming. It cannot begin the more difficult task of inquiring into what happens to the white critic after this performance because it is so heavily invested in the ritual of revelation (see also essay by Ahmed in this issue). Revelation satiates an urgent need and makes it seem like we’ve arrived somewhere. But arrivals are always already points of departure, the revelation of whiteness must go somewhere else. This makes critical whiteness studies read more like critically injured whiteness studies – surviving within a kind of "traumaculture" where "[c]ompulsively, the shock is renewed but without any advance in comprehension" (Luckhurst 2003, 39).

24. The ‘repressive hypothesis’ which underlies many of the essays in the Australian collection Unmasking Whiteness: Race Relations and Reconciliation (1999), anaesthetizes critical whiteness studies, making some good disciplinary subjects and a sometimes sluggish field that swings between morbidity and the shock of revelation. (I hope it isn’t just these shocks that keep the patients alive!). I would argue that the ‘repression’ of whiteness and the fact of being an oppressor has not been repressed, it has been explored in some detail throughout (for instance) the last fifty or so years of postcolonial theory, understood here as not meaning after colonialism but from colonisation onwards.

25. Critical whiteness studies struggles hard to maintain the newness of rediscovering the colonizer who refuses, the revelation of ‘unmasking’ whiteness. This is not a new option for the postcolonizer, it is an old trope that draws attention to the irreducibility of the problem. I’m not saying that postcolonial theory has resolved these questions, far from it. But whiteness studies does seem to neglect the genealogy of its own questions within postcolonial theory (as only one source) and in doing so also neglects to consult the history of identities, subject positions, interstitial spaces, hybridization that that field of inquiry makes available. Not surprisingly then, we find a repetition of repressive hypotheses and libertarian modes of address in the service of a somehow new and pressing political agenda, as exemplified in the Dworkin-esque prose of the Introduction to Unmasking Whiteness: Race and Reconcilation, "all white people in Australia benefit from racial privilege. Not all whites share equally in these benefits – some are disadvantaged by their class, gender or sexuality – but all receive unearned social benefits as the inheritors of a racially based system of wealth and privilege" (McKay 1999, 4 emphasis added). It is colonialism still, no less urgent, but not urgently needing a return to old theorising.

26. As this Introductory prognosis attests, if one can find a way out of owning whiteness through the mitigating factors of (underprivilege based on) class, sexuality and gender (who can’t?) then we have less of a problem… I’m being ironic, I don’t think that it is possible for one to be ‘white’ and only white. But the politics of whiteness calls for the dislodging of whiteness at the same time that it calls for its more elaborate description and elucidation, the latter not necessarily conducive to achieving the former. Intersectionality and particularity seems on the one hand to make critical whiteness studies as ‘impossible’ as feminism (which no longer relies only on Woman) and on the other hand, it functions to disavow the privilege of whiteness. This then should serve as a warning against using the same modes of address (characterised partly by ressentiment) for both oppression and privilege. Whiteness cannot be convincingly re-presented as something akin to a loss or a weakness without damaging the original premise of the field. There is a need to ‘weaken’ whiteness without presenting it (us/me) as the weak, or, to use Wendy Brown’s phrase, the newly ‘wounded subject’ of postcoloniality. But the statements by Coetzee, Spivak, Nicoll, Haggis, Schech, Bonnett, Durie, Movsessian and Ferrier suggest that it is impossible to question power from a position of power itself – it is the epistemological equivalent of staring directly at the sun – the irreducibility of whiteness remains its blinding insight.

