How whiteness operationalizes race to colonize and displace Indigenous sovereignty
The White Possessive explores the links between race, sovereignty, and possession through themes of property: owning property, being property, and becoming propertyless. Focusing on the Australian Aboriginal context, Aileen Moreton-Robinson questions current race theory in the first world and its preoccupation with foregrounding slavery and migration. The nation, she argues, is socially and culturally constructed as a white possession.
Moreton-Robinson reveals how the core values of Australian national identity continue to have roots in Britishness and colonization, built on the disavowal of Indigenous sovereignty. Whiteness studies are central to Moreton-Robinson’s reasoning, and she shows how blackness works as a white epistemological tool that bolsters the social production of whiteness—displacing Indigenous sovereignties and rendering them invisible in a civil rights discourse, sidestepping issues of settler colonialism.
Throughout this critical examination Moreton-Robinson proposes a bold new agenda for critical Indigenous studies, one that involves deeper analysis of the prerogatives of white possession within the role of disciplines.
Aileen Moreton-Robinson is professor of Indigenous studies at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, and is director of the National Indigenous Research and Knowledges Network. She is author of Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism and editor of several books, including Sovereign Subjects: Indigenous Sovereignty Matters.
Densely (academic/legalese) written documentation. Thought provoking, enlightening and humbling. “If race does not matter, then how do white people “know” how to identify who the Indigenous people are?" “White race privilege and advantage are unearned invisible assets that benefit white people in their everyday lives; they are possessions. These assets include simple things such as not having to educate white children about systemic racism for their protection and having white identity affirmed in society on a daily basis through positive representations in the media, government policies, legislation and the education system." “The culture of bullying is not gender, race, class, status, or sexually neutral." “For centuries, the logics of possession have treated the earth and its Indigenous peoples as something that is always predisposed to being possessed and exploited."
In academia and elsewhere we have, for some time now, been grappling with questions of ’whiteness’, critical assessments of the power associated with Whiteness, and the specificity of settler colonialism. Not surprisingly, some of the most important voices in those debates have been Indigenous scholars, and few of those have been more significant than the Goenpul/Quandamooka First Nation writer Aileen Moreton-Robinson. This collection of essay (which I am late coming to as a collection) is a vital contribution to those debates and social and political changes they might stimulate.
Moreton-Robinson’s work is closely linked to and grounded in Australian experience and the particular experiences of those peoples Indigenous to the lands now occupied by that state, but she has a strong internationalist outlook and global sensibility meaning that even in the most specific of issues she explores here there is a powerful resonance elsewhere. Essay collections can be a challenge: we write specific pieces for specific purposes and it is often difficult to try to weave them into some sense of coherence for a collection. The rigour and focus of Moreton-Robinson’s work over the years, however, means that this essential collection works really well.
The collection develops the case that settler societies are built on the presumption of white possession – not just of the land, but of knowledge, the right to shape and frame the world, and importantly of the peoples they found in the places claimed. In addition, Moreton-Robinson sets out to show not just the existence of this sense of possessiveness; she makes a case for what she calls ‘possessive logics’, that is “a mode of rationalization … that produce(s) a more or less inevitable answer, that is underpinned by an excessive desire to invest in reproducing and reaffirming the nation-state ownership, control, and domination” (p xii). This makes the collection not just an exploration of the politics of white possessiveness in Australia (mainly), but a much wider exploration and analysis of power in settler societies.
The collection is built around three groupings of papers that Moreton-Robinson labels ‘owning property’, ‘becoming propertyless’, and ‘being property’. The first two are probably quite obvious. In the first, ‘owning property’, she explores those white possessive logics and who has the right to be where. Here discussions focus on iconographies of nationhood, the place of Indigenous peoples in Australia’s self-image, the historical presumptions of Britishness, and the problems of native sovereignty, of Indigenousness, in much of the way discussions of Whiteness, especially in the USA, is framed. It might be that it ties in so closely to some of my current work (but also that this is one of the several pieces here I had not read before) that makes this explicit discussion of Whiteness studies resonate so powerfully.
The second section – ‘becoming propertyless’ – explores some of the current (or at least recent) questions in the Australian setting where she unpacks questions of sovereignty. In this section Moreton-Robinson explores legal contexts especially the Native Title Act and efforts to constrain any recognition of Indigenous land rights in the wake of the Mabo decision in 1992, and one other powerful moment of restriction in the decision of the Yorta Yorta people’s claims finally in the High Court resolved in 2001. These are ‘expected’ in that in the Australian setting and without any Treaty provisions, legislation and court decisions are the primary places where Indigenous sovereignty and land issues are addressed, making it different to Canada and New Zealand and to an extent the USA. The other essays in this section extent that sense of ‘property’, most powerfully in a discussion of race discrimination case taken by an Indigenous trainee nurse in North Queensland, where much of the complaint turned on a sense of a systematic presumption of her limited competence and capability in comparison to her fellow non-Indigenous trainees. This is uncomfortable reading – as it should be. The final essay powerfully links the past and present, demonstrating the consistency of outlook that underpinned Cook’s decision about where and how to claim sovereignty in 1770 and contemporary presumptions of white possessiveness.
