Debra Jopson

White people must be traitors to their race if the world is to solve its racial problems. Sound extreme? Not to the new Abolishionists. They want to get rid of the privileges that come with whiteness.

Patricia Ni Ivor lives two doors away from her old friend Lillian Holt. Ní Ivor is white. Holt is black. It is not unusual that Holt talks with her white friend about what it means to live in our society as a "cosmetically apparent" Aborigine. These conversations have most likely been held between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal friends since colonisation. What is different about this pair is that they have ongoing discussions about ní Ivor's whiteness.

"We have a good relationship because she has owned her own whiteness. She can see how it's diminished people like herself," says Holt.

"I am happy I am white," says ní Ivor, "but I'm not happy when I think it is not necessarily good for the world. I like the comforts of Western society. It's good to sleep in a comfortable bed in a warm house, but I haven't got any pretence that those things are not damaging to the world."

Despite Australia's decade-long reconciliation process, which has turned the focus on race relations and successfully brought to the surface a great deal of discussion about what it means to be born into "black" Australia, there has not been much said about the level of privilege usually conferred by being born - or successfully migrating - into "white" society.

In the United States, there is a whole movement devoted to persuading people to consider their "whiteness" and then to work out ways to step outside their colour. They are called the New Abolitionists, in honour of the original abolitionists who worked to get rid of slavery. But even for those persuaded that stepping outside their colour is desirable, is it possible? The New Abolitionists say it is, because whiteness is much more than skin deep.

As they put it: "The key to solving the social problems of our age is to abolish the white race, in other words, to abolish the privileges of the white skin."

Those privileges include having a better chance than non-whites of getting academic letters after your name (or even being able to read in the first place), of being more likely to live to a grand old age and to have your babies survive, to escape poverty and entanglement in the criminal justice system and to acquire political power.

The catchcry of this US activist group's Race Traitor magazine is, "Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity". It is a 21st-century counter to 19th-century white supremacist ideas on race still prevalent in Western countries, and here encapsulated in the slogan "Australia for the White Man" which adorned the cover of The Bulletin from 1908 to 1960.

It is an idea meant to bring centuries of Western expansionism full circle and to leave the victors of colonialism no better off than the victims.

As the New Abolitionists' explain in Race Traitor: "The white race is a historically constructed social formation. It consists of all those who partake of the privileges of the white skin in this society. Its most wretched members share a status higher, in certain respects, than that of the most exalted persons excluded from it, in return for which they give their support to a system that degrades them.

"The existence of the white race depends on the willingness of those assigned to it to place their racial interests above class, gender, or any other interests they hold. The defection of enough of its members to make it unreliable as a predictor of behaviour will lead to its collapse."

Perhaps, if you are "white", such words are causing the blood to rise and make your face even pinker. Race issues have a tendency to provoke emotion and white folks in the West are not used to suffering either collective or personal attack on behaviour presumed to be based on their skin colour. It runs against the idea that Western democracies are fair-go societies where individuals with enough get-up-and-go will make it, whatever their skin colour.

But those who have pondered such large questions as why there is a First World and a Third World (even in Australia) and why race is still an issue at all in our sophisticated societies may find there is the germ of a useful idea here. If you did take up the invitation to ditch whiteness, how the hell would you step outside that mal-described, not-really-white skin?

Noel Ignatiev, the founder of Race Traitor, does not want people to concentrate so much on the colour of the organ that holds body and soul together, but on their lot in life and how white skin might have improved their chances of doing well. White people, he says, form a "hereditary aristocracy" whose defining characteristics are whiteness and a privilege that rides supremely over the disadvantaged, who usually have darker skins.

Ignatiev is a strange strain of radical. He declares that he does not rule out violence being used to end the current US race order which he says itself discriminates so violently against blacks. But he is not so revolutionary that he asks white folk to give up their nice houses, cars and jobs.

Rather, this Massachusetts historian who does most of his revolutionising on the Worldwide Web (www.racetraitor.org) wants "race traitors" to take action. Take Copwatch. In several US cities, whites follow police around black neighbourhoods, videotaping them. The aim, says Ignatiev, is to make them "behave themselves".

