Wolfe and Jacobs on Whiteness, Sexuality, and Colonialism

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Patrick Wolfe, “Land, Labor, and Difference: Elementary Structures of Race,” American Historical Review, Vol. 106, No 3 (June 2001).

Margaret Jacobs. White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.

Patrick Wolfe sets the stage for Margaret Jacobs’ book in his article on racial discourse and its impacts in Australia, the United States and Brazil. He argues that race is but one of the various “regimes of difference” (867) that help distinguish colonizers from the colonized, and that the discourses surrounding miscegenation can help reclarify racial contexts, and establish a “foundational distinction between land and labor” (887). White colonizers’ relationship with Native Americans and Australian Aborigines centered on assimilation in order to better facilitate the appropriation of their land, whereas alienating, “othering” and excluding blacks in the U.S. better facilitated enslavement and utilization of their labor. He lastly argues that Brazil’s multifaceted color/race system was more complex. It involved less racialization but more colorization, which allowed for internal social flexibility but also reinforced the separation of those whose black skin color guaranteed them a spot at the bottom of the social ladder.

Wolfe first focuses on Australian settler colonialism and Aboriginal policy, arguing that there were several phases of sequence for settler colonization, including confrontation, carceration (including removal) and assimilation (biological and cultural). Furthermore, the removal of Aboriginal (and in the U.S., Indian) children from their families (the central subject of Jacobs’ book) was integral to white colonizers’ methods and practice of the doctrine of terra nullius, (“nobody’s land”). This doctrine expressed the idea that because Aboriginal and Indian concepts of private property were different than those of whites, that they had no proper claim to the land. Furthermore, if whites worked the land, then it became their private property, and justified its removal from native claims. By removing children and culturally and genetically incorporating them into white society, whites could eventually dominate as a race, and enforce the idea of privately propertied individuals as the keystone of society, capitalism and a new industrial order. He then astutely points out key differences in white perceptions of sexuality and physicality between Australian Aborigines, and U.S. blacks and Indians. He argues that the rhetoric of backwardness and physical/mental deficiencies ascribed to both the Aborigines and U.S. blacks, ironically could not have been the central feature of Australian or U.S. Indian racial contexts, “otherwise the last thing white authorities would have set out to do would have been to incorporate it into the white gene pool” (874).

Incorporating and expanding on Wolfe’s arguments, Margaret Jacobs argues that assimilation of Aboriginal and U.S. Indian children was not just about taking of land, the enforcement of white private property and capitalist ideals and biological elimination. It involved reinterpreting ideas of gender, space, body, and sexuality in order to enlarge settler colonialist goals. She focuses on the idea that white women’s concept of maternalism was another key justification for child removal. White women’s involvement in practices of removal was a both contrasting mix of nascent white feminism and an extension of violent colonial appropriation of native lands and lives, cloaked in exalted ideals of motherliness and Christian Protestant benevolence and charity. Colonization of natives-particularly native women-became even more complete when it was enacted in the intimate spaces of homes and schools, and on their physical bodies via physical removal, strict oversight of sexuality and reproduction, and harsh physical punishment for “misdeeds.” There were some key differences between the U.S. and Australian practices– in the U.S. women found a more receptive audience in male government officials and gained new authority, whereas in Australia, male officials rebuffed Australian women’s efforts and gained less ground in their influence on governmental policy. Additionally, there were differences in the outcomes of child removal -while Aboriginal children were meant to be permanently separated from their families in order to permanently effect biological assimilation, Indian children were meant to return home after a period of years in order to influence and enact the civilizing process on their families and tribes – a more culturally assimilative process rather than biological. Jacobs also argues that maternalism was an ironic ideology – in their crusading efforts to “better” indigenous people, white women purported to uphold the bonds of motherhood while breaking up families and undermining ties.

Lauren MacIvor Thompson