Race, Privilege & the Dark Side Of the Dream

Michelle Cahill

There’s a growing awareness within our literary communities and among public intellectuals that the obstacles faced by those marginalised in terms of cultural and literary representation need to be reappraised by a more rigorous analysis of white privilege, and white racial domination. Racial privilege is the notion that a passive benefit is accrued to one race by the manner in which its identity is constructed as superior to Others. Analysis of racial domination goes further by revisiting the historical, economic and legal processes which secure white privilege. For Oz Lit the aim of such analysis is to begin to correct a history of exclusions and ideological oppressions: the canonising of Terra Nullius, the anthologising policies of White Australia. I don’t think we can afford to delegate these concerns to cultural theory categories. White privilege and domination distort our national literature by filtering out Indigenous black voices and coloured voices as inferior, by suppressing languages, by perpetuating monocultural themes.

Racial privilege is an uncomfortable theme but I’ve wondered for some time how conversations about it could be enabled. Many critics of postcolonialism – Fanon, Said and Freire for example – have indicated how crucial it is for oppression to be understood from the perspective of the oppressed. Yet Australia’s literary engagement with difference has been invariably positioned from white Euro-Imperialist perspectives. The material issues that oppressed communities face is simply not deemed as suitable subject matter for high aesthetic accomplishment. Although the Australian Centre and various other Arts Funding Bodies foster awards for the recognition of Indigenous writers, Indigenous writing remains quarantined, (though arguably less so than does migrant writing). So it’s extremely pleasing and vital that two literary journals, Southerly (A Handful of Sand, issue 71/2) and Etchings (Treaty) have dedicated recent issues exclusively to Indigenous Writing.

Edited by Ali Cobby Eckermann and Lionel Fogarty, A Handful of Sand compiles essays, stories and poems by some of the strongest contemporary Indigenous writers over a range of communities. These voices extract from the stark realities of discrimination: poems by Lorna Munroe, Ernie Blackmore’s urban story, “Waiting” and the political commentary on the harrowing Andrew Bolt case are fine examples. Bruce Pascoe’s brilliant essay “Rearranging the Dead Cat” addresses the ways in which Anglo-Australian white identity is constructed in the guise of narratives which appropriate Indigenous characters, often as binary and inferior opposities: the black ghost of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, who betrays historical facts, the black absence in David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon, the lack of any meaningful Indigenous presence in Voss, which betrays that vast post-war emptiness of the European psyche still writing itself as the sole subject of its encounter with ‘Terra Nullius’. Colonial literatures operate in such ways to bracket historical and cultural contexts and to construct Manichean allegories of representation. Racial difference and in particular White European identity becomes transformed by such allegories into moral and even metaphysical superiority, conferring upon it exclusive status.

There’s been much controversy about the recent Gray and Lehmann edited, Australian Poetry Since 1788. Even the title is unashamedly imperialist and the anthology’s constricted lens; its ideological agenda brings to mind what Abdul Jan Mohammed describes as “the hegemonic phase of colonialism or neo-colonialism.” Ostensibly apolitical it supports a distortion of the history of invasion with a pseudo-cultural rationale:

The character of Australian poetry is the result of unique influences. There is above all the landscape: so immense, so relatively empty, so various, so strange to Europeans, with only the apparently light touch upon it of the Aboriginal people.


Sadly, I think the book is a regressive interpretation in comparison to the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature edited by Nicholas Jose or even the Puncher and Wattmann Anthology edited by John Leonard (both in 2009). The omission of seminal Indigenous poets like Lionel Fogarty, Bobbi Sykes, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Samuel Wagan Watson, W Les Russell, Colin Johnson, Kevin Gilbert as well as the absence of significant Others (Adam Aitken, Antigone Kefala, Sudesh Mishra, Merlinda Bobis, Vicki Viidikas, Dipti Saravanamuttu, Kim Cheng Boey, Ali Alizadeh to name some) amounts to a highly skewered representation .

Kevin Gilbert’s absence is disturbing. Gilbert edited the anthology Inside Black Australia (Penguin, 1988), a powerful and very important body of poetry which records a way of memorialising our traumatic past, the silence of genocide. Only when the frightening violence of colonialism is allowed to be spoken can we truly begin to reconcile the past. Literary silence and erasures are an expression of violence, likewise the harsh speech or polemic which resists domination contains a ferocity.