But Ignatiev is most excited about his intellectual impact. With other academics who have turned their attention to "whiteness", Ignatiev takes credit for thousands of Americans being able to discuss race as a "social construct". This means that they see the idea of racial groups whose members behave in a particular way because they belong to that group, as a fabrication. Ignatiev argues that once people understand that the concept of "race" is an invention, it can be dissolved.

This thinking may sound like it is being done on the fringe of intellectual and political life. And, in a way, it is. There are Americans walking around with badges declaring "Recovering Racist" as if being born white is akin to being alcoholic. But the ideas have already filtered to the very top. President Bill Clinton has talked of the need to abolish "white-skinned privilege", which Ignatiev crows "is the language that we introduced".

The New Abolitionists have attracted "names" to their cause. Novelist Toni Morrison, musician Pete Seeger and historian Howard Zinn last year signed support for "John Brown Day" to commemorate a white man born 200 years ago this year who fought slavery in bloody skirmishes leading up to the Civil War, was hanged for his activism, and whose "body dies a-mouldering in the grave ... his soul goes marching on".

No such "anti-whiteness" hero is lauded in Australia. Among white middle-class Australians it has been considered "not nice" to talk of race. But Race Traitor is read and known here, mostly by anti-racism educators. The surprise of Hansonism has helped inspired university academics to make whiteness studies a growth area.

David Hollinsworth, author of Race and Racism in Australia (Social Science Press, 1998), says the interest so far has been largely academic, with minimal political impact. However, cultural awareness and anti-racism workshops have become popular here and governments nationwide have paid for staff to attend them. Given the large proportion of non-"whites" caught up in a legal system largely administered by "whites", judges, police and court staff have been encouraged to participate. The theme of white privilege comes up, but the technique is gentler than Ignatiev's.

Hollinsworth says: "If you talk about racism as an inherent characteristic of white people, they get angry about it. If you want people to take this stuff on and see it as part of their responsibility, you don't want them to feel like shit."

The trouble with "whiteness", say those who want to challenge it, is that it is seen as invisible or "neutral", whereas blackness, Asian-ness, or Aboriginality are highly visible.

Light-skinned Aboriginal hurdler Kyle Vander-Kuyp, who was raised in a white family, recounted on SBS's ICAM program last Sunday how his adoptive mother found him in his room one day scratching his skin. He wanted to get rid of the colour because he no longer wanted to be "different".

Many Aborigines say even the tone of colour counts. Light-skinned members of the same family report different treatment to those who are darker. But many whites are blissfully unaware of how their lightness saves them from vilification, from being stopped regularly by police in the street or pulled over in a car as suspicious characters.

The terms "whitefella" and "blackfella" have long been used in Australia, but how aware are people of the differences in living under each of those innocent-sounding descriptions?

In a vox pop for his documentary White Way, ABC Radio National producer Brent Clough asked several white Australians if they thought of themselves as white. A giggling young woman set the tone of all their answers. "Not really," she said. Many Australians have never had to think about being white. Because they see it as the norm, and may not be aware that life is truly different for people of colour, it never occurs to them to consider where they fit into what academics call "race hierarchies".

In his book White (Routledge, 1997), British cultural theorist Richard Dyer argues that "white" is seen as "just" human and there is no more powerful position than that. Whites can claim to speak for all humanity, while people who are identified by their race only get to speak for that race, he writes.

Lillian Holt, who is the director of the Melbourne University's Centre for Indigenous Education, is familiar with Ignatiev's work. She would like to know what it would be like to be a "whitefella". She has been subjected to shouts of "Boong" and "Abo" when she walks down the street.

At Australia's first whiteness conference in 1997, she stunned some academics with her paper Psst ... I want to be white, in which she said that she would love to know, just for a day, what it was like not to stand out. She was, she says, being "serious and facetious". She sees whiteness as "an amazingly myopic world".

At the age of 55, Holt is glad of the whiteness movement because she is tired of being questioned about Aboriginality when she thinks non-Aborigines should begin to look at society from the perspective of the part they play in matters cross-cultural. "I call it 'Physician, heal thyself'," she says.

