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Unmasking Whiteness: Race relations and reconciliation - book review

By Jennifer Tannoch-Bland - posted Tuesday, 15 August 2000

At last! The book from the conference!

Brisbane’s 1998 UNMASKING WHITENESS conference was a milestone in Australian race relations scholarship - and the book contains some of its gems, papers by Indigenous and non-Indigenous presenters from Australia and overseas.

The focus of the ‘Unmasking Whiteness’ conference was . . . on providing critical and analytical understandings of how whiteness is socially constructed and how it underpins racial division and inequality in Australian society . . . We are all implicated as citizens and as academics in a system which privileges whiteness, often in ways that are not apparent to white people. The tensions which emerged during the conference were not fully reconciled: there is no convenient, easy solution to racism and to the historical process of white race privilege within and without the academy. (McKay, pp.4-5)


Interrogating Whiteness takes us deep into the discomfort zone – we (white Australians) are not used to being racialised. Our Whiteness is invisible to us, and in our daily lives we give little or no thought to the way that Whiteness impacts on the lives of Indigenous people. Whiteness work differs from Racism work in that the focus is not on the 'other', on Indigenous people, but on ourselves.

Interrogating Whiteness allows us to see that non-Indigenous Australians have much to learn, and perhaps more to unlearn. The insights we derive through understanding Whiteness force us to reimagine the way we think, live, interrelate – and our relationship to this land and its First Peoples. They give rise to the radical realisation that, in the words of the New Abolitionists, "Treason to Whiteness is loyalty to humanity".

UNMASKING WHITENESS is a rich mine for anyone seeking arguments, concepts, information, ideas, and inspiration about race relations in Australia. But it also warns us that: "the work of deconstructing whiteness by ‘white’ people will always only ever be partial and potentially dangerously distorting. This calls for a problematisation of the positioning of the ‘"white" subject’ as investigator and as the subject of investigation" (Durie, p.256).

Indigenous investigator and Koenpul Jondal from Quandamooka, Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Senior Lecturer in Humanities at Griffith University, Brisbane, in her keynote address argues that "In order to . . . resist the hegemony of whiteness, there is a need to deconstruct and racialise whiteness to offer useful insights about power relations in Australian society which can inform practice and theory. Such analyses should . . . reveal complicity and resistance to whiteness since invasion" (Moreton-Robinson, p.35).

Another Indigenous investigator, Lillian Holt, Director of the Centre for Indigenous Education at the University of Melbourne, a Murri woman from Cherbourg via the world, takes us on a roller-coaster ride from hilarity to hell and back to sobriety, and she, like Moreton-Robinson, demonstrates that Indigenous people have been studying, labelling and judging Whiteness for a very long time, while struggling with complicity and resistance.

Missed the conference? Don't miss the Book!


Belinda McKay (ed.) (1999) Unmasking Whiteness: Race Relations and Reconciliation, Queensland Studies Centre.

Price $23.
Order from:- Qld Studies Centre, School of Humanities, Faculty of Arts, Griffith University, Nathan, 4111.
Tel 07 3875 5494
Or The Director, QSC:- Belinda McKay

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About the Author

Jennifer Tannoch-Bland is a non-Indigenous PhD student who teaches part-time in History and Philosophy of Science at Griffith University, Brisbane. She is active in reconciliation initiatives, and was Co-ordinator of ANTaR Qld (Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation) in 1998. Since 1997 she has been involved in organising and facilitating whiteness workshops, a public lecture series, and a conference on whiteness. She is the Public Officer of Kooemba Jdarra Indigenous Performing Arts.

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