Racial Literacy as Embodied Practice: For the Land

by Lara Fielding

Informed by my position as a white settler colonial learner, living, loving and working on the stolen land of the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people, I view racial literacy as an active and ongoing practice in critically reading and understanding modes of race representation. Transmissions of ideas about race occur via representations, and are socially constructed. Yet, they are reiterated in discourse until they become inscribed in history and language, embodied, and communicated intergenerationally. In so-called Australia, and for those who identify as Indigenous, people of colour, and/or white, the implications of this discourse on lived ideas, and individual realities, are very real. Stakes in representation are high, because of the violent history of colonial expansion in this country; injustices perpetrated, and truths buried. Race and whiteness were borne together out of imperialism. ‘Discretion’, exercised by the judiciary, in governance, or by the police, assists in building the legitimacy of a carceral and meritocratic state that disproportionately affects Indigenous people. 


Racial literacy is a practice that personally provokes challenging encounters with my own emotionally defensive moves and tendencies to lean towards racial comfort, as I reap the benefits of colonialism every day. It is knowing when to speak and when to listen with generosity. Crucially, racial literacy is a practice firmly rooted in my own self-understanding, that gives way to public political action. It is a practice that takes roots at my dinner table at home, cognisant of the histories of white settler colonial identity within my family structure. Racial literacy may be applied at the intersection of other discourses, such as my queerness, gender, ability and class. It is entangled with discourses about extraction economies and climate change. There is an extremely vital personal investment in visioning for my life, and what I would like country to become. This is the beginning of what I believe racial literacy means in an academic setting – knowing that I am involved; there is no standing exterior; that I have to take a position.


Lani Guinier defines race as a framework, adaptive in masking and coding information. Racial literacy is therefore not a ‘spot the racist’ approach, but should be approached structurally. Peggy McIntosh posits, ‘I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance’. Defining race structurally is powerful; it comes with the understanding of how systems of oppression live in everyone, in different ways. As harm is an eventuality, this has taught me to take accountability for the ways in which I have benefitted from, and reproduced, colonialism every day. Conversely, Michelle T. Johnson defines race as language, urging the practice of racial literacy away from racially liberal concepts of ‘an “epistemology of ignorance” that regards knowledge of racism and race as hazardous to white dominance’. I am active in building my linguistic competency so as to ‘read’ race and its implications. I acknowledge that as a white settler colonial learner, I hold and have held the privilege to choose not to think about race. I have found myself participating in ‘revelatory’ language when describing my racial literacy studies, as certain experiences of whiteness had been ‘revealed’ to me, once invisibilised. Indigenous folks and people of colour do not have this liberty. Although, by Guinier, race operates structurally, the agential individual implications of experiencing racism are very real. Racial literacy seeks to ‘read’ the truth about these lived realities. France Twine defines race as a reading practice. Racial literacy is an attempt to hold all these theses at once. As a racial literacy student, I must learn to ‘read’ the framework of race as an active practice, and give credibility to marginalised experiences, on an individual and institutional level.


Racial literacy may be applied to understanding race representations in so-called Australia. It is important to keep in mind the unconscious and automatic component of race. ‘Representations of [the Indigenous] “other” [as]…uncivilised…treacherous, lazy, drunken, childish, cunning, dirty…savage’ may insert themselves into the colonial psyche and ‘leak out’ even if I am aware of them. An example of race representation may be found in Nyoongar artist Dianne Jones’ reappropriation of Max Dupain’s 1937 ‘Sunbaker’ photograph, with their own ‘Sunbaker’ in 2003. Jones challenges Dupain’s centring of white bodies in Australian iconography, by centring Indigenous bodies instead in the frame. Australia as a nation is founded on ideas of whiteness that necessitate the erasure of Indigenous presence, terra nullius embodied, and this is enacted extensively in histories of ‘iconic’ photography. Non-recognition or misrecognition of Indigeneity in representation may have the effect of ‘mirror[ing] a negative picture of the self…[and] distorted mode of being’ towards the Indigenous viewer. Colonial representations sustain the universality of whiteness as humanness. The creation and homogenising of the ‘other’ is the product of white imagination. There is no more powerful position than being ‘just’ human. Jones offers a brazen alternative to colonial knowledge production. The importance of self-determined Indigenous knowledge production, such as in Jones’ work, resides in re-centring Indigenous bodies and giving credibility to Indigenous experiences, as well as promoting avenues for resurgent expression. The history of colonial representation is violent, and racial literacy, the active practice of ‘reading’ the framework of race, offers the opportunity to disentangle its complexity, and re-centre the voices of Indigenous people and people of colour.


