Thinking Relationally about Race, Blackness and Indigeneity in Australia

Alexander Weheliye & Irene Watson 

4 July 2018, Female Orphan School, Western Sydney University, Parramatta South campus.

Registrations are now full for this event.

A one-day Symposium to be held at Western Sydney University on the occasion of the visit of Northwestern University African-American studies Professor, Alexander Weheliye, to Sydney. The Symposium centres around the affordances of Weheliye’s core ideas of racializing assemblages for relational understandings of race, blackness and indigeneity in Australia. Professor Irene Watson, University of South Australia, will join Alexander Weheliye in opening and guiding the conversation.

One of the figures evoked in Alexander Weheliye’s book, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human is the Trinidadian intellectual, C.L.R. James, whose impact on the study of race, colonialism and migration continues to be felt thirty years after his death. James’ 1969 pronouncement on black studies is the trigger for Weheliye’s discussion of the ‘object of knowledge’ that, according to Hortense Spillers, black studies needs to become. He writes,

‘Instead of assuming that black studies reflects an already existing series of real objects, we need to draw attention to the complex ways this field of inquiry contributes to, or articulates, the creation of objects of knowledge such as the black community, black culture, and, indeed, black studies. Continuing to identify blackness as one of black studies’s primary objects of knowledge with black people as real subjects (just as the human and Man appear as synonymous in western modernity) rather than an articulated object of knowledge accepts too easily that race is a given natural and/or cultural phenomenon and not an assemblage of forces that must continuously articulate non-white subjects as not-quite-human.’

Weheliye’s insistence on this does not mean that Black scholars are incidental to Black studies. Quite the contrary. In quoting C.L.R. James’s remark that ‘to talk about black studies as if it’s something that concerned black people is an utter denial,’ Weheliye is not dismissing the centrality of this scholarship as done by Black people. Rather, he notes that James’s aim is to ‘underline the significance of black thought to western modernity in toto.’ The scholarship of Black people, who are the first concerned by this significance is of paramount importance. In Weheliye’s work then is the possibility to see how the construction of black studies as a disciplinary object allows it to exit the realm of the ethnographic into ‘black studies as a mode of knowledge production’ with central significance for our understanding of the world.

Black feminist and queer thought in particular are key to the development of Weheliye’s theorization of racializing assemblages and his critique of key Eurocentric work on the idea of the Human. He writes,

‘I draw on [Sylvia] Wynter’s and [Hortense] Spillers’s work in order to highlight and impede the precarious status of black feminism in the academy and beyond, since black feminism has sustained African American cultural theory at the same time as it has grounded the institutional existence of black studies for the last few decades but is nevertheless continually disavowed.’

In Chapter 6 he explicates his use of ‘queer’ ‘as a shorthand for the interruption of the violence that attends to the enforcement of gender and sexual norms, especially as it pertains to blackness.’ In his study of ‘racial slavery and its afterlives’, blackness is bound to ‘queering and ungendering.’ In Weheliye’s work, therefore, blackness, black feminism and queer forms of being both disrupt settled (white) knowledges and provide possibilities of seeing and making the world otherwise.

In Australia, the consideration of blackness cannot proceed without the centering of the relationship with Indigeneity and the conversation between First Nations (Blak) and non-First Nations Black people. Important First Nations scholarly and artistic work has addressed the failure to address the particularity of First Nations experience (cf. Moreton-Robinson 2000). Important as this work has and continues to be, many are now less concerned with centering whiteness in their critiques and are more committed to doing ‘the work’ of Black Studies, as E. Patrick Johnson notes in the introduction to No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies, without needing to ‘compel a response.’ A key question for this symposium is what does ‘the work’ look like within the particular landscape of critical race studies in Australia at a time of heightened questioning of the relationship to whiteness and the potentials for bypassing its ‘burning’ supremacy, as Bryan Mukandi and Chelsea Bond – channeling Fanon – put it, in the pursuit of sovereignty and against racism.

The swell of Black Studies, seeping out from the borders of Critical Race Theory, and across a range of disciplines and practices, especially as it is worked out in dialogue with black feminist and queer thinking, has a particular ‘Australian’ dynamic then, borne of this ongoing Black-First Nations (Blak) conversation.

This one-day symposium will allow the opportunity to think with the affordances of black thought and the intersections with Weheliye’s idea of racializing assemblages and what they look like in the Australian context. We will engage with Irene Watson’s important reminder that,

‘Aboriginal peoples’ laws, knowledges and philosophies remain relational, and opposed to a Eurocentric approach, which is to separate and compartmentalise knowledge.’

Female Orphan School, Western Sydney University

Thus, we might ask how we can study the productive functions of racial coloniality without sidelining knowledges that pre-existed the first moment of colonization and what they bring to our understandings of our current predicament. How can we respect the various lineages of Black and First Nations thought and give voice to those continuing to build more and more complex objects of inquiry that ultimately work towards the deconstruction of the power of racializing assemblages? How does a consideration of the First Nations relationship to blackness and its situation within a global trans-Indigenous conversation shift the perspective on black studies as it has mainly been developed in the US (settler)-colonial context? What can this broadening of scope bring in terms of Weheliye’s central challenge to the provincialization of black studies? What can a dialogue between Black and First Nations scholars add to Weheliye’s claim that black studies is essentially an interrogation of ‘humanity’? And, thus, how do non-Black and non-First Nations people of colour or otherwise racialized people listen to and work with this thought without, at the same time, engaging in forms of recolonization?

With the seemingly unending dehumanization of Black, First Nations and refugee life in and by the Australian state, and the growing assertiveness of a reactionary and fascist right-wing, these questions appear more than urgent.

The symposium is supported by the School of Humanities and Communication Arts of Western Sydney University, the Australian Critical Race & Whiteness Studies Association and the Institute for Culture & Society.

View or download  the programme

There is no registration fee for the symposium but participants are requested to join the Australian Critical Race & Whiteness Studies Association if not already members. 

*In preparation for the event, participants may benefit from listening to this interview with Alexander Weheliye.


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