Ben Peek (benpeek) wrote,
Ben Peek

The Blanc Citizen in the Blanc City (Racial Representation)

After last week, I have spent some time thinking about the work that I did a few years ago when I wrote A Year in the City. What went a long with it was a whole chunk of theory and I got thinking about that and I thought, for a laugh, I'd drop a bit of it here on the blog, and people could read it if they had such an inclination. I picked up a small chapter about whiteness, primarily, and you'll have to excuse me if some of the terms aren't explained as well as they could be there, as they were bought in earlier (the Mongrel City is one of them). Also, I just copied and pasted from the document with it in, so you'll also have to forgive the footnotes that go nowhere.

Otherwise, enjoy:

The Blanc Citizen in the Blanc City.

Writing about Sydney has meant that I have been writing about a city that is, first and foremost, a white city. Built upon invaded land by the British, it was created to serve a penal colony for the outcasts of British society, and was named after a white British man in an act that Tim Flannery dismisses as “political brown-nosing,” as the man “was an incompetent bureaucrat, unequal to the most ordinary duties of his office.”i In addition to this history, the city has, as Tamara Winikoff writes, been “designed on a British colonial model until the advent of international modernism in the twentieth century with its cultural source in urban America.”ii Sydney, therefore, has been formed by whiteness in name and design, through its population and culture is, not surprisingly, predominantly white. To be Australian, as Toni Morrison notes with the word American, means to be white.iii The racial implications are deep within the word, removing any perceived need for a prefix or suffix. When an immigrant individual is referred to as Australian, however, a second word is added, such as “Asian” in Asian-Australian. The conflict of non-white people with whiteness is present at all times in the word. I have seen it expressed the most in the students that I teach in creative writing. In the course that I have taught in for the past four years, there has been a task where the students are asked to write about their experience with whiteness, or being white. Each year I have had Asian students, and each year, at least one of them, will describe him or herself, as a banana: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Yellow to convey the skin colour inherited from their Asian genes, white to convey the Australian culture that they have been brought up in and feel part of. It is a culture that they feel disconnected from because of its whiteness. It is a conflict that ends with the Australian-born individual adding the word “Asian” in front, using hyphens much in the way that minority people use hyphens to describe themselves in America.iv The result of this hyphening is to reinforce the white association of the word “Australian” and to sustain the cultural weightlessness of whiteness. To be just Australian recalls the French word “blanc”, which means both “white” and “blank”. To be Australian is to be like a blank page: complete, but altered instantly when another colour is applied to it, its so-called purity and completeness lost, and replaced with an entirely different page that is part Australian, and part something else.

The connection of whiteness to a cultural emptiness is not an idea found only in Australia. The lack of cultural weight in whiteness is characteristic of all Western countries and arises, as Richard Dyer notes, because of the portrayal of “white people [as] just people.”v This cultural blankness was my first concern when writing about the Mongrel City, because, just as representing minority people such as Asians and Indigenous people was important to me, it was equally important to represent whiteness. Dyer elaborates upon this problem:

Whites are everywhere in representation. Yet precisely because of this and their placing as norm they seem not to be represented to themselves as whites but as people who are variously gendered, classed, sexualized and abled. At the level of racial representation, in other words, whites are not of a certain race, they’re just the human

In the perfect world, I would be able to write about all races as if they were “just” human. However, since the Mongrel city is built out of the interaction of race and culture, and because I cannot remove the meanings associated with non-white individuals, my choice has been to create a weight for whiteness in A Year in the City and to make it a similar weight to being non-white, in the hope that non-white people will, in the end, be viewed as people who can also be identified by jobs, sexuality, gender, and traits other than race. However, my intention is also to bring attention to the fact that there is not a level playing-field and to the difference in how “the Other” is portrayed in the media.
This is an ethical issue related to my position as a white author, and the position of power I occupy in this space. I run the risk, however good my intentions are, of creating a form of “Orientalism”. Edward Said wrote that “Orientalism” was “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”vii It could be argued, then, that from my position of power, I am creating only a new white authoritative portrayal of minorities, which results in a representation that is both incorrect and damaging. Domineering, white power portrayals are everywhere in existence. In relation to Indigenous culture, Tony Birch writes that the portrayal of Koori culture in tourism has resulted in it being viewed as “a product that can be altered and represented in an acceptable form, as a commodity, but [one] that has little or no intrinsic value.”viii Lost is the complexity, range, and diversity of the culture as it is turned into “a superficial appropriation of the Indigenous culture.”ix

