Race and place: Whiteness in Australian history

Alison Bashford, University of Sydney

Warwick Anderson, The Cultivation of Whiteness: Science, Health and Racial Destiny in Australia Melbourne, University of Melbourne Press, 2002 (364 pp). ISBN 0-522-84989-X (paperback) RRP $34.95.

One of the most interesting moments in Warwick Anderson’s book is when he invites readers to contemplate the world without the concept of race. ‘Race’, as his book and lots of other scholarship shows, was a scientific idea invented in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and more or less invalidated scientifically in the 1940s and 1950s. ‘The popular appeal of the concept of race’, Anderson writes ‘has apparently withstood its post-war decline in scientific validity’. He continues: ‘it is evident that facile, ever-flexible typologies of human difference still help to organise and channel public self-satisfaction and prejudice’. His book is an account of how simplistic categories of difference were invented by scientists and doctors; an account he hopes will contribute to ‘their eventual dissolution’ (p. 7).

Doing without the concept of race is an interesting aspiration to contemplate, especially in 21st century ‘Reconciliation’ Australia when ‘white’ has reappeared (in places) as an identity, a category. Presumably, Anderson doesn’t want to efface difference, but can we talk of this particular kind of difference without ‘race’? What’s the alternative vocabulary? Can ‘race’ ever really lose its biomedical history that Anderson traces so locally and carefully in this book? Or has the concept of race already moved beyond this legacy?

Anderson explores biomedical ideas and practice in the British Australasian colonies of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in the Commonwealth of Australia until the middle of the twentieth century. Specifically, he traces biomedical ideas about British/white bodies in (for them) the new place of Australia, how whites/Britons were considered not just socially or culturally in a different place, but physically out of place in a way which was understood to have real bodily/health ramifications. If being white in England was normal beyond comment, in the new geography of Australia attention was constantly drawn to the mismatch between body and climate/geography. In this sense, ‘whiteness’ was cultivated. While everyone knows something about ‘white Australia’, how many people are aware of the extent to which science and medicine shaped the very idea of whiteness in this country? Strictly speaking, the book is not about the White Australia Policy, understood as the exclusion of ‘coloured aliens’. It is however, concerned with British migration as ‘whites’ on the one hand, and policies of integrating ‘half-castes’ into whiteness on the other.

This is one of the few history books I know that is organised geographically as well as chronologically. And what a great topic for it. Anderson begins with early colonisation in the south east (Tasmania, Melbourne, Sydney) and discusses how alien British colonisers of all walks of life felt; how very difficult it was for them, initially, to ‘settle’ — that is, to settle in. As Britons they were in the wrong place. But — and this really is Anderson’s simple but crucial scholarly innovation — the mismatch between a person and their place, that is the local geography and climate around them, was not just an inconvenience or something that made people feel miserable or uncomfortable. Rather, for the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, mismatch between people and place produced illness and disease. Cute as it sounds now, this logic governed medicine and public health interventions through most of the nineteenth century and in certain fields, into the 20th. It took generations, Anderson shows, for the alien-ness of British people in the south east to dissipate, for their sense of being ‘white’ and out of place to disappear from notice — for them to belong, feel at home, that is, to feel like they owned the place. Geography, climate, and place really were central to medicine as a field of knowledge, to its own theories and therapeutic rationales. It was therefore drawn upon as one way of ‘knowing the country’ (p. 31) as Anderson puts it, and colonising it, one might add. Medicine was one available tool to align all these white bodies with their new place.

Science created the idea of race in the eighteenth century, and invalidated it in the twentieth.

The middle section of Anderson’s book travels north and to the early twentieth century. This was the tropical north where ‘whites’ (the term was by now far more used) once again felt alien and out of place. There was a long tradition in British imperial science and medicine suggesting that whites could not thrive in tropical climates, that permanent and successful white settlement was simply not physically or ‘racially’ possible. There was extensive discussion about what this meant for the British in the West Indian colonies, in India, in Ceylon.

