The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty by Aileen Moreton-Robinson
The White Possessive is a powerful compilation, bringing together a decade of previously published writing by distinguished Indigenous Australian scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson (Goenpul). The book makes a persuasive case that critical indigenous studies, as a rising field encompassing scholarship by and about issues relevant to Indigenous peoples globally, should pay greater attention to race, and, specifically, the critique of whiteness. Moreton-Robinson argues that "Indigenous studies scholarship has rarely interrogated the mutual constitution of the possessiveness of patriarchal white sovereignty and racialization," despite the centrality of what she terms "white possessive logics" in the lives of Indigenous peoples in Canada, the United States, Hawai'i, New Zealand, and Australia (xiii). She defines "possessive logics" as a concept that marks "a mode of rationalization … underpinned by an excessive desire to invest in reproducing and reaffirming the nation-state's ownership, control and domination" over Indigenous lands and bodies (xii).
At issue is the contention, shared by Moreton-Robinson and other indigenous studies scholars like Chris Andersen, that too often the field has focused too much on defining Indigenous cultural difference, despite the fact that this has not lead to greater [End Page 238] appreciation of Indigenous peoples' knowledge by mainstream scholarship and has perpetuated fixed and monolithic ideals of Indigenous culture (xv). By shifting the focus from cultural difference to critiques of whiteness, Moreton-Robinson calls indigenous studies scholars to seek greater complexity in "analyzing both the conditions of our existence and the disciplinary knowledges that shape and produce Indigeneity" (xvii–xviii). Moreton-Robinson has clearly led the way in pursuing this work, beyond the writing included in this book. For example, she is the founding president of the Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association, which holds international conferences and published a biannual open-access journal from 2005–2015.
The central argument of the book is that Australia, the United States, Canada, and New Zealand are nations that are constructed as naturally white possessions by white settlers. Since the very beginnings of white settler colonialism, this construction has been haunted by the ongoing existence of Indigenous sovereignty and relationality that connects Indigenous peoples to ancestral beings and the land. Moreton-Robinson also makes clear throughout the book that the possessive logics of whiteness are fundamentally patriarchal and paternalistic. This intersectional focus is continuous with her first book, Talkin' Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism (2000). Overall, she argues, this fiction of Australia (and other white nation-states) being patriarchal white possessions "takes a great deal of work" to maintain, and the possessive logics that prop up this colonial lie take a variety of forms (xi). The book surveys a number of different examples of how these logics operate, especially in law and popular narratives about the nation.
Many chapters focus on the ways these logics operate specifically in Australia, analyzing topics including, for example, Native title law (especially in relation to the seminal Mabo and Yorta Yorta decisions in chapters 5 and 6) and foundational national narratives stemming from Captain Cook's performative possession of Australia and declaration of terra nullius or empty land (chapter 8). Yet the book continuously makes more global connections and arguably seeks to push the field of indigenous studies in this more expansive direction as well. Other chapters focus on issues specific to the United States, namely the erasure of Native Americans and Native American sovereignty from much of the scholarly literature about whiteness in the United States (chapter 4), and on international issues like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (chapter 12), where she analyzes how and why the declaration was initially vetoed by Australia, the United States, New Zealand, and Canada but was later adopted.
The book is organized into three thematic parts, namely: "Owning Property," "Becoming Propertyless," and "Being Property," each comprising four chapters. These themes refer to what Moreton-Robinson describes as "categories of proprietaryness … born of the episteme of Western culture, which has made manifest the existence of order functioning through the logic of possession" (xxiv). These [End Page 239] categories follow the book's general argument that white settlers are the only ones allowed to both own property and belong to the nation, while Indigenous peoples are made propertyless and continually denied rights to owning land. More broadly, she argues, "At an ontological and epistemological level, the Crown and subsequent governments have treated us as their property" (94). This results in Australia folding Indigenous peoples into the nation through discourses that proclaim them to be "equal citizens" while denying their right to self-determination and routinely subjecting them to state interventions. The chapters are relatively short and often repeat central conceptual framings about white possessive logics and the patriarchal white nation-state—which make them ideal for assigning individually in advanced undergraduate and graduate classrooms. Many chapters also provide thorough literature reviews of relevant work in whiteness studies, while also detailing that field's repeated failure to engage issues of indigeneity rather than rely on a black/white binary.
