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Chapter 2: Social Contexts

6. Migrancy and national identity

fundamentally the same. Hence, British migrants were supposed to feel at home in Australia immediately. That they didn’t, was an ongoing challenge to the legitimacy of the ideology (2000, p 32).

The ambiguous migrant-status of both Americans and British migrants (and, as I will try to show in the writers’ chapters, South-African and New Zealand migrants as well) leads us to consider the concept of migrancy in general.

instance, are the children and grandchildren of migrants in Australia referred to as second- or third-generation migrants?” (Papastergiadis 2000, p 55). There are other definitions, with other problems attached to them, as well. Hammerton and Thomson claim that their ‘Ten Pound Poms’ are usually excluded from the category ‘migrant’, because

When Australians talk about migrants, for the most part they mean migrants from non-English-speaking countries. A parallel argument can be made for Britain, where the focus of interest in the last forty years has been upon black immigrants rather than white emigrants or immigrants (Hammerton and Thomson 2005, p 10).

If that is true, then language (in Australia) and colour (in Britain) are important in defining who is a migrant, as well as, Papastergiadis contends, the idea of the migrant as “‘the marginal man’” (Papastergiadis 2000, p 55). James Jupp claims that there are comparative and historical factors involved:

Working-class English immigrants in the 1920s were visible if only for their cloth caps and malnutrition. But they were much less visible than the ‘reffos’

of the 1940s or the ‘dagos’ of the 1950s. Becoming invisible was thus made easier by the growing multiculturalism, and eventually multiracialism, of post-war Australia (Jupp 2004, p 193).

Historian Bain Atwood, musing about the way the National Museum of Australia portrays migrants, complicates the meaning of the term ‘migrant’ even further. Anglo-Celtic migrants, he insists, are

imagined as a homogenous group of ‘Australians’. More importantly, their foreign-ness is disguised; they are not ‘migrants’, let alone ‘invaders’.

Predictably, non-British peoples are cast as the migrants […]. Non-British migrants are to be treated as though they are forever ‘other’ to Australia (Atwood 2004, p 283).

Atwood calls this “the master narrative” (2004, p 283), a form of revisionism in which “any sense of the complex inter-relationships between people and of the making and remaking of a national community is diminished” (2004, p 284). What can be said, then, is that the definition of the term ‘migrant’ is not stable, but more than anything else, it is relational. In that regard, it is interesting to come at it from the other side and look at Catriona Elder’s views on who is and who is not regarded as‘Australian’. Writing about the 2001 furore that followed the Tampa crisis, Elder

insists that Australian politicians and public alike discriminate heavily in their assessment of who is allowed to be in this country, and in their treatment of people who are not. While uninvited asylum seekers continue to be the source of much anxiety, and were detained without much protest from the general population,

another group of non-citizens who are in Australia without the proper

permission – the 50.000 or more people who have overstayed their visas – are hardly ever detained. As Don McMaster (2001: 68) notes, this is because about twenty per cent of them are British or American tourists who have decided not to go home. These ‘illegals’ are not understood in terms of the

‘invading Asian horde’, and so are not seen as a problem. By comparison, the

‘third world looking’ arrivals are kept in geographically isolated detention centres, their misery operating as a deterrence to ‘others’ who might want to come to Australia (Elder 2007, p 126-127).

Elder reasons that these days the national story is the one that she calls the “we are all immigrants” narrative (2007, p 127), which underpins the multicultural one. It

“flattens out the different meanings attached to arriving in Australia over the last few hundred years”, Elder reasons, and “fails to recognise that from the earliest times, there emerged hierarchies and differences between British immigrants –who morphed into the ‘natives’ of the land – and migrants who came from a range of non-British countries – Hage’s (1998) white but not Anglo-Australians” (2007, p 128). In Elder’s view, British migrants are not really migrants, but Australians, while other migrants become less so over time, with “recently arrived migrants […] placed at the bottom of the Australian social-scape” (2007, p 132). Within this concept of Australianness

“white or Anglo-Australians still occupy what is considered the normal ethnicity of the nation” (2007, p 139).

