Whitewashing in Australia
hrough repeated depictions in the mass media, particular races and ethnicities are assigned the most marketable images, and thus abridged and taken out of their historical and political context in order to be cursorily consumed and comprehended. Richard Dyer (2008) explores whiteness as a prominent example of this, as all its particularities, its individual legacies and diverse origins are overlooked. Despite what we have been socialised to believe, the generic identity marker of whiteness has been arbitrarily cultivated to bolster the generalisability and the privilege it affords people who conform to its appearance. This is rendered incongruous in understanding racial politics, because this culturally accepted illusion becomes the generic human background onto which other nominal identities are positioned, and thus they can be whitewashed to inferiority.
Australia is a European colonialised country that operates on white supremacy. This includes whitewashing our indigenous past, to help socially manoeuvre around our unique ancestries. In this way, the dual process of racialisation and de-racialisation in Australia is ubiquitous and palpable. Social theorist, Marcia Langton (1993) examines how ethnic suppression and distorted representation of national whiteness in mainstream culture manufactures a conceivable Australian identity, partially from also constructing a palatable Aboriginality. It constitutes a politics of social memory, employed to turn the indigenous genocide into a historical storied occurrence, allowing people to distance themselves from the indigenous trauma embedded in our society. I will analyse Tracey Moffatt’s (1990) Night Cries: A rural tragedy, to discuss the impact of the media in our social racialisation and consciousness.
The use of hyperbole in every sort of media nowadays is an accepted necessity. It is employed to convey complex issues in easy-to-digest and understandable ways. When we see any particularities of race and culture being discussed, it is with an “otherness” implied and conveyed in its tokenistic explanations of traditions and ways of life that belong to non-white people, including “Aboriginal” individuals. As an audience, we instinctively can use this subject matter to centralise whiteness in our society, because we are not socially raced in the same way. In other words, it implies we are just Australian, and we are “… just people” (Dyer, 2008, p. 1). Marcia Langton (1993, p. 24) articulates this “...as the easiest and most 'natural’ form of racism…”, describing a particular race in such a way that it makes one’s own identity invisible. Through this kind of societal dialogue and cultural interpretation, “othered” characteristics such as Aboriginality, are socialised and siphoned into our awareness and can become tacit in a distorted way in our national ideology.
By appropriating and subverting the production of common imagery of indigenous people, Tracey Moffatt (1990) reclaims authorship and power over those images. She situates her art in the ambiguous racial margins, drawing on her autobiographical experience of being adopted, raised and loved by an Irish-Australian woman, whilst at the same time also knowing her biological mother and understanding her indigenous identity. She is closely accustomed with “whiteness” and thus is able to make it just as visible as Aboriginality in her artwork. Night Cries (Moffatt, 1990) is a film piece that exposes and subverts usual national imagery and historical nostalgia, by scaling it down to a domestic setting. Moffatt exposes the contrasts, anger and ambivalence that arises from personal experience of a perpetual social trauma, by exploring a relationship between a white elderly mother and her Aboriginal middle-aged daughter (played by Marcia Langton). Through these two subjects, she is able to fully recognise both perspectives, and create alternate “signs for seeing each other” (Langton, 1993, p. 36), and generate a more honest depiction and dialogue about racial identity in Australia.
As in all colonialized societies, the fiction of a generic whiteness has unified and consolidated Australian culture, and forms the social lens through which we view our collective past, and indigenous others. Langton observes it is through commercialised, western interpretations of indigenous cultures and images, that an acceptable “Aboriginality” is constantly being defined and redefined in a discursive loop (1993, p. 33). This is experienced on a visceral level when the “assimilated”, well-dressed Aboriginal singer, Jimmy Little, appears and quiets the indiscriminate and traumatic screams and shrieks during the ominous intro to Night Cries. He happily sings 'Royal Telephone’, a song about a direct communication with a lone god, alluding to the Christianity that was enforced by the Europeans when they took Aboriginal children away from their families. Yet Little’s calming voice and formal appearance quiets the audience, and we can quickly disregard the audible horror which just preceded.