In some cases, that challenge is being taken up. Earlier this week, the Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University, Professor Alan Gilbert, joined the university's management at a workshop on cultural diversity which touched on some of the myths of "whiteness". Panellists included Basil Varghese, education co-ordinator of the Brotherhood of St Laurence, Lillian Holt and Gary Foley, a long-time black activist now doing a history degree at the university.

"I see it as invoking a mutual spirit. Who are we as Australians, as black and white Australians? The interrogation of whiteness is about our mutual history and identity and thus the heart and the soul," says Holt.

Varghese sees "whiteness" as a metaphor for privilege and thinks the "haves" of our society should look beyond race and "denounce the social political system which creates poor people".

"It has to do with realising that your life and your lifestyle is taking a hell of a lot of resources of the world which are denied to other human beings," says Varghese.

Foley says he is amazed at the personal transformations he has seen among some Melbourne University students. On his Web site (http://oliv.com.au/foley/) he tells whites concerned with "white racism" not to go into indigenous communities to "help" Aborigines, but to daily challenge ignorance and fear in the white world. "It is up to you to change your society, not ours," he writes.

In the US, Noel Ignatiev's arguments spring from the living legacy of black slavery. But a brief look at Australia's long "race history" shows they are at least worth reflecting on here. We have had South Sea Islanders "blackbirded" into sugarcane slavery from Pacific Islands, a White Australia policy which excluded would-be migrants on the basis of skin colour and an official, nationwide policy of removing lighter-skinned Aboriginal children aimed at rendering them "white". Authorities once acted as if the proportion of "white" and "black" blood could be measured by looking at skin colour, dubbing people half-castes, quadroons and octoroons and treating them differently to "full-bloods".

We may still have a long way to go in achieving ebony-ivory harmony. Australia's current race relations will fall under the microscope of the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) which decides next month in Geneva whether to reprimand Canberra over its Wik native title laws, among other things.

For Lola McNaughton, racist treatment is not in the past. "What is it like when first meeting some non-Aboriginal people?" she said in a paper A Mirror on our history, which she delivered at the NSW Aboriginal mental health conference in Sydney late last year. "It amuses me to observe people's reaction. They look everywhere else but at me."

McNaughton was removed from her Aboriginal family as a child and taken to the Cootamundra Girls' Home. "I was removed expressly for the purposes of being raised to be a white person. Think about that! As a white person and institutionalised. Now that's not normal. That's madness."

To achieve this, negative suggestions were continually planted in her mind about her Aboriginal family. She was told that they could not look after her. Yet, her parents hitchhiked 1,500km to Cootamundra hoping to see her - and were turned away. At 18, she was left feeling "inadequate as a black" and yet felt she had "failed the white-test".

On the other hand, many lighter-skinned Aborigines have trouble persuading other Australians of their indigenous identity, even though siblings can come in all shades.

The new chairman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Geoff Clark, and the Aboriginal Provisional Government (APG) secretary, Michael Mansell, would agree that "whiteness" is not skin-deep. Clark said recently that being seen as "the blue-eyed blond-haired blackfella" was not a problem for him, but presented a "psychological hurdle" for non-Aborigines.

Mansell and Clark have been among the most eager to eradicate the privilege of "whiteness" from Australian society. Just eavesdrop on what Clark told an APG elders' conference in Hobart seven years ago: "Now the ceremony, welcome, media etc is over, we can relax and have a blackfella meeting ... Put your hands in front of your head and just pull, like that. I want everyone to do that. And throw him down like that. And what you're doing is, number one, we have to get that whitefella out of our head."

"Black" explorations of whiteness began perhaps back in the 1600s when William Dampier's ships loomed off the west coast of Australia, but most especially when Arthur Phillip and his pasty crew descended on the Gadigal people of Sydney Cove 212 years ago. Their whiteness was not just in their skin, but in their intent to seize, stay and exploit.

This is the very impulse that the reconciliation movement now wants people to understand and jettison, in a process that can remake Australia.

For the likes of the Governor-General, Sir William Deane, scientist Sir Gustav Nossal, former Human Rights Commission head Sir Ronald Wilson, educator Wendy McCarthy, Alec Shand, QC, pastoralists Camilla Cowley and Susan Bradley and journalist Ray Martin, the experience has brought pain, but also new understandings of Australianness. Appreciating indigenous ways of thinking, the country becomes more than an arm of Europe with bush and Asian flavours.

