“I would love to think that a highly traditional Australian Aboriginal, who is nevertheless charismatic and inspirational in modern Australia as well, might enter the Federal Parliament.” – Tony Abbott (ABC News 2012)
Statements like this are easy targets for critical analysis. However, global modes of dissent have made it possible to address such statements as ultimately dialogic, with media like Twitter enabling timely and highly visible oppositional responses. This paper demonstrates how the politics of Tony Abbott’s statements, and the subsequent creation of the hashtag #itriedtobeauthenticbut, can be understood using whiteness theory. Tony Abbott’s comments will be framed as a product of Australia’s culture of ‘tolerance’. Tweets in response will be examined with reference to key issues in whiteness theory, namely invisibility, whiteness as property and issues of power in representation. The ‘conversation’ shall be treated as a single cultural text, or dialogue, but ‘politics’ will be shown to be multifaceted, that is, not only concerned with governance, but infiltrating power structures in media and popular culture.
Tony Abbott’s statements, as reported by ABC News, represent an ill-received attempt at token ethnic engineering (2012). Apparently Abbott underestimated the diversity of Indigenous identity, delineating Aboriginal politicians as being exclusively “urban” or “authentic”. His comments fit perfectly into Hage’s theory of tolerant, multicultural Australia as White fantasy (1998). Hage believes that tolerance, as the central tenet of multiculturalism, is founded on a racist power imbalance. Hage cites Preston King: “Where we empower an agent to be tolerant, we empower him equally to be intolerant” (in Hage 1998, 9). Abbott beneficently ‘invites’ more ‘authentic’ Indigenous politicians into his space, namely parliament. As Hage’s paper makes clear, Abbott’s comments “confirm an image of the White Australian as a manager of national space” (1998, 91).
Ten years ago there may have been quiet and personal outrage on the parts of Indigenous individuals. However last week’s participatory response via Twitter sparked a national debate, with traditional media stoushing against individuals taking collective action, and even a well-known Indigenous academic attacking dissenters (Robinson, Kelly and Burns 2012). The hashtag backlash quickly trended, albeit only in urban areas (Pearson 2012b). The instigator of the Twitter response, who goes by the handle @Ebswearspink, quipped that “The days of marching in the street for indigenous rights are over…But change is happening when people aren’t looking” (in Harmer 2012). The statement seems at best simplistic: As Hardt and Negri posit, global participatory media contains its own politics and power imbalances: the language of dissent is available only to participants in the dominant culture, in this case Indigenous players on the right/white side of the global digital divide (in Schlunke 2008).
According to Cheryl Harris, whiteness is intrinsically linked to entitlement (1993). She explains the roots of whiteness in law in the USA, saying:
“According whiteness actual legal status converted an aspect of identity to a vested interest. The Law’s construction of whiteness defined and affirmed critical aspects of identity (who is white); of privilege (what benefits accrue to that status); and, of property (what legal entitlements arise from that status)” (Harris 1993, 1725).
Whiteness is also characterised by invisibility. O’Connell elaborates, saying that whiteness is “unspoken”, and that “A condition of privilege is the capacity to have one’s identity left uninterrogated” (2007, 36). But Audrey Thompson points out that if the privileges of the white are threatened, their whiteness becomes hypervisible (2001). This was exemplified in Andrew Bolt’s opinion piece “White is the New Black” (2009). Bolt’s position was that those he named were attempting to benefit materially from both white privilege, as a result of their lighter skin, and their Aboriginality, simultaneously; his tone implied that this was akin to rorting. Bolt’s piece also singled out land rights activists, a perceived direct threat to white material entitlement and power in Australia. Twitter user Hannah Donnelly appears to recognise this threatened white status, and its opposing reality, reflecting with acute irony “#itriedtobeauthenticbut the local council won’t recognise our shared custodianship & I do actually have to pay all those parking fines” (2012).
While most of the #itriedtobeauthenticbut dialogue was by unknowns getting hard-won satisfaction from laughing in the face of absurdity, stakeholders like academic and writer Dr Anita Heiss added weight to the critical debate. Her tweet “#Itriedtobeauthenticbut I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to join the dots…. Just paint them!” was an intertextual statement demonstrating a theoretical and lived understanding of whiteness theory (2012). The actual – not just the metaphorical – Indigenous culture industry is awash with complications as a result of its binary ‘positioning’ as either ethnographic or Art. Laura Fisher explains that “Ethnography is usually associated with colonialism, primitivism and regarded as circumscribing the art, while Art is posited as unequivocally progressive and good” (Fisher 2012, 2). In art world politics, as in politics generally, the white dominant culture is usually doing the “positing”.
Hage and hooks talk about the Other being defined in terms of its value to whites, for Hage in terms of cultural and economic contribution (Hage 1998), and hooks in terms of the extent to which Otherness can be onsold or commodified (hooks 1992). This is certainly evident in Philip Batty’s “Saluting the dot-spangled banner”, where he claims sacred Indigenous iconography has become white Australia’s cultural property. Its ‘utility value’ is its ostensible usefulness in representing a happy, whole, multicultural Australia (1998). He cites not only events such as the Atlanta Olympics closing ceremony, but cultural appropriation by multinationals like QANTAS, aiming at once to define and cash-in on ‘Australianness’. Fiona Nicoll cites numerous examples of white Australia’s possessive relationship to Indigenous people (2008). In these examples, possession and use-value mark Indigeneity as something to be valued and packaged by the dominant white culture.
Twitter user Olivia Slater joked “#itriedtobeauthenticbut I prefer my toes painted hot pink instead of caked in red ochre” (2012). Luke Pearson wise-cracked “#Itriedtobeauthenticbut the security guards at Coles get REALLY shitty when you walk around the meat aisle spearing roo steaks” (2012). Their irony reveals a desire for Indigenous self-representation. Barthes speaks of “myths” of representation (in Hall 1997) which often reveal nationalist fantasies of harmony, and the above tweets certainly indicate opposition to such unilateral mythmaking. The politics of media in Australia reflect the power imbalances of mainstream politics, with ideas of what Indigeneity should look like defined by industry power brokers, like casting agents and producers. The agendas of the powerful feed into these representations, which then feed into mainstream culture in a kind of limiting stereotype-loop.
Casey and Siron track the representation of, and representation by Indigenous actors in Australian popular culture. They summarise the paradoxes of Indigeneity as represented by entertainment media, speaking of the “implicit demand that the Indigenous actor not only be ‘black’ as the ‘Aboriginal character’, but also white, fulfilling the invisible norm of the ideal white actor in a context in which they and their stories are marked as white Australia’s Other” (2005, 111). Their paper echoes Hage’s writing on space as property when they say that “Implicit in the framing of Indigenous actors as the racialized other, and the benevolent inclusion of these actors on these terms, is the unspoken claiming of the professional theatrical space by the dominant white group as a form of property which they are choosing to share” (2005, 111).
The examined Twitter responses to Tony Abbott’s gaffe demonstrate an embodied everyday experience of whiteness theory. Responses reflect structures of whiteness as uninterrogated identity, whiteness as entitlement, and whites as managers of space. Social media enables ‘global’ participation in such political struggles, however new media ironically excludes many from this circumscribed democracy: the coloniser has been replaced by an also-colonising and domineering global culture. While the origin of this debate is in conventional Australian politics, this paper has demonstrated how inequities infiltrate the politics of culture industries, complicating even those with the most potential for furthering Indigenous self-determination.
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Image by the contemporary artist I would most love to own right now, John Citizen.