What does the white man want?

(Wadham, Ben. (2002). What Does the White Man Want? White Masculinities and Aboriginal Reconciliation. In Sharyn Pearce and Vivienne Muller. (2002). Manning the Next Millennium: Studies in Masculinities. Black Swan Press, pp. 215-223.)

White Australia has just concluded its latest policy direction in Aboriginal affairs with the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation winding up its business and handing its Draft Declaration for Aboriginal Reconciliation to the Commonwealth Government. Aboriginal Reconciliation has gained momentum in Australia, showing strong support from significant parts of Australian communities. However, there also remain significant sticking points, such as the idea of a treaty or of Aboriginal sovereignty. Moreover, as Robert Manne (1-4) demonstrates in his article In Denial: The Stolen Generations and The Right, there is significant resistance to the ‘peoples movement’ version of Aboriginal Reconciliation. Institutions such as the Bennelong Society , the Institute of Public Affairs and Quadrant still present assimilation as the only way to address Aboriginal disadvantage and ultimately reconciliation. Aboriginal Reconciliation is a contested issue.

Considering the authority and dominance that ‘white’ Australia has exercised over Aboriginal people since 1788, and the profound effects of colonial and contemporary government policy, I ask the question: what does the white man want? In this Chapter I will explore some of the ways that gender and race are articulated within the field of Aboriginal Reconciliation. Moreover, I ask how is reconciliation articulated within this field and what is its relationship to western rationality? Finally, how do these influences shape the possibilities of Aboriginal Reconciliation in Australia?

What Does the White Man Want?

Franz Fanon, a black psychiatrist working and writing in the French colonised state of Algeria in the 1960’s asked: “What does a man want? What does a black man want?” (3) This question focuses on the depersonalising and alienating affects of colonial rule on an Indigenous population, regulated, violated and subjugated by their imperial ‘guests’. What is the relationship between the black man and the white man, how does this relationship shape the ways that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians live together? As Homi Bhabha explains, the black man disrupts and obstructs:
the representative narrative of Western personhood: its past tethered to treacherous stereotypes of primitivism and degeneracy will not produce a history of civil progress, a space for the Socius (Bhabha, xii).

The Enlightenment dream that man can become freed from his ‘self-incurred tutelage’ through the use of Reason, his desire for unity and his desire to master nature is ruined by the presence of the black man. The Indigenes’ cultural difference disrupts the Enlightenment desire for colonisation, expansion and accumulation.

By asking ‘what does the white man want?’ I turn this gaze to focus on the white man’s logic, his cultural ways and his strategies of being within the field of gender, sexual and race relations. For a long time we of colonial heritage have gazed upon Indigenous people, on their culture, their ways of being, their perceived deficiencies and in our more progressive moments, their disadvantage. Asking ‘what does the white man want?’ returns the gaze back upon the relations of dominance.

It is important to note that there are different values for these concepts and terms, and they provide a different focus on this subject. Both ‘white’ and ‘man’ have literal and figurative values. Figuratively, I am asking what is it that not-Indigenous Australia wants for itself, how does it see itself as a nation, who is saying what and what technologies are they using to promote their ideals of nation and personhood? The white man here is a metaphor for not-Indigenous Australians. Literally, I am asking what is it about whiteness and masculinities that illuminate the history of Aboriginal/not-Aboriginal race relations in this country?

Whiteness and Masculinities: Relations of Dominance

A common theoretical thread between the studies of masculinities and whiteness is the understanding that dominance retains its authority through its invisibility, by being accepted as ‘natural’ and taken-for-granted. One of the ways this happens is through the articulation of masculinity as a universal, homogenous and cohesive subjectivity. Homi Bhabha explains that:

To speak of masculinity, sui generis, must be avoided at all costs. It is as a discourse of self-generation, reproduced over the generations in patrilineal perpetuity, that masculinity seeks to make a name for itself (Bhabha 57).
‘Masculinity’ as the sole signifier establishes the authority of man within the seamless and universal representation of his unquestioned gender. Man, the knower, the seer, the doer, the central point of significance in any social context, is established and maintained under the singular enunciation of masculinity. But, this authority is fallacious, questionable as well as dictatorial: man exists through many cultures and practices of masculinity, and his claim to masculinity is only recognisable because of others, women, gay men, men from different cultural experiences. The notion of masculinities aims to disrupt, not renounce, the embodiment of masculine identity or practice. The notion of masculinities seeks to bring those alternative masculinities into focus subsequently relieving masculinity of its burden and its intensity (Connell; Bhabha).