Here, the despair that Henri Lefebvre discussed when trying to write about the lived experience in the city returns. It is a despair about being a white author who wants to represent the lived experience of a minority. How to correctly and ethically represent becomes the question, and there is no easy answer. The safe response, as authors who are older, who are younger, and who have published more and less that I, have suggested, is to not write about minorities. By this, I imagine, they do not mean to have a cast that consists of straight, white characters who are predominantly male but, rather, that I should not have non-straight, non-white, non-male characters as my protagonists. It is fine if a female minority character is a love interest, if a black character is that of a wise man or woman, or the gay character helps the straight male protagonist meet women. It is a choice that I cannot help but ridicule in my fellow authors, because it is safe. It is easy. It does not take risks. It does not open the author to failure. In my own belief as an author, that good writing comes out of taking risks, out of challenging your limitations, your knowledge, and your safety. What is more, when other white authors inform me that they will not write about minorities, they contribute, through their inaction, to the already existing stereotypic representations of minorities which have been created, in relation to the media, to draw in viewers, and sell newspapers. Nevertheless, it is also true, as I have mentioned, that the white author, writing from his/her position of power, can also be creating a new form of “Orientalism”, and this is also unacceptable. As Jackie Huggins writes, she “detest[s] the imposition that anyone who is non-Aboriginal can define my Aboriginality for me and my race.”x The continuing domination of minority people by mainstream representations is destructive and this is where the despair arises from, for how does the white author then sit down to write minority characters?

I do not have a formula for success. I doubt there is one. In A Year in the City I want to represent a multicultural city, because that is my experience, and if I were to allow the despair over representation to control my writing, it would become a form of paralysis and result in silence. I would not, then, be writing a multicultural city—I would be writing a monoculture city, where my silence was a contribution to the already existing stereotypes surrounding minority portrayals. My way of navigating this despair, then, has been to approach the portrayals of characters through the portrayal of whiteness.

There is a blankness in the quality of whiteness that is found readily in the fiction of white, Western authors. Here, whiteness as a description of race is rarely used. This lack of description is an example of white people not recognising their own racial weight and demonstrates the freedom in being white that Dyer mentioned. It is common to find whiteness noted from the point of view of a character who is not white, and who recognises their own race because it is juxtaposed with the dominant white culture. In ZZ Packer’s story “Brownies”, a Brownie Troop decide to “kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909.”xi They were targeted because, as the narrator explains, the other girls were white: “Their complexions a blend of ice cream: strawberry and vanilla.”xii Though the narrator does not describe the girls as black in the story, the weight of their skin colour can be felt from the beginning. The title “Brownies” no longer means a group of girls who have joined a youth social group, but rather it conveys the skin colour of the girls. In this context, “Brownies” is not a pleasant word, and has connotations of dirtiness and ugliness, which Packer uses to make a comment on how she views the black girls’ racism. It is also used to explain how the black girls see themselves in relation to the white girls. The narrator notes how the long, straight hair of the white girls was, alone, “reason for envy and hatred.”xiii Most telling about the race of the characters is that the girls are noticing the whiteness of the other girls. The simple act of noticing is a weight that identifies non-whiteness in the narrative. This awareness is not only limited to non-white characters being defined against white characters, but also in the fact that non-white characters are aware of the race in other non-white characters.