But cultural representations such as the Lehmann and Gray monolith are not isolated, and are nurtured by a climate of fear and complacency amongst reviewers, intellectuals and academics who are not positioned to voice dissent. Many are aware that we need to be more interrogating and self-critical if we are to become a vibrant and culturally confident nation. I use the word ‘nation’ with caution since national identities can so readily thwart difference and since differences, archipelagos and diasporas are a source of richness to our literatures. (I now prefer to describe ‘literatures’ in the plural.)

It’s not possible to cover much ground in this brief précis. I’d like to mention however the Etchings issue, Treaty. It has a less political feel than the Southerly issue, but is wonderfully celebratory. There are haunting poems, like “Bird Song” by Ali Cobby Eckermann, stunning artwork by Safina Fergie and photography by Patsy Smith in which the urban, the civic and natural world are layered into complex dimensions. The homeless narrator in Tony Birch’s “Last Light in Winter” evokes the confronting and desperate reality of street life. But there are many other moving and informative contributions in Treaty. I particularly enjoyed the interviews with black architect Jefa Greenaway and playwright/actor Richard Green.

These journals make mandatory reading for all Australian writers and students of Oz Lit. They are a vital expression of contemporary Aboriginal consciousness, urban and community-based. Under an aesthetic banner literature can elide the truth of racism and domination. Here is the dark side of the dream. These Indigenous perspectives are compelling, complex, raw and refreshing. They invite active reading and new appreciations and we are poorer without them.

7 thoughts on “Race, Privilege & the Dark Side Of the Dream

  1. The canon of Australian poetry could take on the traditional indigenous poetic – which nominates the ‘country’ – the animals and the birds – as the poets of their song languages – and develop anthologies of ‘Poems without Poets’ – Too much of Australian poetry is about the poets and not about the poems We are all connected to the first words ever sung – the need to brand poems with our ego may even be connected to a narcissistic capitalist drive to gain profit from song – something the birds do not do. Of course we want to hear aboriginal voices within the developing Australian canon – but not just because they’re aboriginal – that would be racist. Cultural erasure would also apply to those who wish to banish the fact that Australia was not known as ‘Australia’ until 1776 or thereabouts. It would also be cultural erasure to refer to ‘invasion’ rather than ‘settlement’ -Therefore the literatures (plural) of Australia – the poetry – in the western traditions could not be present before 1776. The languages and song language of the traditional aboriginal peoples falls into a distinctly different genre that might have more to do with religion than with literatures. Modern aboriginal poetry, written in the western tradition is a genre of Australian poetry which still often reflects an anti white reactionary racism that is generously displayed in this article. The L/G anthology did not ignore traditional aboriginal poetry nor modern aboriginal poetry – both were represented. But should we be measuring the canon of Australian poetry by the poets ethnicity or by the poems ? – I vote the poems.

  2. The problem with the Gray and Lehmann anthology title is its syllogistic implication that if Australian Poetry begins in 1788 and if Poetry is the literary representation of a nation then the nation, Australia, begins in 1788. In my opinion this is a most insensitive title. If we are to measure the canon, as you say, by the poems where are the poems of Kevin Gilbert, Lionel Fogarty, Bobbi Sykes, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Samuel Wagan Watson, W Les Russell, Colin Johnson? And where are the poems of Antogone Kefala, Adam Aitken, Sudesh Mishra, Merlinda Bobis, Vicki Viidikas, Dipti Saravanamuttu, Kim Cheng Boey, Ali Alizadeh?

    I contest your point that this is anit-white reactionary racism. In my work as an editor I have published poetry based on its mertits by writers who are predominantly Anglo-Celtic Australians. I have also reviewed a good deal of poetry by Anglo-Celltic Australians. But racial privilege is a reality that needs to be talked about openly since whether we like it or not culture is related to literature. Because of the culture of the internet you and I are able to have this conversation about literature. It shouldn’t have to be a taboo to speak about racial privilege or racial domination. Believe me, it exists within our literary paradigms. However I think we need more of a nuanced discussion because it is not simply about race either.

    As a result of these posts and discussions which are taking place here and in other journals like Overland, HEAT, Cordite, Rochford St Review, I’m not sure that we can necessarily expect to see the outcomes we would like. Things don’t work that way. But as a writer of colour I cannot write in total silence of these absences and erasures.