Whiteness is a theoretical notion that also attempts to uncover the authority of the invisible. Richard Dyer explains that race studies are usually attributed to others, to the oppressed, violated and disadvantaged (2). Dyer suggests that race has become a label signifying difference in many contexts leaving the attributes of the commentator unquestioned. The invisibility of whiteness, or the capacity of whiteness to contribute to a representation of sameness, is thus a fortress of white race privilege (Dyer; Frankenburg; Moreton-Robinson), just as the taken-for-granted acceptance of masculinist rationality is the fortress of masculine privilege. Aileen Moreton-Robinson notes that, “as long as whiteness remains invisible in analyses ‘race’ is the prison reserved for the ‘Other’” (xix).

Western Rationality and Relations of Dominance

Whiteness and masculinities are both concepts that illuminate the invisibility and authority of particular relations of dominance (Dyer; Frankenburg) are also deeply entangled in western rationalities and the relations of dominance in western countries like Australia.

Feminism has alerted us to the phenomenon of masculine privilege and the ubiquity of masculine rationality in the west (Bordo; Nicholson; Flax; Young; Harding). Western rationality has, over the last three decades particularly, come under scrutiny and critique from feminists, queer theorists, environmentalists and people writing from ‘developing’ countries (O’Neill; Butler; Plumwood; Braidotti). These writers have also critiqued western rationality, as masculinist rationality, and all to some extent, implicitly or explicitly, focus on the emphasis of western rationality and the ways that its logic, or metaphysics, valorises some ways of being over others (O’Neill 7). Alan Petersen describes these critiques as attempts to unsettle the logic of identity within western culture, “which involves the urge to find the universal single principle, or law, covering the phenomena to be accounted for” (74).

Ruth Frankenburg has attempted to demonstrate the relationship between whiteness and western rationality. Frankenburg explains whiteness in theoretical terms:

... Whiteness refers to a set of locations that are historically, socially, politically, and culturally produced and, moreover, are intrinsically linked with unfolding relations of domination. Naming whiteness [and masculinity] displaces it from the unmarked, unnamed status that is itself the effect of its dominance. Among the effects on white people both of race privilege and of the dominance of whiteness are their seeming normativity, their structured invisibility. This normativity however, is unevenly effective... To look at whiteness is to look head-on at a site of dominance (1997: 6).
Whiteness then has also become a marker of difference; a standard by which other forms of humanity have been measured. Its authority lies in its capacity to regulate that standard of humanity in, and across, diverse social circumstances.

Rationalising Terra Nullius: The Government of ‘Savages’

A good example of the relationship and operation of masculinity and whiteness in the Australian experience of colonialism lies within the notion of terra nullius. The notion of terra nullius is a representation of the rationality underlying the operation of dominance and legitimation of violence in Australian colonialism. The term refers to the land as ‘no-man’s land’, a land without owners. Henry Reynolds suggests it is “the single most important feature of the British expropriation of Aboriginal land” (67) providing the settlers with the moral legitimacy and conscience to take the land and begin Australia’s great act of dispossession. Australia was determined as no-man’s land by white men who measured a people’s right to occupation by the extent to which the land was cultivated, turned to production, and by the settled and domestic nature of the people living on it. This strategy of management articulated racial, gendered and class interests within a narrative of the white man’s destiny, paved along a road made in his image, specifically for his passage.

This rationalisation of the Indigene as savage, or uncivilised, remains within Australian discourses of Aboriginality. Conservative commentator Henry Bosch outlines his opinion:

I have the most utmost contempt for political correctness, the white washing of Aboriginal people who are a Stone Age people … I think we should forget completely about any concept of Aboriginal land rights and if that requires legislation, then let’s do it… I don’t want reconciliation, I don’t believe it’s necessary, nothing should be done, let’s get on with something serious. Aboriginal reconciliation is a complete waste of time and a diversion from important things (Qtd in Markus, 92-93).

