A decade ago, American historian Peter Kolchin critically observed that “whiteness” studies were proliferating at a rapid pace.1 Kolchin interpreted the development favourably, while pointing out that the field was still in its infancy and as such did not shy away from listing the shortcomings in the emerging literature. Kolchin criticized the lack of precision with regard to the multiple meanings of “whiteness” and called for closer attention to historical and geographical context. Above all, he argued the need to include how marginalised people perceived the development of white settler societies. Kolchin hoped that a further decade of “whiteness” studies would overcome these limitations. Now, his hopes have been fulfilled by scholars such as Gregory D. Smithers, lecturer in American History at the University of Aberdeen.
With the publication of his PhD thesis, Smithers provides a stimulating analysis of “white identity” in the changing context of racial thought in nineteenth-century America and Australia. He notes striking similarities in the understandings of “whiteness”, unsurprising perhaps as both English settler societies shared cultural and intellectual traditions. The quest and maintenance of racial homogeneity was seen as crucial to uphold a stable social order in which “whites” occupied the top rank. Smithers shows that related ideas were applied differently in each geographical context to achieve specific ways of nation-building. Whereas Australians believed in its transformative power, Americans regarded “whiteness” as a powerful - but very fragile - category that was in need of protection.
As shown by his extensive bibliography, Smithers has drawn on a diverse and wide collection of archival sources and secondary literature to present the history of “settler colonial whiteness” from the 1780s to 1890. He does not follow a simple comparative approach, rather chooses to uncover the complex links between America and Australia through themes of science, sexuality and race. Smithers examines how pseudo-scientific theories and ideas evolved and circulated on a global scale, and, by contrasting the selected case studies, how these operated on a local level. Smithers applies trans-national methodologies and demonstrates how a historical study can effectively combine both a comparative and transnational approach.
Divided into two interrelated parts, the study covers the chosen timeframe in a chronological order. Smithers begins the first chapter with an examination of the idea of “good breeding” as it originated in 18th century England. From England, he argues, the notion was transferred to the American and Australian context to frame the relations of the white Americans and white Australian settlers respectively to African-American, Native Americans and Indigenous Australians. Privileging an actor-centred narrative (style), Smithers outlines the split in the scientific community between the supporters of human evolution, the Pritchardian and later Darwinian view, and those who believed in fixed racial types, a view that was connected to the American School of Ethnology. While British missionaries aimed at assimilating Australian Aborigines to settler civilization, American officials adopted a policy of segregation intending to “preserve and ‘improve’ the ‘Indian’ as a race” (p. 66). Moreover, the latter were dedicated to the justification of the enslavement of African Americans by scientific means.
Smithers emphasises the emergence of Social Darwinism and eugenic “science” as a racial thinking which intensified throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. In this context, he refers to the “germ theory” as a significant threshold in medical science. According to the germ theory disease emanated from micro-organisms, and not from local environments, as was then believed. Unfortunately, he fails to provide deeper insight into this aspect. As shown by other Australian scholars, such as Warwick Anderson, fears of contagion were racialised, albeit not in regard to Aborigines but to Asian immigrants who were defined as one significant Other opposing one’s definition of “whiteness”.2 Despite this shortcoming, Smithers provides a detailed account of the misuse of scientific reasoning as a justification of the introduction of the exclusive White Australia Policy.
The second part of the book addresses the issue of how evolving ideas of “whiteness” were adapted in specific geographical and cultural contexts. In chapter four and five, Smithers highlights striking similarities between the missionary programs respectively among Cherokee Indians in South-East America and the Aboriginal peoples of New South Wales. However, he does not recount this development strictly from the perspective of missionaries. Instead, Smithers is dedicated to “uncover the views of subaltern peoples on science, sexuality and race” (p. 100). Based on a vast range of primary sources such as slave records, political documents, missionary accounts and oral histories, Smithers depicts the racial boundaries faced by Cherokee Indians, Native Americans of mixed descent and slaves. In particular, he emphasises the way in which slave-owners aimed to control the sexual life of African-American women. Likewise, he points out, that Aboriginal women were victims of sexual exploitation by white male settlers. In this context, infanticide was one form of resistance to maintain control of family formation. As Smithers admits, he faces the problem of absent written records by Indigenous Australians, thus limiting the possibility to recount their views. He aims to solve the problem with the use of other material such as missionary reports. Thus, he is able to unveil how missionaries unaware of their own racism actively engaged in applying evolutionary theories to Aboriginal Australians. In enforcing acculturation and biological assimilation through intermarriage, missionaries used “whiteness” to exercise power. However, documented encounters of resistance show that Aboriginal Australians continually fought such abuses.
In the last two chapters, Smithers continues to point out similarities between both missionary programs between the 1860s to the 1890s. These decades marked a period of expansion and settlement in both America and Australia. Whereas the Reconstruction period witnessed dramatic evolutions regarding relations between “blacks” and “whites”, the discovery of gold triggered a new immigrant wave to Australia. White Americans expressed racial anxieties as former slaves “tested the limits of their newly won freedom” (p. 142). Similarly to Native Americans, African-Americans were aware that to be “white” provided one with political, economic and social rights that were denied to “blacks”. As Smithers summarises, “whiteness” articulated racial superiority, but was also seen as a fragile biological category in need of legal protection. Concerns about its dilution therefore resulted in bans on interracial marriages as well as Jim Crow statutes. As Smithers shows subaltern people “refused to see an imagined white purity as a synonym for civilization and citizenship” (p. 164). In contrast, Australian missionaries adhered to the program of “breeding out the colour” among the Aboriginal population (p. 166). While “full-blood” Aborigines were considered a “doomed race” condemned to disappear, Indigenous peoples of mixed descent remained the target of colonial governance. Smithers skilfully highlights that the segregation of Aborigines in reserves constituted, similarly to the repatriation of South Pacific Islanders, called Kanakas, and the introduction of immigration restrictions to prevent the entrance of non-Europeans, one way of reproducing “whiteness” in Australia.
Altogether, Smithers offers a long-awaited and welcome study which charts the evolution of “whiteness” as a significant category in the settler societies of Australia and the United States. His innovative approach combining a trans-national perspective with a detailed comparative analysis is praiseworthy and provides for a compelling, multi-layered narrative. Still, throughout the study of science, sexuality and race, comparative history dominates the scene, in particular in the second part of the book. Here, he provides above all a parallel study of both societies and is concerned to give “the oppressed” a voice as well as to highlight power relations. Nevertheless, Smithers adds a striking new dimension to “whiteness” studies that will be of interest to both experts and curious readers.
1 Peter Kolchin, Whiteness Studies. The New History of Race in America, in: The Journal of American History 89 (2002) 1, 41 pars., <http://historycooperative.org/journals/jah/89.1/kolchin.html> (02.09.2010).
2 Russel McGregor, The White Man in the Tropics, Sir Robert Philip Lecture Series, No. 5, Thuringowa, 2008, <http://www.townsville.qld.gov.au/resources/3873.pdf> (02.08.2010); Warwick Anderson, The Cultivation of Whiteness. Science, Health and Racial Destiny in Australia, Carlton 2005.