The idea that whites were simply physiologically, immunologically, and anatomically unfitted for the tropical climate was a problem, to say the least, for the Queensland government in the early twentieth century. The various immigration and deportation acts which made up the original ‘White Australia Policy’ left the Queensland sugar industry without labour, or rather, required the industry to turn to white men for labour. In a remarkably explicit way, governments called in tropical medicine experts, and whiteness and whites became an object of major political and biological scrutiny. Anderson details exhaustively this biomedical project undertaken in Townsville, in Sydney, and in Melbourne from the 1910s through to the 1940s. Many of the tropical medicine experts in the interwar years Anderson has studied were intent on proving scientifically and biologically that white men could labour in the tropics, that white women would remain fertile and that white children would thrive. In the past and in certain colonial circumstances of which ‘white Australia’ is a pristine example, ‘White’ was one of the constantly changing nominations and categorisations of biological race. Like ‘Negro’ or ‘Mongol’ or ‘Aboriginal’, the white Australian was to be studied (and as Anderson shows so clearly was studied) physiologically, pathologically, and biochemically.

In my own work, I am constantly surprised by how often and how easily medical and public health workers in this period wrote of themselves and of non-indigenous Queenslanders as both ‘white’ and as ‘colonisers’. In the past, experts drew explicit attention both to their race as white, and to the fact that, in being out of place, they were in someone else’s place. Not that this particularly bothered most of them, but the sense of themselves as out-of-place ‘white colonisers’ so clear and explicit in this earlier period, is now for the most part so deeply hidden as to be unremarkable. Uncovering this might be seen as one project of reconciliation. It is rarely understood, however, just how explicitly past generations understood themselves as white, for very different reasons and in very different ways than the more recent postcolonial, post-Mabo, self-reflection of white Australians as white.

The third section of the book moves south again to Adelaide and the central deserts, and explores the growing scientific as well as government interest in ‘half-castes’ and their assimilability into whiteness. Anderson’s description of the Adelaide-Harvard survey of half-castes is fascinating. It was in its own terms both an amazing success and a deep failure, because those involved came to recognise the methodological impossibility of their classifications, or as Anderson puts it, the ‘breakdown of the classificatory grid’ of race (p. 234). This work contributed to the widespread abandonment of racial categories in the post-war period. The American half of this team was one of the most influential biological anthropologists to become first scientifically and then politically disenchanted with ‘race’. Anderson quotes Birdsell’s textbook from 1972 advising against the use of ‘race’ because it is ‘scientifically undefinable and carries social implications that are harmful and disruptive’, and that it is necessary to ‘disarm racist dogma and argument’ (p. 235). And so ‘race’ started to disappear from the biological sciences, a disappearance well documented in the history of science.

The connection between race and racism as concepts is not an easy one.

But did ‘race’ disappear or become discredited in the same way in the social sciences and the human sciences? In the 1970s new and politicised ‘race relations’ studies proliferated in Australian scholarship — Henry Reynolds’ edited collection from 1978 Race Relations in North Queensland, Ann Curthoys’ PhD from Macquarie, Gale and Brookman’s Race Relations in Australia — and that’s just the start. For this generation of Aboriginal and white activists and scholars, the concept of race offered the concept of ‘racism’.

But the connection between race and racism as concepts is not an easy one. One of my children’s books, What Do We Think About Racism? repeats the difficulty. ‘We are all part of one race — the human race. But racism divides people’, I read to them, and I’m sure they get more confused. The subsequent generation of postcolonial scholars (Anderson among them) have both undone the history of ‘race’ for us, but also require ‘race’ and ‘racism’ as the governing principles of their work. Is the genealogy of the concept of ‘racism’ necessarily the same as, or even tied to the race science Anderson details? I’m not sure that it is, which slightly complicates Anderson’s aspiration for a world without ‘race’.

They say that the crucial job of history is to make the present strange, to open up given categories for question, for undoing and for rearranging. Once you have read this book, the seemingly straightforward, seemingly necessary idea of ‘race’ becomes very strange indeed.

Alison Bashford is Senior Lecturer in the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry at the University of Sydney. She has published widely on the history of medicine and public health in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain and Australia.