The simple dictionary definition of a migrant as someone who migrates, seems to have been scrapped here, making way for a rather confusing version of the nation as one where everyone is a migrant and yet only newly arrived, non-white migrants are considered to be so. This obscures both certain (white) migrant stories and the discussion about the consequences of migration in general. If migration is “the quintessential experience of our time”, as Berger contends (Berger 1984, p 55), the analysis of this important global occurrence should be based in clearly defined understandings of the central concepts. I would suggest that Paul Carter (historian, writer, artist and an English migrant to Australia) is right in insisting that “it becomes more than ever urgent to develop a framework of thinking that makes the migrant

central, not ancillary, to historical processes” (Carter 1992, p 7-8). Doing that requires adopting definitions of both the migrant and the nation (and the relationship between the two) that are less based in tacitly selective models.

6. Whiteness

There seems to be one issue that connects multiculturalism, ethnicity, race, culture, difference and migrancy: whiteness. Whiteness has been a hotly debated theme in academia since the early 1990s, when, after a long history of

African-American writing on this topic (notably by Toni Morrison, in her study Playing in the Dark (1992)), white American and British academics such as Richard Dyer, David Roediger and Ruth Frankenberg started to publish their research. To clarify what came to be known as ‘critical whiteness studies’, Frankenberg’s writing is an interesting starting point. Frankenberg first addressed the question of whiteness in 1993, defining whiteness as “a location of structural advantage, or race privilege.

Second, it is a ‘standpoint’, a place from which white people look at ourselves, at others, and at society. Third, ‘whiteness’ refers to a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed” (Frankenberg 1993, p 2). For Frankenberg it was important finally to come to terms with the fact that whiteness was a racial category as well, and not just one of many, but the normative one, the one that positions everybody who is non-white as ‘Other’. Whiteness, in Frankenberg’s view, had mainly negative associations, with concepts like privilege, dominance, supremacy, power, violence and entitlement attached to it. Naming both the colour and its locality, “displaces it from the unmarked, unnamed status that is itself an effect of its dominance” (1993, p 6).

Four years later, Frankenberg elaborated what she calls the “invisibility” of whiteness, by contending that it “makes itself invisible precisely by asserting its normalcy, its transparency, in contrast with the marking of others on which its transparency depends” (Frankenberg 1997, p 6). The ‘others’ Frankenberg mentions, are mostly positioned in a binary opposition to whiteness: labels like minority, oppressed, victims, dispossessed, abnormal, subordinate and peripheral are used frequently, and from this Frankenberg insists that

Other issues are being worked through under the surface of this new discourse [of whiteness]. One is whether white people and white culture are ‘good’ or

‘bad’. Here, we see a displacement of practical and material questions about white people’s location in racial hierarchy onto very static notions of essence and original sin. It follows naturally from this displacement that whites would embark urgently on the quest either to be proven innocent or to find

redemption (1997, p 18).

This assessment is echoed that same year by Dyer, who argues that in response to the relatively new notion that whiteness and white people have very real responsibilities that are the result of their colour and consequent position of power, some white people almost flaunt their guilt. “The display of our guilt is our Calvary”, he writes (Dyer 1997, p 11). Dyer also flags other reactions, notably one he calls “me-too-ism”,

“a feeling that, amid all this (all this?) attention being given to non-white subjects, white people are being left out” (1997, p 10). Talking about whiteness in terms of violence, Dyer emphasises, makes white people nervous and angry. He quotes bell hooks:

Often their rage erupts because they believe that all ways of looking that highlight difference subvert the liberal belief in a universal subjectivity (we are all just people) that they think will make racism disappear. They have a deep emotional investment in the myth of ‘sameness’, even as their actions reflect the primacy of whiteness as a sign informing who they are and how they think (hooks 1992, p 167, in Dyer 1997, p 2).

Such universalist humanism prompts Frankenberg four years later to change her mind about whiteness as an unmarked category:

It is indeed one with which I myself worked for a number of years. The more one scrutinizes it, however, the more the notion of whiteness as unmarked norm is revealed to be a mirage or indeed, to put it even more strongly, a white delusion. […] In fact, whiteness is in a continual state of being dressed and undressed, of marking and cloaking. […] Suddenly, the notion that whiteness might be invisible seems bizarre in the extreme (Frankenberg 2001, p 73-76).