27. To return to Moreton-Robinson’s challenge to give up power: if the margins are multiplying, is it possible to ‘give up power’? For who is left with ‘it’ to give it? Understanding privilege by revisiting it as a loss, or questioning power from the position of weakness are both useful strategies in identifying the contours of that power but that does not equate to ‘owning’ it. ‘Owning it’ seems to encourage the adoption of a politics of ressentiment which enables the white critic of whiteness to answer "yes but" instead of "yes and", thus qualifying the privilege of whiteness that it was supposed to own up to. "Owning it" also connotes privatisation, which is precisely what Moreton-Robinson argues against in her call to recognise the ‘intrasubjective’ and ‘intersubjective’ relations of power. In her criticisms of white feminist interviewees who do not own their own white race privilege (see chapter five of Talkin’ Up to the White Woman) Moreton-Robinson invests a great deal in the repressive hypothesis of whiteness, that white feminists do not ‘see’ themselves as racially privileged and as complicit. However, where the white women speak I do hear some of them articulate a sense of complicity in racial oppression and a sense of the particularity of that identification (see in particular pages 136, 137, 140, 142, 143, 144, 145, 146). It is not surprising that the incoherence and difficulty that these women express in relation to ‘teaching race’ and living racialized lives is not so different to the kinds of problems I have identified in say, some works within Unmasking Whiteness, where writers wish to position themselves as good disciplinary subjects of critical whiteness studies and also in other texts where whiteness is redrawn as a perpetual form of injury or as qualified by particularity. There is also the good disciplinary subject of critical whiteness who wants to be ‘bad’ as seen in Nicoll (2000), Haggis and Schech (2000), and dates back further to the work of Marilyn Frye (1983) and Adrienne Rich (1979), both of whom refer to the value of white women’s ‘disloyalty’ to whiteness. Jane Haggis and Suzanne Schech have argued that white women in particular (but universalised) need to be aware that behaving badly is often the most ethical starting point:

By making our power-full texts transparent, we risk being ‘bad’ in terms of the Others we are endeavouring to forge bridges with, as well as in terms of the very professional credentials that give us our power in the first place. There is, in this sense, no safe place for those who wish to shift feminist whiteness; there is no choice but to jettison the vestiges of the ‘good woman’ and her queenly sovereignty and finds ways to be ‘bad’ feminists whose global manners are always revealed for contestation (397).

28. I agree with the need to dispense with the fiction of the ‘good’ white woman critic and I think they put the case convincingly. However, the call to be ‘bad’ works within the same binary and moral sphere as the ‘good’ white woman that it is supposed to challenge. It is the same paradigm which privileges the author’s intentions over the effects of their writing – it’s ok, I meant to be bad is similar to it’s ok, I meant to be good in that both offer an individuated, authorial intention that overrides (metafictionally) the reader’s claims to meaning. Given this, perhaps it is not the ‘good’ white woman that is the problem as much as the assumption that our intentions count MORE than the effects of what we have written and the assumption that we can consume critical readings in advance. Diane Bell’s ‘good’ intentions do not count to override the effects of her writing, and neither would her presumption of ‘badness’ (should she have made it) either. The ‘bad’ woman trope reaffirms the idea that anti-racism is a question of morality, which both effectively delimits the discussion to (bad/good) personal ‘choice’ and (good/bad) behaviour in the individual rather in power structures which are rarely transparent. Transparency, as a dream of giving up power, is on the contrary a powerful claim to know the Other’s viewpoint and cast it into our text, thereby dispensing with the need for the Other’s readership. The dream of being transparently bad avoids a greater challenge to work with a position of the white feminist critic as caught "not between good and evil, but between evil and uneasiness" (43), to quote Memmi on the colonizer-who-refuses yet again.

29. So, to return to Moreton-Robinson’s chapter five. White critics of whiteness that I have examined here have much in common with the white women interviewees of chapter five. And importantly, in that chapter, Moreton-Robinson appears reticent to highlight where the white women she interviews express their complicity and particularity because that takes away some of the power of her own readings. (I say ‘some’ because I think that her interpretations would still be powerful if she had allowed a greater sense of complicity and particularity in her ethnographic subjects). Her positioning of "these feminists" (146) under her gaze relies on the partiality and repression of their own knowledge about their own white race privilege. In other words, it is up to Moreton-Robinson to reveal the full horror of their/our complicity. But this then raises the question of the falsity of that repressive hypothesis. For what then do we make of the horror/revelation of those texts which foreground complicity in advance, as in the texts I have discussed here? Might not those ‘unrepressed’ or liberated (albeit into complicity) texts, full of self confessed complicity, desire for liberation, ressentiment and loving mimicry also be another version of the power that will not, cannot give itself up? Is it not also possible to see this relationship as one which incorporates Moreton-Robinson’s oppositionality into itself? How is Moreton-Robinson’s own text complicit in this?

