emma kowal on the logic of elimination and white anti-racists


Emma Kowal of the University of Melbourne, sharing her provocative insights on ‘elimination’, exclusively for settler colonial studies blog:

As Veracini argues in his provocative introductory essay to new settler colonial studies journal, if settler colonialism is logic of elimination, then the anticolonial response is Indigenous survival. Only when we stop wanting Indigenous people to disappear will we have become post-settler colonial. But what is the parallel fate of settlers in the process or practice of decolonisation? What is the imagined end for settlers who oppose settler colonialism? People that I call ‘white anti-racists’ – a sub-group of settlers that includes me and probably most scholars of settler colonialism – have been the subject of my ethnographic research at an Indigenous health institute in the Northern Territory. I set out to understand the logic of Indigenous improvement that progressive white anti-racist people bring to their work in Indigenous affairs. Along the way, I found that white anti-racists experience their agency as a stigma – something inherently harmful to be minimised, rationalised, and ultimately, removed from the scene. They desire a state of powerlessness and vulnerability to Indigenous people. While white settlers want Indigenous people to disappear, white anti-racist settlers long to disappear themselves. There are many productive questions this article raises for settler colonial studies, but here is just one: What would this mean if it applied not just to the logic of white anti-racism, but to the logic of settler colonial studies?

Some of this is further developed in, ‘The Stigma of White Privilege’, Cultural Studies 25, 3:

Beginning in the 1970s, the efforts of the Australian settler state to help its Indigenous minority shifted away from ‘assimilation’ and embraced the principles of ‘self-determination’. According to the rhetoric of the self-determination era explored in this article as the ‘liberal fantasy space’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians should be in control of efforts to improve their lives, ultimately making state intervention redundant. A by-product of this shift was to radically change the role of non-Indigenous people who sought to participate in Indigenous development. No longer in charge of Indigenous advancement, they were now cast as partners and supporters. This article explores some of the complexities of White anti-racist subjectivities in the self-determination era. It draws on ethnographic research with a group of progressive Whites who work in Indigenous health in northern Australia. A striking feature of contemporary White anti-racist discourse is a reluctance to claim any agency in the process of Indigenous improvement. I argue that applying the concept of stigma to White privilege is a novel and productive approach to understanding this desire for self-effacement. White stigma works in a parallel fashion to the case of liberal Germans who believe the German collective identity is irrevocably tainted by the Holocaust. In the Australian case, the negative characteristics associated with Whiteness act as a barrier to the broader goal of constructing ethical White subjectivities fit for the ‘liberal fantasy space’ of post-colonial justice. In their attempts to overcome this barrier and transcend White stigma, White anti-racists mobilise the identity tropes of missionary, mother, and child. Ultimately, these efforts at self-fashioning point to the ultimate fantasy of decolonisation: the desire of White anti-racists to disappear.

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