Thus the cultural, and indeed, human rights of Aboriginal people are diminished by virtue of their perceived biological tendency to savagery and lack of civilisation – by being a “Stone Age people”. Consequently, the ‘white way’ is established as the right way, acting as a supporting structure for relations of hegemony. In what context, and through what rationalisation, does this relationship of dominance and oppression arise? How are the possibilities of Aboriginal Reconciliation shaped by western rationality and its logic of identity?

Logic of Identity and Australian Nationalism

The appellation Australia is a white man’s word. It signifies the nation-state, the imagined community (Anderson), the geographical and political land-mass owned by the Empire: it has both symbolic and material capital and it stands as the object of contest over ideals of nationhood, citizenship, personhood, cultural legitimacy and authority (Said; Bhabha). Australia was invaded by British men, formally in 1788, beginning a history of European presence – a largely white, anglophone presence – that has been established as the foundation of Australian identity and selfhood of which we are subjects today. Economic systems, trade and finance, politics and industry, culture and society, knowledge and experience emanate from this history – they are projections of this history, founded on the acceptance and resistance of their cumulative ideals and practices.

Aboriginality is born of this productive violence. As Edward Said has illuminated in his work Orientalism, western subjectivities are partially established through the objectification of the other. White men arrived in Port Phillip and made contact with the Indigenes of this region, and the understandings of self and culture were fundamentally changed, productively structured by the ways of white and black, European and Aboriginal. Aboriginality thus became the corpus of European understandings of the other and the Aboriginal the corpse, determined and over-determined by the ways of knowing and doing that were Enlightenment European. It is this cultural logic, which critical theory names as the logic of identity, that marks the invasion and settlement of Australia, a logic determined specifically by what Adorno and Horkheimer call the Dialectic of Enlightenment.

The Dialectic of Enlightenment is a theoretical notion conceived within the field of cultural Marxism, critical sociology and analytic philosophy. According to Adorno the subject is always engaged in a dialectical struggle between self and other (135). The self attempts to understand its place within its environment by generating knowledges, categorising and classifying, naming and determining the other (146). Determining the other is a fundamental strategy used to generate mastery and control, to help one find their place in the world. Other theorists including Castoriadis (23) and de Beauvoir (16) share the understanding that humans have the tendency to generate an-other in order to reassert their sense of self.
Edward Said (5) argues that the notion of self/other and its inextricable relationship with hegemony and dominance is a specifically western practice. Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment also focuses on the culturally specific manifestation of this logic of identity within the western context. The process of determining the other in order to determine the self is marked by the striving for Enlightenment, for an end to alienation between man and his environment, for true harmony and for reconciliation, between self and other - for unity, cohesion and ultimately control (Bhabha). The dyad then, of self and other, is always determined with a final point – a telos - in mind; a striving for control, mastery and ultimately freedom. In the context of western modernity the instrument for attaining this final/ reconciliation, of achieving Enlightenment has been a historically and culturally specific conception of Reason (Seidler; Flax; Hekman).

Men’s Reason and the Enlightenment Dream

Reason, for the Enlightenment subject and for western culture today stands as the principal authority for making sense of our world. Reason established the claim for moral legitimacy that successfully challenged the structures and conceptions of divine right upon which previous historical regimes of power and authority were founded. Reason, within the cultural enunciations of the Enlightenment, became, and so it remains, the instrument through which we can legitimate ourselves as truly human, as ordered, as civilised and as truth bearing subjects.
Reason is to the philosopher what grace is to the Christian. Grace causes the Christian to act, reason the philosopher. Other men are carried away by their passions, their actions not preceded by reflection: these are the men who walk in darkness. On the other hand, the philosopher, even in his passions, acts only after reflection: he walks in the dark, but by a torch (Qtd in Kramnick 21).