Dyer would examine this reaction as a result of a skewed socio-political imagination manufactured by the invisibility of white cultures (2008, p. 3). Our ordinary and nondescript comfort with images of [Aboriginal] men dressed in European attire reveals and reiterates this skewed socio-political imagination as being the ‘white’ architecture of our Australian socialisation. The type of subconscious cultural acceptance of European norms, without an awareness of their origins, is what Dryer points to as white invisibility. It supports the cognitive dissonance that Australians have as society. White people benefit from superficially relating to and appreciating indigenous cultures in our specified ways, but often without acknowledging the indigenous sorrow and distress we produced, continue to live with and thus
It is through accommodating the established societal ideology and reflexively relating through the racial boundaries of black (raced and othered) and white (non-raced and the norm), that then naturalises these things, and the resulting subsequent power dynamics. Moffatt demonstrates these ingrained relation mediums through mother-daughter tensions and duties. We watch both individuals attempt to renegotiate a chaotic and messy domestic situation in amidst a desolate and iconic red desert, a hyperreal outback landscape. The daughter wears a white dress reminiscent of a nursing uniform. She is visibly exasperated by caring for her adopted mother as she loses physical ability, which is contextualised when we see them reminiscing over photos of their family, and of course, of their shared colonial past. We clearly sense their love and interdependency, as well as their frustration with each other. Since we are shown the two experiences – of past and present – we can feel how these simple familial interactions necessitate a constant reaching for “…some satisfactory way of comprehending the other” (Langton, 1993, p. 35). This specific relationship also suggests the painful grittiness, yet the hesitant societal reliance of [the daughter’s] socialised Aboriginality. Moffatt (1990) keeps the central scenario in Night Cries fairly ambiguous and impartial in both emotion and power dimensions, which means it does not substantiate the usual tropes that carry intense emotionality and social judgements. It therefore allows the obscure complexities of such a meaning-laden relationship to be felt, rather than simplifying it into literal black and white terms.
The historical indigenous suffering and trauma is effortlessly separated from the monotonous on-goings of Australian society and its domesticity. It seems natural and expected, but indigenous trauma is crucial to understanding what underlies and frames the cohesive Australian Identity. This separation between Aboriginality and European ancestry perpetually reinstates whiteness as the cultural norm. Indigenous people are only recognised when they can be “…a means for knowing the white self” (Dyer, 2008, p. 13). Moffatt (1990) comments on this, as we first see the daughter, slouched in her chair, leisurely reading a tourist brochure for a South Molle Island Resort, a well-known site inhabited by Aboriginal people before colonialism. The daughter momentarily looks up, begrudgingly, at the camera, and then continues reading whilst eating an apple. This kind of very ordinary cultural discord keeps the actual Aboriginal culture and experience subjugated.
Unlike the usual Aboriginal depictions in Night Cries, the misguided actions of the Europeans and the extensive pain associated with Aboriginality is a secondary component, only represented through abstracted flashbacks. However, through the eerie soundscape of a constant whistle of wind, and periodic indiscriminate groans and cries, which forms the backdrop of both women’s confined lives, becomes ever-present, keeping the dull ache and historical wounds open.
Through Moffatt’s (1990) Night Cries, we can see how domestic intimacy, and our ways of surviving the everyday, inadvertently outlines Australian culture and how we identify. The ideology of whiteness has shaped and distorted the collective history, and the discursive representation of indigenous cultures continues to reinforce that ideology. So we just continue to illustrate Aboriginal and the Australian racial identity in conventional ways, even though it disallows an authentic dialogue of our racial politics in Australia. Accepting the historical and social responsibilities we have so far failed to claim would mean displacing whiteness from its disguised state. Doing this would destabilise our arbitrary sense of a national identity and social values, it also would rewrite our collective memory.
Dyer, R. (2008). The matter of whiteness.
Langton, M. (1993). " Well, I Heard it on the Radio and I Saw it on the Television": An Essay for the Australian Film Commission on the Politics and Aesthetics of Filmmaking by and about Aboriginal People and Things: Australian Film Commission Sydney.
Moffatt, T. (Writer) & T. Moffatt (Director). (1990). Night Cries: A rural tragedy. Australia.