What is racial invisibility, and how do white people benefit from it?

14 Jan 2022

When white Australians became ‘just Australians’, they could keep the land and power without being reminded of how they were attained.

“Where are you from?”

There are few other questions in Australia that help shed a light on the overlapping and contradictory sense of sovereignty and belonging between Indigenous people, white people, and non-Indigenous people of colour.

For many, it exists as a safe topic of small talk. Where are you from? Where do you work? Where did you go to school? What’s your favourite footy team?

For Indigenous people, it is the gateway question that all relationality stems from. Where are you from? Where are you connected to? Who are you connected to? Are we connected? What are our responsibilities to each other? It highlights the importance of connection and responsibility between people and place and all things within it.

There is another usage as well, though – one that generally exists between white people and anyone who doesn’t look sufficiently white or Indigenous (in the eyes of a given white person at least). It goes something like this:

White person: Where are you from?

Non-white, non-Indigenous person: Melbourne.

White person, confused: No, no. I mean, where do you really come from?

It is a question that very clearly asserts its purpose: “People who look like you don’t come from here. White people come from here. So, where do you really come from?”

It isn’t always said with malicious intent; sometimes white people are super excited to learn about “other” or “exotic” cultures. The underlying meaning is still the same, though – you can’t be from here. White people come from here.

There is something uniquely perverse about being Indigenous in these lands and watching white people offer (or withdraw) this conditional acceptance. It is right up there with being told to “love it or leave” by those who support the ongoing destruction of the country they claim to love.

And therein lies the uncomfortable truth. They do not love this country, its land, its waters and its people. They love an imagined white nationalist state called “Australia”.

An exploration of the question “where are you from?” serves as a powerful disruption to those who love to say, “well, we’re all boat people anyway!” or even those who dream of a day where “we can all come together and be just Australians!”

It’s important here to point out that most white people in Australia don’t like being called white. If you’re white and you’re reading this, I’m sure you’re starkly aware right now that I have been naming whiteness. You might like that I’m doing it or you might not like it, but I bet you’ve noticed it.

It is still not a common occurrence in Australia for whiteness to be named.

It was common within western literature that the terms “people” and “white people” were readily interchangeable, but with “white people” falling out of fashion, that meant that white became only “people”.

But they still kept all the racialised adjectives, classifications and slurs for everyone else.

In white Australia, this means that white Australians stopped being white Australians and became “just Australians”.

To clarify, I don’t mean “just Australians” as in Australians who are primarily concerned with justice. Quite the opposite in fact. “Just Australians” as in Australians who aren’t anything else; as in, Australian is all they are and all they have ever been. Always was and always will be.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Australian history might astutely ask me through their computer screens: “Surely, you can’t be serious? If there’s any people in Australia who get to be ‘just Australian’ it’s Indigenous people?”

Well, I am serious and, please, don’t call me Shirley.

So, where does this sense of belonging come from for white people? And why do they feel they have the right to offer or withdraw conditional “Australian-ness” to others?

To answer this, it might be worth reminding people that among all of the “races” that white people have imagined into being over the past few centuries (anywhere between three and more than 60 different “races” have been articulated by white academics and pseudoscientists over the years), including their own, “Indigenous” is not one of them.

It is not a name derived from a place, like “Australian” or “Chinese” or even “European” or “African”, and it is not a racialised “colour” descriptor like white, black, yellow, red or brown, nor is it one of the many other labels used to separate humanity into “races”.

It is a classification, like migrant, immigrant, refugee, or settler-colonial.

Can white people really be immigrants?

Since abandoning the term “white”, many white people have taken to referring to themselves as “immigrants”, but that is not very accurate.

Think about what we expect of immigrants (and migrants and refugees too) upon arriving in a new country – to endeavour to fit in, to assimilate, to learn the language and follow the laws of the land.

In that sense, white people are not immigrants to Australia. They are settler-colonials.

Settler-colonials have no such expectations for themselves, and do not tolerate any expectations placed on them from others. They are the ones who get to make expectations for themselves and for others.

They take their sovereignty with them wherever they go, whether it’s to establish a new colony or just to go on a holiday. They expect their language, their culture, their institutions to take pride of place over everything else that was going on before they got there.

They do not assimilate into the culture that was there before them; in fact, they find the very idea so laughable as to be offensive.

They do not respect the land, the law or the people.

Becoming “just Australians” allowed white Australia to ignore all of these uncomfortable truths and retreat into its own mythology of itself as laid-back, welcoming, easygoing, hardworking, fair dinkum and true blue.

‘The invisibility of whiteness’

This act of deracialising whiteness, while continuing the racialisation of everyone else, has created what is often described as “the invisibility of whiteness”. This invisibility leaves whiteness unnamed but ever present. It is the unspoken norm from which everyone else deviates.

It is why generations of people were taught that when a newspaper refers to “a 23-year-old Sydney man” that man is probably white, because if they weren’t, it would have said “a 23-year-old Aboriginal man living in Sydney”.

Racial invisibility has been great for white people. It let them keep the land, the law, the status quo and all the power, while not having to be reminded of the white supremacist means by which they attained them and which they employ every day to justify keeping them.

That’s why many white people think it is the ultimate goal, and the ultimate gift, to bestow on others the blessing of racial invisibility.

Many do not realise that the benefits of racial invisibility only benefit white people. For everyone else, it just makes it harder to identify and articulate the mechanisms by which white supremacy continues to deny belonging and opportunity to those of us it deems as “other”. It also seeks to rob us of our identities as well.

For Indigenous people, it seeks to rob us of our sovereignty.

Many immigrants similarly do not appreciate this competing sense of belonging, and think that in order to effectively assimilate, then they too need to deny Indigenous sovereignty and strive to attain that temporary and conditional settler status.

But none of these behaviours are mandatory – whether Indigenous, immigrant, migrant, refugee or settler-colonial. Our actions and our values are not bound to any of these prescribed labels against our will.

We may grow up accepting them as our own “just normal” worldview, but as we grow, we have a choice to accept the status quo or to reject it.

To stand for justice or for “just us”, when “us” is the dominant culture, is a choice.

There is nothing stopping anyone from supporting Indigenous calls for sovereignty, or for aspiring to have a sense of belonging in this country that aligns more with the Indigenous sense of belonging than the colonial concepts of ownership and coercive control.

When Australia Day rolls around and you hear white people talking about how they wish we were all “just Australians”, ask yourself: is that what justice sounds like to you?

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