At the end of Packer’s story, when the Brownie Troop have confronted the white girls and failed to entice them into a fight because the white girls are mentally disabled, Packer examines the cause of their antagonism. To do this, she has the narrator speak about the day white Mennonites painted the porch for her father for free. When asked why her father would want his porch painted, the narrator repeats his words:

“He said,” I began, only then understanding the words as they uncoiled from my mouth, “it was the only time he’d have a white man on his knees doing something for a black man for free.”xiv

Here a black character is aware of his blackness. His blackness is, in fact, his motivation, and the motivation for the girls. This racial motivation can be found in a white character. It is not difficult to imagine a group of white brownies picking on a group of black brownies for the same reasons as in Packer’s story. However, it is difficult to imagine a white author creating a white character that said, “It was the only time I’d see a black man on his knees for a white man.” It is politically incorrect, yes, but the attitude does exist and is expressed, but when it is, such an awareness of whiteness in the white character of his/her race would not be so knowingly expressed and identified as a motivation as it is at the end of Packer’s “Brownies”.

Whiteness, however, is not entirely weightless. It does manifest itself in stories about white characters, but its cause is often from a cross-cultural experience. This can occur when an object or custom that is traditionally associated with the non-white character is encountered and this causes, in the white character, an awareness of whiteness. An example of this can be found in Mandy Sayer’s short story “Scarlet”. The story is a reworking of Little Red Riding Hood, set on the streets of Kings Cross. In it, Scarlet, who occupies the narrative position of Red Riding Hood, is the daughter of a drug dealing and drug-using mother. One night when her mother has passed out, she receives a call from her transvestite grandfather, also a drug user and desperate for a hit, and she agrees to take him the drugs. To do so, she must go through the Cross, and it is here that Scarlet encounters whiteness:

She could smell stale urine as she passed the railway station. A white man lay in the entranceway, his limbs wrapped around a long didgeridoo, as if it were a lover. Scarlet had often seen him there, coaxing howls and moans from the hollow piece of wood for small change. One day she’d noticed he’d darkened his skin with make-up, and figured he was trying to pass as an Aboriginal in order to increase his tips. Now he was asleep, a big wet patch rising through the crotch of his jeans.
“What’s the S stand for?” asked a drunk outside the Capital Hotel. “Sexy?” He threw his cigarette down and shot her a lewd grin.xv

Whiteness is noticeable because of the didgeridoo, which is part of Aboriginal culture. At the end of the section, however, the drunk is not described racially; nor are the two firemen who tip “their helmets”xvi to Scarlet as she passes later. The reader understands that all three, like the man with the didgeridoo, are white. It is only when whiteness is placed next to an item associated with another culture, that the character’s whiteness has a weight. The question, however, is why? The description contributes to the sense of desperation that Sayer uses to characterise the Cross. The white man who “blacked-up” his skin to be Aboriginal is ethically dubious, but there is more happening within this moment. Without the whiteness of the character noted in the description, Sayer’s figure sitting with a didgeridoo would be read as an Aboriginal man, representative of Aboriginal people in the Cross. His whiteness, however, is suddenly visible. He is the only character in the story to be described as “white”, the only character for whom being white is significant, but this is because he is trying to pass for a non-white individual. At this moment, whiteness has weight.
For the rest of the story, however, whiteness is unnoticed. It is a world that has been created from a white world image.xvii Thus, whiteness is unnoticed, forgotten, no longer a descriptive act. This is something that I am guilty of myself as recently as 2004, when the novelette, “The Dreaming City” was published (it was written, however, in 2003). “The Dreaming City” is a different version of the opening chapter “The Dreaming City, Part One”, and offers an alternate history of Australia that is mixed with real historical events. In the opening section of story, however, I describe Mark Twain as a “small, grey haired man”xviii with no description of his whiteness. Shortly after, however, I refer to Pemulwy as “the scarred, black skinned Eora warrior.”xix Developing an awareness of this in my own writing as well as the writing around me, has been the first step in creating the Mongrel City in A Year in the City. This has resulted in the decision to give whiteness a mongrel weight in the narrative, to explore the relationship of whites to multicultural Australia, the relationship of whites to a colonial history of terror, and to their own white power.


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