Altitude: an e-journal of emerging humanities work

September 3, 2005

Fractured Conversations: Indigenous literature and white readers

Filed under: Volume 5: Reading Indigenous Australian Texts 1 (2005) — Tags: — Clifton Evers @ 12:11 am

by Anne Brewster, Altitude, Volume 5, Article 5, 2005.

Like Douwe Edberts
Freeze dry coffee
I stand motionless
But full of feelings
Gin, native, abo, coon
An inquisitive academic
Then asks ‘are you Aboriginal?’

Do I punch
Do I scream
Do I raise my arms
To ward off
The venomous hatred
Which institutionalized
Racism leaves unchallenged
As they collect their evidence
To reinforce their ‘superiority’,
And our ‘inferiority’

Am I Aboriginal
Am I Torres Strait Islander
Am I South Sea Islander

I laugh inside, at her ignorance
I shake my head,
But how can I pity
A person who is identified
As the expert exponent on
Indigenous Australians

Eh Professor, big shot,
Big cheese, or whoever
You claim to be
You’ve really no idea

Love to chat sister,
But there’s faxes to send
And protest letters to write

I turn and walk away
Preserving my dignity
Without humiliating hers.

‘Feelings’, Lisa Bellear

In this article [1] I take the poem ‘Feelings’ by Lisa Bellear and a discussion of students’ reactions to this poem in the classroom as a starting point for an exercise in what Michelle Fine calls ‘witnessing whiteness’ (57-65) – that is, making whiteness visible to white people. The poem does this through a process of denaturalising or defamilarising whiteness; making it strange. Alterity, as Michael Taussig reminds us, is a relationship, not a thing (130), and a recognition of the relational imbrication of whiteness in its others makes apparent the hierarchical structure which endows white people with ‘unearned privilege and conferred dominance (McIntosh qtd in Dyer 9). In foregrounding whiteness and making it visible for the white reader, the poem points to the ongoing colonial relation between white and indigenous constituencies. It reminds us yet again of how the postcolonial nation has been contracted through the figure of race[2] and of the objectification of the indigene. The poem, I argue, makes the white reader stand apart from and ‘witness’ the embeddedness of whiteness within the zone of racialised intersubjectivity. A recognition by white people of the racial location of whiteness within the intimate social relations of the everyday in turn allows for the possibility of the democratisation of racial identity and a ‘rearticulation of cultural, social and political citizenship’ (Giroux 130).We can read the academic figured in the poem as indexical of whiteness. Although she is not identified literally as such, her unmarked racial identification and her institutional status place her, at the very least, in a position homologous to that of a white person. That her racial identity is not named can, in fact, be seen as symptomatic of the invisibility (to white people) of whiteness – its significance as the category against which (racial) difference is measured. As Richard Dyer observes, ‘white power secures its dominance by seeming not to be anything in particular’ (qtd in Lipsitz 369). Or, as other commentators have put it, ‘people [are] not favoured socially because they are white; rather they [are] defined as ‘white’ because they are favoured’ (Ignatiev and Garvey). Whiteness derives its meaning from its relationality; it is precisely the racialisation of minoritarian groups that enables the consolidation of an imagined community of whiteness, that is, the bringing together, in a collective, of ‘white’ Australians of diverse and otherwise often antagonistic class, regional, generational, ethnic and religious backgrounds (Lipsitz 370).

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