The practice of racial literacy must be informed by the ongoing locating of one’s racial positioning and experience. Martin Nakata makes clear that the non-Indigenous subject must begin by interrogating their positionality and how they come to know; understanding that their ‘social position is discursively constituted within…complex sets of social relations’. Gary Foley affirms this sentiment, stating that, ‘the first thing you need to do is not go and talk to any blackfellas at all really…You need to think hard and fast about who you are… In the process of sorting out [any psychological identity problems of your own] you will reach a higher level of consciousness that will make you better prepared, then, to come and work in Indigenous communities’. It is important for non-Indigenous people to consider their intentions in working to support Indigenous struggles, in order to offset the deficit narrative that lies in impulses to ‘help’ non-Indigenous people. Ultimately, practising self-understanding requires learning personal accountability. It is learning the difference between uncomfortability and risk to safety. It is learning when to speak when feeling uncomfortable. It is paying attention and giving credibility to marginalised experiences. Land even suggests ‘laughing at oneself’ as it ‘does not demand an Indigenous person to help, forgive, approve of or make non-Indigenous people feel better’. As a non-Indigenous learner, I witness the growing pains of encountering new knowledge that provokes emotion and resistance, forcing me to see the world in a new way. I have found merit in relinquishing a defensive position and leaning into uncomfortability and vulnerability, as it opens up the potentiality for a transformative experience.


Land advocates that self-understanding must next be accompanied by ‘collectivist and public political action’. Freedom to choose a level of involvement politically, rather than it being inherited, is a privilege. Public political action, for non-Indigenous supporters of Indigenous struggles, may manifest in self-organised reading groups, public gatherings, and an attentiveness to place and local struggles. It is the responsibility of non-Indigenous people to challenge racism both in settings where Indigenous people are present and situations when they are not. 


‘Just go home, to the dinner table. You’ll find your racist. Raise the subject of “Aboriginal…” – you’ll find the really hard-core racist arguments that are thrown up. And if you can’t, as an individual, change the attitudes of someone who’s really close to you and you personally care about, then don’t think that you’re going to be able to do anything about changing the attitudes of the broader society.’ 


On reflection, the ‘dinner table’ was the first place where I encountered ideas about race, and operationalised white loyalty or racial comfort that operates to silence conversations about race, deeming them taboo or unsafe. Finding a way to respond at this interpersonal level, between non-Indigenous people, can ‘result in eventual changes to institutional culture, policies and practices’. Taking the initiative to speak with generosity may alleviate the labour from Indigenous people who would otherwise. Yet, this tension must be balanced with learning how and when to listen.


Racial literacy is the active practice of ‘reading’ the framework of race. It is a practice that is firmly rooted in my shifting self-understanding, one that gives way to collectivist public political action. It is a discursive practice that takes root at the dinner table, in the classroom, on the street and online. Racial literacy is learning to pay attention and giving credibility to marginalised experiences, which may be unfamiliar to me. Donna Haraway argues that as the ‘consequences of the failure to invent the needed decolonial conversations ramify into the present…there is also an extraordinary story of resurgence and partial healing to be told’. The work of Dianne Jones exemplifies a challenge to the perceived universality of whiteness, by de-centring white bodies from Australian iconography. As a white settler colonial learner, I argue that the practice of racial literacy is pushing through uncomfortability, tendencies to racial comfort, or defensive moves, in order to inform myself of the violent histories of settler colonialism that are embodied and inscribed on these stolen lands, and in my psyche, and on the collective psyches of those around me. This knowledge is powerful; both for a personal investment in visioning for my life and what I would like country to become, and for advocating for Indigenous self-determination in law, in governance, and for the land.


DiAngelo, Robin. “Chapter 12: Common Patterns of Well-intentioned White People.” In What Does it Mean to be White: Developing White Racial Literacy, edited by Robin DiAngelo, 198-219. New York: Peter Lang Publishing,  2012.

Dyer, Richard. White. London: Routledge, 2012.

Guinier, Lani. “From Racial Liberalism to Racial Literacy: Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Divergence Dilemma.” The Journal of American History 91, no. 1 (2004): 92-118.

Haraway, Donna. Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2017.

Johnson, Michelle T. “Race(ing) Around in Rhetoric and Composition Circles: Racial Literacy as the Way Out.” UNC Greensboro. Published 2009. https://libres.uncg.edu/ir/uncg/f/Johnson_uncg_0154D_10134.pdf.

Jones, Dianne. “Sunbaker.” Art Gallery of NSW. Viewed 2nd May 2020. https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/channel/clip/216/.

Land, Clare. Decolonising Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles. London: Zed Books Ltd, 2015.

McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” The NY Model for Batterer Programs. Viewed 3rd May 2020. http://www.nymbp.org/reference/WhitePrivilege.pdf.

Moreton-Robinson, Aileen. Whitening Race: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2004.

Nakata, Martin. “The Cultural Interface.” (Re)Contesting Indigenous Knowledges & Indigenous Studies  36, no.1 (2019): 7-14.

Taylor, Charles. “The Politics of Recognition.” In Multiculturalism, edited by Amy Gutmann, 25-74. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992. 

Twine, France W. “A White Side of Black Britain: The Concept of Racial Literacy.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 27, no.6 (2004): 878-907.

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