30. The point that I am making here is that this relationship (Moreton-Robinson reading white women reading race and white critics reading Moreton-Robinson reading white women reading race), reveals something of the intimacy and complicity between the white and indigenous critic of whiteness. Where the white critics of whiteness desire to position themselves as good disciplinary subjects of critical whiteness studies they consume the politics of the indigenous critic, wanting to be the white woman who owns up to white privilege unlike (or like depending on how you read them) the women in Moreton-Robinson’s chapter five. Moreton-Robinson’s work then lends itself to the establishment of white particularity, licensing a form of white speech that registers its limited complicity or particularised complicity through ressentiment and complicity, even in advance. But this licensed white speech can never relinquish the white power of self-description; to say "I am complicit" is powerfully self-descriptive and therefore different to "you are complicit". The white critic of whiteness consumes the Indigenous critique of whiteness by attempting to become a good disciplinary subject who is sometimes ‘bad’. And the Indigenous critic of whiteness consumes the white critic by allocating the space in which to be ‘bad’ by delimiting and withholding the meaning of complicity. Is this form of mutual complicity (and intersubjectivity) close to Langton’s call for "forms of mutual comprehension" (1993, 81) which recognise the difference of the Other?

Giving and Taking Account of Privilege: Still kicking and screaming

How do you at once recognise the fullness and extent of historical accountability and draw boundaries around it, how do you let it flow…while also keeping it in, if not its proper, then at least a definable, precisely accountable, place? (Jacqueline Rose 2004, 224).

31. Giving a paper at the recent annual conference of the Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association, I was criticised for having presented a version of Australian history that located patriarchy as the scourge of the colonial hierarchy, leaving the complicity of white women out of the picture. The paper that I delivered at this conference was on the subject of the white fathers of the Stolen Generations and the ways in which the presumed ‘Good white Father’ of Government was able to step in and over the ‘bad white father’ of Indigenous children in order to situate Indigenous children at the behest of State paternalism. Imagining question time, I was worried about being criticised for presenting yet another intrusive white account of Aboriginal subjectivity, family and history. Instead I got another kind of question which I hadn’t been expecting. It was a question that brought ‘womanness’ to the fore. I am reconstructing it from memory, but the question was something like, why was I suggesting that patriarchy was the thing to talk about, when for black women it was white women who were the problem?

32. My response to this criticism compounded the problem. I answered that the complicity of white women in these stories was apparent and formed part of my reading of this history in other parts of the project. In a twenty-minute paper it was not possible to say everything. That old chestnut of the white woman apologist (‘I didn’t have enough time’ to cover everything) was clearly irritating to the questioner, and I was surprised to hear it coming out of my own mouth, knowing that the time factor is something that has served as short hand for making sure that issues that are relegated to the margins stay there. I was surprised by how easily this script formed my response to a question which was challenging me to consider how I might have done what white women do, construct patriarchy as a target in place of considering their own complicity. In hindsight I perceived the criticism as being levelled at a white woman feminist who should have been using her time to devote to issues relevant to unpacking her own subject position and privilege – owning my own whiteness. It was this that made me interested to see how to do it – how to ‘own whiteness’? This lead me to look at how other writers have gone about owning their own whiteness and what this ‘owning’ actually brings to the debate. And from what I can see, as I hope to have shown in the previous section of this essay, such an ‘owning’ of whiteness seems to contribute positively to the changing of white praxis (consciousness of the privilege of whiteness) but that this ‘changing’ can also result in the mutation of white privilege to reinstate universalisms differently, through particularity and ressentiment.

33. This question did make me wonder why I was/am interested in the white fathers story and whether or not this was a kind of deflection away from my own complicity. On reflection I think that in part it is. On further reflection I want to think through how I can recognise this and continue the project differently at the same time. Taking this challenge on board requires a consideration of the role of the politics of location in my project and a consideration of how whiteness (my own and ‘theirs’) is invested in this project.

34. My project to examine the figure of the white father in relation to the Stolen Generations history has as one of its aims an attempt to understand how whiteness functioned as a way of justifying removal policies. It involves looking at legislation that depicts Indigenous people in terms of mathematical quantities of ‘blood’. It involves recognising and reading through accounts of relationships between white men and Aboriginal women which are abusive and exploitative and deeply shaming for me as a white Australian. It also involves reading through the stories of white fathers who tried to keep their children and articulated a sense of outrage against a system (recognised as white like them) that attempted to eliminate their families. This project involves a consideration of white shame and also an account of how some relationships were able to survive and challenge colonialism’s binary logic by merely being. Incommensurabilities and cultural trespass form part of the very grounds of the project and I am challenged to find a way of earning a right to speak about them. My difference in relation to these white fathers are also profoundly implicated here: differences of class and gender. How do I theorise the masculinity of the ‘frontier’ and the private relations of those who often do not speak about their relationships with Aboriginal women? How do I relate to the man who writes a semi-literate letter to the government to tell them that he’ll ‘marry the gin’ to keep the kids, but only if he has to?