Instead, Frankenberg starts to focus on colonialism and imperialism to point to the reasons for our continual thinking in terms of race. Race, she affirms, has always been used to legitimize colonization: “In the colonial context, the naming of ‘cultures’ and

‘peoples’ was very much linked to naming and marking out a host of Others as beings deemed lesser than the ‘national’ Selves who sought to dominate them” (2001, p 74-75). Such lesser masses could be surveyed from the eminence of superior selfhood

then, but what white people have to realise now, Frankenberg declares, is that these Others have always been looking at them as well. Furthermore, they have been seeing them as ‘white’. Also, feeling guilt or pity is not only not our Calvary, as Dyer said, but yet another manifestation of apparent superiority. Critiquing David Roediger’s description of “a slave on the auction block, awaiting sale” (2001, p 77), Frankenberg asserts that

The depiction of the oppressed or wounded Other as suffering body first and seeing mind second is central to a history of the enlistment of ostensibly wiser, more conscious, more civilized, whiter Selves. It travels from records of colonial officials and missionaries at the funeral pyres of satis committed in India all the way to advertisements for Third World-focussed charitable organizations in today’s Sunday newspapers (2001, p 78).

According to Frankenberg’s reasoning, it is this “liberal pity” that “keeps intact the Self-Other binary and offers no insight into the Self’s self-designated authority and sanctity” (2001, p 80). Therefore Frankenberg advocates a wider interpretation of the word whiteness, “to examine its co-constitution with nationality, class, ethnicity, and culture” (2001, p 82). Doing that would invariably lead to looking at whiteness as

“pertinent to the study of racial formation” (2001, p 87), and would use history to delve deeper into the issue of “racial namings of people and groups” (2001, p 82).

While still stressing that “whiteness is a location of structural advantage in societies structured in racial dominance” (2001, p 76), five of the eight definitions Frankenberg comes up with to describe whiteness at this time, are related to an idea of “white as an unstable category”, where people can be categorised as non-white one day and white the next. Whiteness, she stresses, “is a product of history, and is a relational category.

Like other racial locations, it has no inherent but only socially constructed meanings.

As such, [they] […] may appear simultaneously malleable and intractable” (ibid).

Also, “Inclusion within the category ‘white’ is often a matter of contestation, and in different times and places some kinds of whiteness are boundary markers of the category itself” (ibid).

Frankenberg never got to finish her last book, Fluent in Whiteness, because she died in 2007. Others heeded her call, though, and research into this phenomenon has since been at the forefront of academic discussions on whiteness. Richard Dyer had already flagged ‘white’ as an unstable category in history, and in describing how this process works, American Matthew Frye Jacobson’s study into the sliding scales

of white in the US is interesting as well. Here, Frye Jacobson maintains that groups entering the USA have become “Caucasians only over time” (Frye Jacobson 1999, p 3), usually after their “racial pedigree” had “faced certain challenges along the way”

(1999, p 4). He concludes that “Caucasians are made and not born”, simply because of the fact that “races are invented categories – designations coined for the sake of grouping and separating peoples along lines of presumed difference” (1999, p 4-5).

One of the examples he uses to support this theory is that of the Catholic Irish, who,

“in 1877 could be a despised Celt in Boston – a threat to the republic – and yet a solid member of The Order of Caucasians for the Extermination of the Chinaman in San Francisco, gallantly defending US shores from an invasion of ‘Mongolians”’ (1999, p 5). After the Irish, all manner of other groups were “whitened” in the USA:

Armenians, Italians, Poles, Greeks, Jews, confirming Frankenberg’s view that ‘white’

is not only an unstable category, but one that changes over time. Jon Stratton builds on Frye Jacobson’s theory and transfers it to the Australian situation. His assumption is that the reason why the Irish, previously considered inferior and “a kind of white Negroes” (Stratton 2004, p 231), became acceptably white, was that the concept of a unified Australian nation took hold towards the end of the nineteenth century, and whitening the Irish helped “to produce a claimed homogeneous white nation” (2004, p 229). The Irish needed to be included, Stratton says, “to put in place a unified

protection against the incursions of Chinese, and ‘Asiatics’ generally” (2004, p 234):

whitening was therefore not used to include the Irish, but to exclude others who were deemed even less white.