The final four essays look outwards and forwards, exploring emerging research agendas, the contested character of debates over sovereignty and security as dangers to Indigenous struggles, including those discourses that distinguish ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Indigenousness. The standout for me here, and again I suspect that relates to current work, is the discussion of shifting positions of the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia as the only four states initially to not endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and crucially the subsequent caution with which they finally did so. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else in the collection, we see the international and structural characteristics of ‘the white possessive’.
Overall, reading through a lens provided by a notion of Indigenous sovereignty as a broad and inclusive concept, well beyond but grounded in land, Moreton-Robinson does two things. First she shows the key faultlines along which those struggles around sovereignty are being fought both globally and in the everyday mundanities of settler-Indigenous interaction, while also showing clearly the presence of the past in present. Second, she asserts the significance of Indigeneity to analyses of Whiteness in powerful ways that remind us of the fundamental significance of dispossession and what some have called ‘primitive accumulation’ (not a phrase she uses) both to the existence of settler states and to the everyday character of their social and cultural orders.
Scholarly, sharp, packed full of insight – and essential.
This is an incredible collection of essays which I continually return to. Aileen Moreton-Robinson greatest hits! Challenging white patriarchal sovereignty in three parts. Bodies that Matter on the Beach is a particular highlight: tracing white male performativity on the Australian beach from Cook, the ANZACs, lifesavers, surfers, and the Cronulla rioters. It’s fantastic. Must read and reread.
Very good, compelling read that really makes clear how settler colonialism functions on both a structural and individual level (though the analysis obviously works more on a structural level--I do think it can be applied to individual white settler folks, and to bring home how they/we can continue to be complicit in settler colonialism.)
Some of the essays sort of repeat themselves, and her use of Foucault left me completely baffled (and why is she using biopower and not necropolitics!!!!) but I am a pendant who should be ignored. I will also say that her explanation of Australian history is almost non-existent, which may be intentional but does make following the court cases that she frequently cites hard to do, and is an interesting choice given she's published this with a US press. But her framework is really powerful and I think very important in thinking about settler colonialism in the future. Def recommended!
Moreton-Robinson takes up white supremacy within international relations in a way that is often erased under the lens of geopolitics, globalization, and economics that center economic and military power over racial injustice. While examining the injustices of international law in regard to the application of sovereignty strictly to states, Moreton-Robinson also undermines the legitimacy of the system of international law and the bestowing of "rights" at all. Indigenous sovereignty is taken as a matter of fact which is erased, obscured, denied, and violently suppressed by colonial powers and systematically morally "upheld" by international organizations while also intentionally denied by recognizing the "rights" of states as superior to Indigenous sovereignty.
This book is an excellent resource. While largely about Indigenous Peoples in Australia, it includes really helpful comparative instances with the U.S. in its exploration of white possessiveness and its final chapter deals directly with UNDRIP. It works well alongside Alexander Weheliye's Habeas Viscus.
To say that I "really liked it" would be disingenuous as this was required reading for a grad level course. Open-minded readers who are new to the topic will take away lots of important ideas. There are many 'a ha' moments hidden in the academic tone of the essays.
My rating is a reflection of the pairing of content and style; were it just content I'd probably have ranked it a five. Maybe I just don't have the background but I almost gave up in the first chapter the number of times the word "ontology" was used. I don't think the book gained anything from that kind of language, since Moreton-Robinson's best work was in her more lay passages, and the addition of Foucault only reminded me of how much I dislike Foucault. There were also several passages repeated in different chapters, which confused me and made me check to see if I'd accidentally pressed a skip key while reading.
However, my complaints should not dissuade anyone from reading this book- Moreton-Robinson's points about centering the colonization (and non post-colonial state) of indigenous peoples along with calling for the scholarship of whiteness to engage not only with the Black diaspora but the pre-slavery racialization of indigenous peoples should be a central point in studies going forwards.
“The colonizer/colonized axis continues to be configured within this postcolonizing society through power relations that are premised on our dispossession and resisted through our ontological relationship to land. Indigenous people’s position within the nation-state is not one where colonizing power relations have been discontinued. Instead, these power relations are at the very heart of the white national imaginary and belonging; they are postcolonizing.” — “Patriarchal whiteness invests in property rights and is possessive and protective about asset accumulation and ownership. Here I use the term “possessive” to mean having an excessive desire to own, control, and dominate—"
A really good analysis in the different ways colonialist nations have disenfranchised their indigenous citizens. The book mainly focuses on Australia and focuses not only on how the nation was initially colonized but how systems of colonization are still in place and how new ones are constantly being created. The book explores many different aspects of the colonization process. I was assigned to read only a couple chapters from this book for my anthropology class but decided to read the whole thing because of how interesting it is. It's also a fairly easy read for its level of academic caliber.
A heavy philosophical discourse on how patriarchal white sovereignty dispossesses indigenous subjects, particularly in Australia. Best left to graduate students unless you are fluent in poststructural analysis.