    1. Michelle – the word ‘Australia’ was not coined as the name of this ‘Great Southern Continent’ until 1776 or thereabouts – before that there was no ‘Federation’ of the Aboriginals peoples and thus there was no name for whole continent – the Aboriginal peoples did not know where the continent started and finished – it had not been mapped and it had not been named. Therefore it seems to me quite reasonable that this should be taken as a starting point for Australian Poetry in the western (English) tradition. The fact that the anthology includes a section on traditional aboriginal songs/poems, clearly written long before 1788, I agree belies its title, but also shows good faith in representing Aboriginal voices and therefore should at least be noted if you feel the title ‘insensitive’ Again I ask you – which POEMS do you think should have been included? – not which POETS – which Kevin Gilbert poems? which Bobbi Sykes poems? which Ali Alizadeh poems? -i t is clear that the intent of your essay is to (once again) accuse whitefellas of racism – you don’t seem to be concerned, for example,that Michael Dransfield’s poem”The Change’ was also left out – I could easily compile a big list of significant whitefella poems that were also left out. The canon of Australian poetry should be judged on its poems not the ethnicity (or gender or sexuality) of its poets.

  3. I’m afraid I cannot take your comments seriously. Your asumptions about Indigenous knowlege of the land are unfounded interpretations.

    My article is about race and privilege so I have contained my appraisal of the anthology with this in mind. You are making an assumption that I am not concerned about other absences, but on what basis?? You are also accusing me of being racist simply because I am bringing to the surface discrepancies that are apparent to many of us, including I expect the editors of Southerly and Etchings, who commissioned special issues of their journal for exclusively Indigenous themes.

    We could continue this kind of parallel conversation ad nauseum but that would be pointless.

    1. I found this article and particularly its subsequent comments as a telling indication of the entrenched nature of white privilege in Australia. Michelle Cahill’s comments that “[r]acial privilege is the notion that a passive benefit is accrued to one race by the manner in which its identity is constructed as superior to Others” and the exemplification of this privilege through numerous examples in the canon subsequently was construed as anti-white racism by Patrick McCauley. Such an understanding speaks volumes about the absence of popular discourse and understanding of structural racism in the Australian context. To call out implicit hierarchies and challenge readers to embrace a wider field of literature is never discriminatory in any sense, rather necessary to broaden our cultural horizons. I felt McCauley’s reaction was thus symptomatic about the social unease we often feel as Australians in confronting structural and systemic violence, for example white privilege. These questions DO need to be asked, and it is great that Cahill is asking them here.

      I also found the article refreshing in its honesty about the racial dynamics underlining Australian literature. We do have a race problem here, and it needs to be addressed in numerous and diverse forums, including literature. I liked the general references to ‘oppression’ rather than ‘othering’ used throughout the article…where a group is systemically undermined by the broader culture such as indigenous Australians and people of colour are in Australia that is by default a source of oppression and needs to be observed as such. Postmodern shifts to the language of ‘othering,’ as Bell Hooks suggests, results in us being less attuned to social injustices and therefore less likely to act to overcome them.

      Congratulations to Cahill for writing with such courage and hopefully we can see more of the same from other writers of colour. And to clarify, I write this as an Anglo Australian male with dual Australian-European citizenship. My interest in racial politics has been sparked through numerous trips in Latin America where I have dialogued with Latin Americans about their racial subordination; studies in criminology where I have learnt about the implications of structural racism manifesting itself in areas such as the over-policing and imprisonment of indigenous people in the criminal ‘justice’ system; and through being inspired through conversations with friends on these issues and by reading works such as this.

      “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
      – Desmond Tutu

  4. Cameron – the reason that there is an absence of popular discourse about these matters is because people (particularly whitefellas) are almost invariably accused of racism if they dare to debate the dominant paradymes. The Lehmann Gray anthology of Australian poetry since 1788 attempts to record the best Australian poems written in English and in the western tradition since 1788 – so it is quite reasonable/ logical that most of the poets are whitefellas – this is not a matter of white privilege but one of cultural knowledge. I doubt there would be too many whitefellas who would make it into an anthology of indigenous/aboriginal song lines/ poetry – written in language – were such a book to be published. Poetry is considered high culture in both traditions – that is, it is one of the art forms that actually creates and nurtures the culture from which it comes and it helps to define to each of its members what it is we value. No culture will allow another culture to define it – this too is logical and reasonable. This is not ‘structural racism’ nor ‘systemic violence’ any more than it was for aboriginal cultures to be unable to integrate children with white fathers because they had no skin name. It is unfortunate that black politics and possibly poetics has invested so much of its energy in separatist policies that promote our differences rather than our similarities. Whilst it seems that the gatekeepers demand that white western cultures be ‘inclusive’ – indigenous politics and poetics (if we are to be lead by this essay) continue to insist on their own exclusivity and exceptionalism. For any race to be included in any ‘canon’ because of their ‘race’ is by definition ‘racist’.

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