In Australia, Jon Stratton lamented in 1999, “there is, still, remarkably little work on the construction of the racial category of ‘white’” (Stratton 1999, p 163), in contrast to the US, where “white hegemony has been much more seriously challenged and unsettled than in Australia” (ibid). According to Stratton, the shift, in the early 1970s, from “a reductive and determinist understanding of race to one which

understands race as suggesting membership of a particular cultural grouping” (1999, p 164), has, in a way, suppressed a discourse about colour and power. In Australia, especially during multiculturalism, the discussion is not about ‘race’ per se, but about

“continent-based definitions of race (European, Asian, African) which signify claimed cultural groupings” (ibid). “Whiteness”, in the practice of multiculturalism, “is

abstracted into a claim about European moral assumptions, and this claim is

articulated in terms of acceptable moral difference” (1999, p 165). European morality,

Stratton maintains, is now equated with Christianity, something, it is assumed, all white people share, and something which distinguishes them from ethnic groups “that are thought of as racially” and morally different (1999, p 166). Therefore, “In

Australia, ethnicity is defined by national origin” (1999, p 170), and from the time of multiculturalism, “white” has disappeared as a “classificatory term. Instead,

‘mainstream’, ‘real Australians’, and most commonly, ‘Anglo-Celtic’”, “were used”

to denote “people who are simply presumed to be white” (1999, p 172). For Stratton, the consequence of this apparent blindness to race means that multiculturalism “can do nothing to counter racism” (1999, p 179). Because the designation makes a connection between culture and morality on the one hand, and national origin on the other, to, for instance, a Christian Asian it “is not enough to overcome the assumption of a moral difference signified by the person’s visual difference from what remains the white Australian norm” (1999, p 180). Therefore, in order to have a real

discussion about whiteness in Australia, “official multiculturalism must [first]

recognise its white mono-morality” (1999, p 182).

If talking about whiteness, as I understand Stratton, is being obstructed by the language of multiculturalism, where the classifications try to avoid mentioning colour and power, then it is understandable that critical whiteness studies are only tentatively explored in Australia. Instead, it seems that, as Fiona Nicoll argues, “the language of whiteness and race […] has been euphemistically transposed into the language of sovereignty” (Nicoll 2005, p 1), where

Powerful nations dominated by white Christian men have authorised

themselves to violate the sovereignty of others, not in the name of whiteness and Christianity, but, rather, in the name of ‘freedom’, ‘civilisation’ and

‘democracy’: values that would seem impossible to contest or refuse. To put questions of whiteness and race back into focus, then, it is necessary to ask:

which categories of people and which nations are excluded from the key debates and decisions about sovereignty that are reconfiguring economic, military, political and cultural relations all over the globe? (ibid).

Whiteness, here, has turned into a kind of moral superiority, used against others who have to be either rescued or fought, in order to assimilate them into the ‘right’ cultural value system. This, to me, sounds like colonialism by a different name, and without the explicit mentioning of race as a motivating factor. Of course, as Nicoll notes, the categories and nations that are excluded are almost always non-white. On the other side of the obscured whiteness discussion is the issue of Indigenous “counter

narratives and sovereignty claims” (2005, p 3), in Australia the usual battlefield of whiteness studies. Here, the same moral superiority applies, with Australian politics focussing on “practical reconciliation”, which in practice looks a lot like what Nicoll calls a “white sovereignty’s patriarchal model of state that has the assimilation of all others as its final solution” (2005, p 4). “Rather than reflecting values of Aboriginal sovereignty”, it is “based on hierarchy, patriarchy and entrenched colonialism” (ibid), usually formulated as a kind of tough love, imposed on Aboriginal groups ‘for their own good’. What ‘their’ own good is, is, of course, decided by ‘us’, who are part of the core culture. ‘Us’, in John Howard’s definition, is a group called, mystifyingly,

‘ordinary Australians’, and there is, Carol Johnson argues, “an implicit, but never to be explicitly spelt out, assumption that ordinary Australians are not Aboriginal, Asian, homosexual, lesbian, feminists, or migrants” (Johnson 2007 (2000), p 69). Which, again, is shorthand for ‘anything but white’, although, again, race or ethnicity are never mentioned.

Talking about whiteness in Australia, is, therefore, difficult, because the definitions of the term have been obscured by associations with, amongst others, culture and morality. This takes the sting out of a possible debate about the power of whiteness, and turns it into a discussion about something like ‘degrees of civilization’

(of course viewed from a white moral framework, but not designated like that).

Removing whiteness from debates about race, colour and power, has made not only whiteness invisible, but has created the power inequities as well. Furthermore, it has also obscured a clearer view on more complex or multiple white identities and problematised an understanding of what terms like race, colour, multiculturalism, ethnicity etc. actually mean. This lack of clarity and its consequences inform my subsequent analysis of the work of writers who are at the same time part of a site of privilege and power (white, English-speaking, culturally similar) and part of the periphery (migrant).