Drawing the Global Colour Line

Marilyn Lake & Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality (Cambridge University Press 2008)

1colourThis shared the 2009 Prime Minister’s Literary Award (non-fiction category). Otherwise, it hasn’t made much of a splash. I didn’t have to wait in line to get my copy from the local library.

The book starts brilliantly, quoting W E B DuBois’s 1910 essay, ‘The Souls of White Folk’:

the discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing – a nineteenth and twentieth century matter indeed. … What is whiteness that one should so desire it? … Whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen.

(The whole article was reprinted in the Monthly Review in 2003. He’s a formidable writer, one I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read until now.)

The historical narrative starts with the arrival of an entrepreneurial Chinese man in Melbourne in 1855, two years after the discovery of gold, and ranges around Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, California, British Columbia, tracing the progress of the ideal of ‘white men’s countries’, and along with it the betrayal of promises made by the British Empire and US to their non-Anglo-Saxon subjects and citizens.

It’s a hard read, especially in the first two sections – ‘Discursive frameworks’ and ‘Transnational solidarities’ – where public intellectuals of more than a hundred years ago solemnly put forward blatantly racist propositions that are still awfully familiar, but with very little of the dog-whistling, denial and misdirection we’re used to these days, and then democracy-loving politicians proceed to build on each other’s successes in excluding and disenfranchising anyone who is classified as not white. We have our noses rubbed in the arrogant and repulsive racist atmosphere in which the Australian Commonwealth and the Union of South Africa were founded and first California and then the rest of the US chose ‘racial solidarity’ even with recent bitter enemies and legislated to keep Asian, particularly Japanese, immigrants away from their shores.

In some ways it’s like a horror story, a sort of I know what you did last century. The scientific consensus reached in the 1940s, that ‘race’ was ‘not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth, which had “created an enormous amount of damage, taking a heavy toll in human lives causing intolerable suffering”,’* followed by the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, amounts to the moment where we wake up and discover it was all a terrible dream … or was it? That moment is followed by a long tail, in which the ‘white men’s countries’ one by one open their doors and legislate against racial discrimination, until ‘Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress sweep into power and dismantle the last bastion of white supremacy.’

Sadly, the book lacks the visceral appeal of (I imagine) even very bad horror writing. It marshalls a vast amount of material, and it has hugely enriched my understanding of the White Australia Policy, among other things, but the prose is heavy going, and the authors are often absent except as competent and passionate compilers of evidence. This may well be necessary when there is such a complex field to cover, but it makes me wonder how the arguments went in the judging panel for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. I know literature is a slippery term, but oughtn’t the quality of the prose (or verse), the way the author’s (or authors’) mind makes itself felt in the work play at least as large a part as the importance of its contents?

The chapter on the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 is a rich exception to the prevailing drabness. The Australian Prime Minister, W M Hughes, emerges there as a lively fall-guy cum villain: he vociferous opposes  the Japanese delegation’s diplomatic, courteous and eminently rational push to include a paragraph on racial equality in the covenant of the League of Nations. The other white leaders, who generally despise the uncouth Australian, say that if it was up to them they’d include the paragraph, but you know, the Australians (who didn’t actually have a seat at the table) won’t stand for it … Hughes went to the grave thinking of this as a great victory. Someone ought to make a movie of that chapter.

Let me finish with two shiny factoids. First, when the Australian and New Zealand armies steamed to the Middle East in the First World War, their troopships were protected by the Japanese fleet. (Suck on that, Billy Hughes!) Second, tangential to the book’s main narrative (and incidentally an excellent example of the book’s prose style):

Australia remained constitutionally dependent on Britain and sovereignty remained formally with the monarch, but with effective sovereignty in matters of race, the quest for political independence lost its urgency. Not until 1926, with the Balfour Declaration, did Australia gain full power over foreign relations and the implementation of treaties. In 1931, the Statute of Westminster acknowledged the full statutory independence of the Dominions, but Australia didn’t sign until 1942.

Yet another thing we weren’t told at school!