Moreton-Robinson's engagement with whiteness studies and African American studies is compelling but also leaves many questions open to be pursued further. In chapter 4, "Writing Off Treaties: Possession in the U.S. Critical Whiteness Literature," for example, she both draws from and critiques African-American studies scholars like Toni Morrison for leaving Native Americans outside the scope of their critiques of whiteness (48–49). While her argument about the need to stop making Native American dispossession invisible within critical scholarship about whiteness is well taken, it seems that Moreton-Robinson has missed the opportunity to engage in more depth how "being property" functions differently or similarly in the contexts of histories of African American slavery and Native American dispossession. Though likely published later than some of the book's chapters were originally, scholarship including work by Shona Jackson, Tiffany Lethabo King, and Kyle Mays Wabinaw, among others, have recently pushed this conversation further. Engagement with such work would have deepened the argument of The White Possessive. Part of what is missing here, and something that could have been a unique contribution by Moreton-Robinson, is added discussion of the different racial constructions of Indigenous peoples in Australia and the United States. Indigenous Australians have long been represented as Black under colonialism, while the category Native American has generally been racially distinguished from blackness and placed in closer proximity to whiteness under US settler colonialism (sometimes via discourses of "redness;" see, for example, Jenny Reardon and Kim TallBear's 2012 article "'Your DNA Is Our History': Genomics, Anthropology, and the Construction of Whiteness as Property" [Current Anthropology 53 (s5): 233–245]). This seems to be a key distinction that would benefit from more analysis and could strengthen our broader, comparative understandings of settler colonialism and white supremacy as global structures.
To be sure, the text encourages and seems to aim at providing a foundation [End Page 240] for more study of these issues. In chapter 9, "Toward a New Research Agenda: Foucault, Whiteness and Sovereignty," for example, Moreton-Robinson lays out an argument for engagement with Foucault's theory of biopower in indigenous studies and generates a number of questions to be taken up by other scholars in the field (131–132). One overarching question is: "To what extent does white possession circulate as a regime of truth that simultaneously constitutes white subjectivity and circumscribes the political possibilities of Indigenous sovereignty?" (131). The questions are generative and important but perhaps overlook the many indigenous studies scholars who do centrally engage Foucault and biopower in relation to Indigenous contexts (see Dian Million, Scott Morgensen, among others), though again, such works may postdate the date this chapter was originally, separately published (2006).
Pacific studies scholars may be particularly interested in chapter 3, "Bodies That Matter on the Beach," which examines the history of how beaches in Australia came to be seen as the proper domain of white settler masculinities via the roles of lifesavers and surfers. The chapter analyzes the 2005 Cronulla riots, in which xenophobic protests were sparked by an alleged assault of a white Australian lifesaver by an Arabic-speaking youth. Moreton-Robinson effectively points out the connections between this xenophobia and the protests' performance of repossessing the beach as white male property, which also continues the dispossession of Indigenous peoples (43). She further analyzes Indigenous artist Vernon Ah Kee's response to the Cronulla riots in his impactful art installation CantChant, which featured Indigenous surfers reclaiming space at the beach (44–46).
Overall, The White Possessive is a valuable, multifaceted text that provides a significant foundation for furthering global studies of whiteness, patriarchy, and settler colonialism. It has broad applications within the fields of Pacific studies and indigenous studies as well as other interdisciplinary studies of whiteness, patriarchy, and the law. The book inserts Indigenous concerns into literatures and theories that often render Indigenous peoples invisible. Readers seeking serious theoretical and practical engagement of how thoroughly modern discourses of rights related to land, property, and the human itself are premised on Indigenous dispossession in settler colonial nation-states will not be disappointed.