35. This interest in the white fathers of the frontier puts me in a long line of white women (some feminist, some not), who were also interested in writing about ‘him’. It seems to me that these women, like me, identified in some way with these men. In complaints about his behaviour, his abuse of Indigenous women, these women were interpolating him within a discourse of whiteness. Though the white feminists amongst them claimed a sisterhood with the Aboriginal women, these women were also claiming a sisterhood (and even a daughterly, wifely, motherly) relationship with these white men. In their efforts to ‘save’ the Aboriginal women, Marilyn Lake argues that the white women looked at the Aboriginal women and "saw, in a moment of terrible misrecognition, themselves" (1994, 85). Departing somewhat from Lake, I argue in my project that white feminists and non-feminists who wrote about, campaigned against or celebrated the white man on the frontier did also on one level identify with him as a white. It has been a surprise to me, and perhaps in many ways an unpleasant surprise to realise that ‘owning’ whiteness also necessitates owning cultures of masculinity that situate me as white feminist.

36. This has led me to conclude that white feminist critics of whiteness need to write better histories of our complicity rather than our liberation. And it is for this reason that I still find critical whiteness studies so useful and so interesting, for if any field needs a clear account of complicity, then it’s critical whiteness studies. In particular, as the reviewer of this essay noted, an account of how complicity can be made to work in a way that distinguishes it clearly from ressentiment would be even better. That’s something which I’d like to work on more. Complicity not as injury but as starting point and the condition of ethics itself. Complicity as a reflection of the mutual implication of domination and resistance, as a critical interest in the effects of one’s praxis and as a mode of mutual recognition itself. Complicity as a way of understanding the universal and particular so that one is not seen as the antidote for the other. Complicity as form of critique that does not seek to ‘get over’ the challenge of paradox so zealously. Complicity as a shared language and as a condition of dialogue. Complicity as the grounds between the ironic play of Fiona Nicoll’s great line "beam me back to terra nullius" (2000, 382) and Lilian Holt’s "Pssst….I wanna be white" (1999). Complicity as a guide to the movement of power, the giving and taking that it necessitates. It is with this aspect of power, as something given and taken, that I wish to end this paper.

Giving and Taking: the Gift of Power

37. I have tried to articulate here a sense of the ways in which power might be seen as given and taken in the process of thinking through Moreton-Robinson’s vital challenge to white feminists to give up power, a project which is strategically essential for the white critic of whiteness. The criticisms that I make of white practitioners of critical whiteness are thus geared towards establishing that the giving up of power should also register when power is taken – both from the Other and by the Other. Thus giving and taking power emphasises the movement and possessive reciprocity inherent in power. The notion of giving connotes the notion of taking, as Derrida has noted in relation to the gift (Derrida 1992), which I would now like to discuss in relation to the question of giving up power. Here I utilise a Derridean notion of the gift and argue that power might be conceived of as a gift that is impossible to give.

38. But first, there are a few problems with the connotations of the ‘gift’ which make it sound like something that the white woman virtuously bestows on the permanently grateful Other, thus reinforcing the power dynamic rather than challenging it. That version of the gift as benevolence is not useful here. Derrida’s formulation of a gift is a little more skeptical (see Osteen 2002 for different accounts of its usefulness). Derrida’s gift is not virtuously bestowed on the grateful Other, it isn’t even really given in the spirit of pure giving, but given with the expectation of entering into a relationship of obligation and reciprocity. Thus it may well be imagined as virtuous, but it is not necessarily - it is not given fully. So, for Derrida, the gift is something which is impossible to give fully, ethically and, indeed it is an example of the impossible itself.

