After liberalism: a response to ‘Safe White Spaces’

There has been recent noise around whiteness in the arts in Australia, Melbourne in particular, due in part to Andy Butler’s article ‘Safe White Spaces’.  Some of us have been talking about this for some time, but now it feels different, on account of the voices being heard and the opinions being seriously considered. This might be the demographic reckoning that is starting to happen as a consequence of the end of the White Australia Policy. Our parents came here in a flood and now their children are speaking up. My generation of fellow writers, artists and activists are sharing their complex personal experiences in ways that cannot be ignored.

For me, the questions that ‘Safe White Spaces’ brought to mind include: what comes after liberalism? What is the way forward when we are seeing a cresting wave of people who identify and are identified in ‘diverse’ categories especially? How can we create a language that is intersectional and founded on solidarity, imagination and expertise beyond the identity politics paradigm? I ask these questions precisely because we seem to be stuck in the quagmire of debate where people cannot speak beyond their own experience, however varied and multiple that is. It is a stage where authority is grounded in personal history and framed according to language games that would confine us to being, essentially, ‘a person of colour’ or any other category that is an iron cage.  I write in response to the ubiquitous biographies that position one according to the moral status given to reclaimed identities.

And so, my response is not only a critique of whiteness and patriarchy and aristocracy, but the structuring devices in language that do not respond to the utopianism of making new discursive possibilities. I will focus on race, because of my own position, which is often seen as a person of colour, though I prefer multicultural, hybrid, biracial. In that way, there are often times I benefit from citing myself as a culturally and linguistically diverse person (including here and now) – that if one ticks the box on the form, one has a greater chance on account of historical wrongs that are now being righted by the powers that be.

This is not an argument against affirmative action or the expanding rights of minorities or the fact that Butler makes clear in his piece – that whiteness is prevalent and in need of critique. It is about what comes after, no matter which type of minority we are part of. After all, there cannot be a perfect identity that is free from power, as if we must compete for victim status and being the most oppressed because of how we leverage it. If one is speaking, then somehow one is accorded status (at least in this particular context). But it is a delicate question: how much one speaks on behalf of one’s people in an attempt to play the game? How much does one instrumentalise one’s ethnicity and what is the cost and benefit of that? I am reminded of Stan Grant in Talking to My Country, where he speaks of being young and not wanting to be an ‘Indigenous reporter’ in the sense of being confined to talk of that topic alone, and so he sought out a career overseas with global news networks before returning home.

What is the way forward? I do not think that we can reach back nostalgically and resuscitate class as an analytic without placing race, gender, sexuality in the conversation. In that way, ‘lifestyle’ offers a way forward because it is a bundle of relations that brings with it education, rights, prestige, status, honor (for those so inclined they can find more about how to define it theoretically from Max Weber, but it might be enough to point to ordinary conversations where people say things such as ‘we moved here for the lifestyle’).  It brings to mind power without being singular.

Lifestyle is one element, but we might also use the approach to open up thoughts on solidarity, imagination and expertise. Solidarity is the origin point for thinking through intersectionality, for thinking of how to teach people and raise a fist when the situation demands it. Imagination is the way to cultivate that, the way we move beyond our embodied experiences to be empathetic, to think how Others must be, and not only Others who seem to be different to us according to established categories but those who bear a family resemblance. And, expertise is the way to help the beetle out of the box – which is to say, learning, study, examination matters for the material expression of what we believe. If I have not read Malayalam writers from the Pink Decade, then I, as a Malayalee, can learn from an expert who has read this work regardless of whether they are British or Portuguese or Dutch. This does not mean I am self-loathing or complicit or falsely conscious about the reality of my colonial situation. It means that I believe in a dialogue that is not mired in the frames of reference that make up the liberalism of identity politics. I too can benefit from ‘whitesplaining’.

Thus, it is not only about fighting the powers that be, or assimilation through conversation in the master’s language. Rather, through the power of language, we can create something better when we listen to those who have created work that reference the archives of the past, works that continue to matter to us today.


Image: Xanadu gallery / Steve McClanahan

Robert Wood

Robert Wood is chair of PEN Perth. He has previously been an Overland intern.

More by Robert Wood ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays