‘Handle With Care: On White Australian Invisibility in Non-White Dialogues’, by Stephen Pham


Photo by Alex Wisser.

Mum and I sat across from my math teacher, who had a red face and grey toothbrush moustache and tucked his brightly coloured King Gee striped polos into his King Gee stubbies. His name was also Mr Gee. “He could be a more conscientious student,” Mr Gee said. Mum turned to me. I said in Vietnamese, “Child need in order to sleep more.”

A Vietnamese lady with a bobcut and puffer jacket on the next table pissed herself laughing and said to my mum in Vietnamese, “How can you understand him? He’s saying everything wrong!”

Years later, I was discussing with a White uni tutor the ways I could represent a Vietnamese-Australian character speaking Vietnamese. While I initially used italicised Vietnamese, I decided that using Vietnamese syntax with English words would demonstrate more clearly the inability to articulate one’s thoughts as a second-generation child from a non-English speaking background. So, for example, instead of writing “Người múa cuối cùng của Mao không phải là cuốn sách cộng sản,” I’d write, “That Person Dance Marry Crazy of Mao no right is wrap book communist.” My White tutor said, “I enjoyed the italics. It was more authentic, like I was there.”

I stuck with my mangled Vietnamenglish and don’t regret it. Second-generation people of Vietnamese, Chinese, and Nigerian background have approached me after hearing or reading my story to say that they’ve felt the same “broken first language feels.” It was strange to connect with people on something I’d felt was private and, moreover, shameful. Perhaps there are still conversations to be had in these ‘broken’ languages in common, an imagined community, to echo the late Benedict Anderson,1 of second generation Australians who couldn’t perform authenticity for White voyeurism even if they wanted to.

‘Authenticity’ is a loaded term. So is ‘truth’.

The stories told in Tribunal, a performance piece devised by Karen Therese, the creative director of Powerhouse Youth Theatre, based in Fairfield, Western Sydney, in collaboration with the Darlinghurst, inner Sydney-based Griffin Theatre, are all true. Therese stages a Truth and Reconciliation Tribunal, as in South Africa and Palestine, and with this work—part verbatim theatre, part curated conversation—aims to foster conversation and draw parallels between Aboriginal peoples and asylum seekers.

Therese herself refuses the title of ‘director’ of the production, preferring instead the term ‘creative collaborator’ to emphasise the democratic process of creating Tribunal. Each of the stories have been written by their respective performers: Dharug/Yuin elder and actor Auntie Rhonda Grovenor Dixon, Afghani-Australian filmmaker Mahdi Mohammadi, Afghani-Australian actor Jawad Yaqoubi, White Australian artist and human rights activist Katie Green, White Australian academic and theatre-maker Dr Paul Dwyer, and, of course, White Australian arts activist Karen Therese.

This collaborative process that engages with non-White people as both performers and writers is unusual in Australian theatre, which, as playwright Andrew Bovell points out in his 2014 keynote address to Playwriting Australia, privileges Whiteness. Tribunal conspicuously works against the White supremacy of Australian theatre that occurs both onstage through casting decisions2 and behind the scenes through questions of accessibility of professional development.3

The keyword is ‘conspicuously’. While the production visibly engages with non-Whitenesses, Whiteness doesn’t disappear: it just goes unacknowledged. Take, for example, the description of Tribunal on Powerhouse Youth Theatre’s website—“Tribunal works to address Australia’s truth through telling the parallel stories of indigenous Australia and newly arrived refugees”—which omits White Australians, even as they make up half of the cast. Aboriginal peoples are racialised as black; refugees are racialised as not-quite-black but not-quite-White in the dialectic of national inclusion and exclusion proposed by Ghassan Hage in White Nation;4 and White Australia, in trying to stay unnoticed, never reconciles itself to being the source of all this racialisation.

Dwyer’s role as a Department of Immigration and Border Protection official is the epitome of Australian Whiteness as articulated by Hage. Dwyer’s fair skin, dark hair, blue eyes, and gender are the result of historical struggles over national power in settler-colonial Australia, these struggles occurring in a conceptual field that Hage calls Whiteness. Hage calls the individuals who aspire to occupy and govern this field, and thus the nation, White Australians. Dwyer expresses this governmental aspiration through his booming voice and authoritative language, borrowed from transcripts of immigration interviews, as he shoots impersonal questions at a nervous Mahdi. Here, Dwyer’s Whiteness is easily identifiable, and perhaps this historical identity, rooted in domination and control, makes him so dislikeable.

In the tribunal, the performers step forth and tell their stories to Auntie Rhonda, who wears a sacred possum skin cloak and sits in a chair placed front and centre between the two bleachers of audience members as the High Commissioner. Mahdi kneels, stands up, strolls, and dances all over the stage as he tells her of growing up in a large, conservative family in Afghanistan, becoming a feminist filmmaker and theatre-maker, and then seeking asylum in Australia, with an energetic performance that complements what’s already an excellent story. Projected onto the walls behind him are photos of busy university campuses, of dancers clad in colourful clothes, and of Mahdi himself.

Later on, after Auntie Rhonda invites Mahdi to sit in her chair, she commands the stage in speaking of growing up under the paternalistic Aborigines Protection (Amendment) Act (1940) that restricted her movements and expressions of culture, and then under the influence of her father who recovered from alcoholism to become an Aboriginal rights activist. Her story is also accompanied by photos of herself standing among other Aboriginal people on missions and of her father among other Aboriginal rights activists.

The presentation of Mahdi’s and Auntie Rhonda’s true stories stands in stark contrast to Therese’s. Therese wears a pair of headphones, holds a recording device, and sets up the scene: she’s driving around Glebe on a thirty-something degree night with Dwyer and another colleague. The colleague, a human rights lawyer, tells her their experiences of working with asylum seekers, and allows her to record their story. As Therese narrates this story, the projectors show a static image of blurred amber lights against a dark background. No photos verify it. What Aileen Moreton-Robinson writes about White knowledge production of the Aboriginal other is particularly pertinent here: “Whiteness, as an ontological and epistemological a priori, is seductive in producing the assumption of a racially neutral mind and an invisible detached white body.”5 Therese’s colleague is literally invisible here, with their story detached from their body, while Therese serves as its impartial teller. In representations of truth, Whiteness provides the luxury of disembodied rhetoric and assumption of objectivity, even as it demands explanation and photographic evidence from non-White subjects.

Auntie Rhonda, towards the end of her monologue, cites statistics pointing to massive inequality between Aboriginal peoples and settler Australia, with Aboriginal peoples making up three per cent of the national population but forty-eight per cent of the population in juvenile detention – seventy-four per cent in Western Australia, and ninety-seven per cent in the Northern Territory. She speaks of the Aboriginal youth suicides, and how each is fully felt through Aboriginal communities. As she looks at one bleacher and asks, “When will this stop?” Mahdi gets up from the chair, and walks towards her, standing directly in front of her. Auntie Rhonda looks at the other bleacher and says, “This has got to stop.” Mahdi puts his hand on her shoulder, arm straightened, head hanging. The projectors show an image of a man. “Auntie Rhonda, who’s that?” he says. “Oh, that’s my grandfather…” she says.

The intention behind this is clear, as Mahdi goes on to clarify: being a former asylum seeker on a bridging visa, he is all too familiar with being subject to the pressures of surveillance via the Code of Behaviour and socially enforced assimilation. He also mentions the four suicides of asylum seekers that had occurred during the production of Tribunal.

Another parallel is implied, between the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder in both adults and children as a result of White Australian colonialism and Western imperialism. Left untreated or otherwise misunderstood, this can result in intergenerational trauma and intensifying cycles of abuse that can manifest in “aggression, adolescent suicide, alcoholism and other substance misuse, sexual promiscuity, physical inactivity, smoking and obesity”, in addition to difficulty maintaining human relationships and susceptibility to lifestyle diseases that may shorten their lifespan. Asylum seekers and Aboriginal peoples both bear the psychological and human cost of settler-colonial Australia’s complicity in imperialist White supremacist capitalism; the Australian government’s refusal to hold itself accountable and commit to long-term strategies feeds into its overall mistreatment of mental illness to hinder these communities’ ability to heal. The weight of this cannot be stressed enough.

Yet I don’t feel like this was well-handled. The blocking is aggressive and the transition dismissive. When I dropped into rehearsal and saw this scene, I was not surprised to hear that it was the idea of either Dwyer or Chris Ryan, the outside eye who is also a White Australian. Whiteness here plays a managerial role, positioning these non-White identities and stories against each other in a way that fosters competition rather than dialogue, an act of “containing the increasingly active role of non-White Australians in the process of governing Australia.”6 The unacknowledged presence of Whiteness obstructs further conversation between Aboriginal peoples and asylum seekers, much in the same way that Fiona Wright’s anxiety-ridden review of Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race and Carrying the World labels Clarke’s dialogue between Aboriginal and settler blacknesses in Australia “problematic”, or my uni tutor might have prevented my dialogue with other second-generation inauthentics: without bad intention.

Tribunal does show one important link between asylum seekers and Aboriginal peoples beyond oppression and trauma: joy. There are many singing and dancing scenes in the performance, but the first stands out. Dwyer’s character, winding up the immigration interview with Mahdi, asks him if there’s any important information he’s left out. Dwyer moves just offstage as Mahdi walks to its centre. He begins dancing to a thumping beat. Jawad joins him, followed by Green and Therese, and finally by Auntie Rhonda. In the session I attended, the audience clapped along. Dwyer, meanwhile, paces around the edge of the stage, scowling. He barks a command for them to stop. The music cuts.

This moment of human connection through joy, instigated by Mahdi, is cut short by Dwyer’s character, who embodies Australian Whiteness. Whiteness, here, as in the rest of Tribunal, is a menacing presence skulking at the edges of cross-cultural interactions: half of the cast of Tribunal and most of the staff of Powerhouse Youth Theatre are White, but this is never acknowledged; truth and its representations are racialised in an aesthetic regime that is left unexamined; and, while non-White stories and bodies contribute significantly to Tribunal, they are positioned and handled, sometimes jarringly, by Whiteness off the stage.

Tribunal visibly engages with non-white peoples while Whiteness proliferates in invisibility. Accounting for this Whiteness is important because the takeaway message of Tribunal appears to be, “We are all one race: the human race.” Yet Moreton-Robinson argues that within Western discourses, humanity is measured against Whiteness.7 Until we acknowledge Whiteness’s presence, until we upheave existing Western definitions of humanity, until we can have open, honest, and unobstructed dialogues with one another, we cannot speak of humanity. Until then, we all belong to one race: the White race.

Tribunal is showing at Griffin Theatre, Darlinghurst until Saturday the 20th of August. Special thanks to Stephanie Bowie Liew and Shareeka Helaluddin for their invaluable assistance.

Stephen Pham is a writer from Cabramatta. He has been published in Overland, The Lifted Brow, Right Now, and Seizure. He is an original member of the Sweatshop Writers’ Collective.

1. Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso, 2016.

2. Lewis, Lee. Cross-Racial Casting: Changing the Face of Australian Theatre. Currency Press, 2007.

3. Gonsalves, Roanna. “Multiculturalism and Mainstage Australian Theatre.” The Journal of the European Association of Studies on Australia, Vol.2, No.2, 2011, pp. 72–83.

4. Hage, Ghassan. White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society. Routledge, 2000.

5. Moreton-Robinson, Aileen. “Whiteness, Epistemology and Indigenous Representation.” Whitening Race: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism, edited by Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Aboriginal Studies Press, 2004, pp. 75–88.

6. Hage, White Nation.

7. Moreton-Robinson, “Whiteness, Epistemology and Indigenous Representation.”.