39. How might this help this discussion about the white critic of whiteness giving up power if it is presented as a gift that is impossible to give? Isn’t that just negative, hopeless, futile? Isn’t saying it is impossible just reproducing that impossibility? While this ‘difficulty’ might make it sound negative, I find that it provides more stable grounds for ways of proceeding, even if the proceeding sometimes looks likes a melancholic proximity to the problem. It allows us to think through the ramifications of what at times seems like an instinctual adoption of ressentiment as a strategy: a strategy that can be seen to evade questions of white privilege. And it is this proximity to privilege that the white critic must register and also use as an ethical starting point. Power is not ‘given’ without something taking its place. Thus ‘giving up power’, following Derrida’s account of the gift, is not a pure giving, it is giving on the grounds of expecting some kind of reciprocity. For instance, the white critic of critical whiteness studies attempts to ‘give up power’ in an effort to take part in a discourse of reconciliation, to partake in an ethical listening, to bring on a shift in academic practice and cultural knowledge more broadly. There is no ‘giving up power’ without power being taken/transmuted into another form; taking responsibility, taking a good hard look at yourself, taking care, taking part, taking on ressentiment, taking up the challenge, taking time, taking to task, taking over? This is why power is like a gift – it is never given without being also something taken.

40. What does it mean then to see power as a gift that cannot be given? I will answer by way of a detour through Ranjanna Khanna’s use of the concept of the gift to describe transnational feminism in Dark Continents: Psychoanalysis and Colonialism (2003). Khanna says "I will posit feminism as the gift to another that may be impossible to give" (211). In her work, as I understand it, the ethics of transnational feminism revolve around the impossible, which comes from the conflict between the ethical and the political framing of the debate: the desire to forge links with other women coupled with the acknowledgement that it is an impossibly colonialist gesture. She looks at transnational feminism in relation to the ethical, the political and the law and sees the ethical as like the gift, a version of the impossible, and yet it is the ethical that brings the politics and the law together, as in: "if it [the ethical] is understood as the impossible, the mutually constitutive nature of the two [the ethical and the political] is made apparent as experience of the necessity for and inadequacy of the law" (213). If transnational feminism is here positioned as a gift that is impossible to give, might also ‘power’ be posited as gift that cannot be given by the white critic of critical whiteness studies? What then is the Law, the Ethic and the Political when it comes to the white critic of critical whiteness studies?

41. I would argue that the challenge to give up domination/privilege functions as the Ethic of critical whiteness studies for the white critic. The Laws are the strategies, rules, modes of address that seek to achieve the ‘giving up’ and they would include the rhetorical modes of ressentiment, particularity, complicity. Politics are how these rules or modes of address are developed, as in the dialogue and intersubjective relationships between and around Indigenous and white feminists in practice. With Khanna we might posit that the Laws (strategies) towards the giving up of privilege are both necessary and inadequate to the task. The Laws (the strategies) are inadequate because they can be shown to not give up privilege but in fact mask it as something other. The Law and the Political do not cancel each other out but rather they are expressed within each other as mutually constitutive. What brings them together and maintains the tension between them is the Ethics of giving up privilege. It is the Ethics of giving up privilege that drives the movement, a movement that expresses the tension between its desires and its practice and the ethical decision to keep going. For instance, Jane Haggis and Suzanne Schech point out that "we cannot cede or give away the power this institutional and professional location accords our voices and texts" (2000, 396). ‘Giving up power’ becomes the very thing that is impossible to do and the very thing that must be achieved – it is the impossible. This, to me reinforces the complexity of the debate, the importance of the debate, the weight of history, and the contemporary postcolonial condition. In other words, it does not substitute pragmatic politics (the rush for a solution, which can take the form of ressentiment as I have argued) for ethics (which are more difficult and yet more sustaining).

42. Power is and is not ours to give up, give away and own up to. But the challenge to ‘give up’ power resonates throughout critical whiteness studies becoming, I would argue, the ethical basis for the white critic of whiteness who wants to give up privilege but who also recognises the irreducible problem of a giving that is also always a taking.

Dr. Fiona Probyn lectures in the Gender Studies Department at the University of Sydney. Her research focuses on postcolonial theory and feminist theory. She has published work in Meanjin, Australian Feminist Studies, New Literatures Review, Westerly, Senses of Cinema, and Journal of Australian Studies and Australian Humanities Review. Email:


I would like to thank those who commented on various stages of the writing of this essay. They include the anonymous reviewer as well as Sara Ahmed, Lynda Blanchard, Jan Larbalestier, Sandra Phelps, Elspeth Probyn, Linnell Secomb, Catherine Simpson. I would also like to thank undergraduate students of WMST3001 Gender, Race and Australian Identities (2004) for their enthusiasm.


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