This notion of Reason becomes the instrument of ‘self-incurred tutelage’, an instrument of regulation and rationalisation in western culture. Foucault (1982 220-1) speaks of rationality as informing governmentality, “the conduct of conduct”. Governmentality speaks of the regimes of ideas, discourses, practices and social relations that coalesce around the management of particular concerns. This rationalising of the new Australian landscape and its Indigenous population is the practice by which the colonial subject attempts to reconcile himself - to come to terms – with his new environment.
This logic of western identity is implicated in domination through its distinction between the wild and unwieldy and the stable and unified – between Reason and unReason, rationality and irrationality and other familiar dichotomies. It is this distinction and its logic that motivates Adorno and Horkheimer to suggest that Enlightenment is totalitarian (6). Enlightenment through Reason is totalitarian precisely because of this technology of distinction, distinctions that emphasise the legitimacy of the rational and related concepts such as culture man or public over their opposites, nature, woman, private. This logic of identity, which Adorno, Horkheimer or Said do not mark as gendered or specifically raced (except to say that it is western) shows its specifically masculine and white bias through the valorisation of those things deemed valuable – ie culture, civilisation, masculinity, rationality, whiteness – and those things deemed lacking – nature, femininity, irrationality, blackness.

Unity, Reconciliation and Enlightenment: One Australia, One Nation

This bias is evident in the necessary marginalisation or assimilation of ‘woman’ and ‘black’ in the striving for unity, reconciliation and certainty. This quote by Western Mining Chief Executive, Hugh Morgan demonstrates my point:
Ian McLachlan (Opposition frontbencher) has told us that Mabo is the most important issue Australia has faced since the war. And he is right. It has already led to increasing racial tension and resentment. Unresolved it can lead to increasing racial tension and resentment. Unresolved it can lead to very rapid economic decline and to partitioning of the continent... Mabo directly threatens the unity of Australia. It brings in a separate law from one group of Australians. It encourages aboriginal Australians to think of themselves as separate and distinct from their fellow citizens. It promises racial tension. It guarantees economic stagnation. I call on you to stand up for the ideals of federation – one nation – one continent; one law, one people, one destiny (Qtd in Markus, 1996, 90).

Hegemonic western rationality, as I have described it, seeks conclusion and culmination. The notion of unity here proposes an Australia untrammelled by ‘minority interests’ and boldly nationalist in its conception of coherence and likeness of mind. One people, one nation and one destiny resolves the issue of difference; it acts as the final reconciliation in a land where the Australian way is the only way. Here the principles of sameness and unity, within the context of white Australia, are drawn upon to disregard and assimilate the struggles of Aboriginal sovereignty in the name of white Australian nationalism. Here, being Australian and united, takes on the authority of a standard of citizenship – a standard determined by a white man, speaking for white men.

Enlightenment is the telos of western civilisation – the final end toward which we have strived and continue to strive. Civilisation is a principal marker of the success of that passage, itself a final end, in which the wild, the savage and the uncivilised are tamed, suppressed and pacified. Carolyn Merchant explains that civilisation also represents the end of nature moving from “inchoate matter endowed with formative power to a reflection of the civilised natural order designed by God” (44), realised through the instrument of Reason.
Aboriginal Reconciliation is also a site of culmination, a field of endeavour shaped by the desire to bring an end to the ‘black history’ of Australia’s past and to generate cultural unity so that Australians can move forward into the future together. It too is a project of white Australia and is subsequently entangled in the histories of violence, dispossession and other strategies of governance since invasion. Most importantly, Aboriginal Reconciliation is determined through western governance, and managed through contemporary western rationality, and therefore significantly shaped by whiteness and hegemonic masculinity. The violent past that some Australians are trying to deny, or qualify, only serves to perpetuate the dominance of white masculine rationality in Australia.


The notion of a treaty and Aboriginal sovereignty remains unpopular within contemporary Australian culture. Many people support Reconciliation but do not support a treaty or even an apology to Aboriginal people for past violences . Equality is also something many Australians identify with, John Howard often speaks of the egalitarian and classless nature of Australian society (2001), the notion of a ‘fair go’ is ubiquitous, however, that striving for equality is fundamentally obstructed by the invisibility of western cultural practice for most people. Western culture is often perceived as invisible, Federal National Party member Bob Katter goes so far as to assert that Australians (white Australians) have lost their culture (see Gelder & Jacobs 14-15). The potential for Aboriginal Reconciliation is shaped by these forces, by culture and its articulation of race, gender, class and nature. Without critical consideration of the past, and the development of a cultural awareness of white Australia, and western cultural ways of rationalising the world, Aboriginal Reconciliation remains firmly located within the colonial enterprise: its resolution, always potentially, another strategy of managing the other.


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