Strangely, heartlands of white privilege such as Mosman and Hunters Hill, which have hosted massive reconciliation meetings, may prove fruitful ground for exploring whiteness. (It is possible that those with the most privilege feel they have the least to lose, while those poor rural whites who were attracted to One Nation are protesting against privilege lost.)

But whiteness has struck back. In their paper Reconciliation: What Does it Mean?,two senior fellows of the Institute of Public Affairs, Gary Johns and Ron Brunton, argue that most activists in the reconciliation process undermine the legitimacy of non-Aboriginal values and beliefs.

Johns and Brunton agree with Professor Richard Mulgan of the Australian National University, who has written that these activists "accept a hostile view of their own culture and history" and that this could be "moral elitism dressed up in the guise of apologetic humility".

Brunton and Johns say the draft national declaration of reconciliation, which the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation will launch in Sydney in May, in its final form "contains no acknowledgement that there might be anything worthwhile in the civilisation that was brought to Australia by the nation's British and Irish founders ... Reconciliation is only being offered to non-Aboriginal Australians on the condition that they forgo any real sense of pride in their own complex heritage."

Allegations that whites relegate the rest of society to the bottom of the heap have also not gone unchallenged in the US. David Horowitz, president of the Centre for the Study of Popular Culture in Los Angeles, accuses the black leadership and the American Left of combining in an immoral anti-white hatred which is a byproduct of the Left's "anti-Americanism". Hatred of whites, he argues, is an expanding industry, and has now reached white "liberals" in elite academic institutions, such as Ignatiev.

In the 1960s, Horowitz was a friend of the Black Panthers and a leader of the New Left. In his new book, Hating Whitey and other progressive causes (Spence Publishing, Dallas, 1999), he describes the New Abolitionist style of thinking as anti-white racism. "America's unique political culture was indeed created by white European males, primarily English and Christian."

This allows inclusion of cultures that are non-white and non-Christian. People "of all colours all over the world" are queuing up to enter the US to enjoy it. "Unlike anti-black attitudes which are universally decried and would trigger the expulsion of their purveyors from any liberal institution in America, this racism is not only permitted but encouraged, especially in the academic culture responsible for the moral and intellectual education of tomorrow's elites," writes Horowitz.

Such academic myopia has been blamed for losing white Louisville professor Ken Hardy his job in the humanities faculty at a community college for the way he gave a class on interpersonal communication. When he conducted a lesson on taboo words that have oppressed marginalised groups, a black student was so offended by the use of the word "nigger" in the list suggested by students that she formally complained to the college administration. Hardy was subsequently dismissed. The college claimed this was a financial cut, but he believed that it was because of his use of the "N-word".

In Australia, teachers on race relations appear to have avoided Ignatiev-style sledgehammer approaches and have managed the sensitivities Hardy encountered. Dr Zane Ma-Rhea, who lectures in cultural diversity at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, leads students to recognising whiteness gently, by getting them to tell their own stories, but she says a major theme of being white in Australia, which many do not wish to confront, is their sense of dislocation and absence of a sense of place.

She is fascinated with understanding the well-spring of white superiority displayed by many British colonisers and their descendants in Commonwealth countries. "Where do we get our sense that we are better than anyone else?" she asks.

She thinks she has partly found the answer in her study of how ideas generated in universities have continued to carry values which began when the imperial British considered themselves the "master race".

Academics of the empire sought to educate the natives, with the munificent idea that such brilliance as Britain had to offer should be spread about. Rhea has studied the legacy of this in attempting to analyse how "racial hierarchies" work throughout the Commonwealth. She has found that as a rule of thumb, the lighter the skin, the more the power.

Richard Dyer, who has pointed out the white presumptuousness of making the bandaid flesh-coloured, says the ideal is to place white culture as one among many.

This is exactly what One Nation die-hards, many of whom have had the privilege of whiteness stripped from them through economic circumstance, fear most. Pauline Hanson, in The Truth, held up the spectre of a republic in 2050 in which the whites are in the racial minority.

Those "old Australian" fears of being "swamped" by migrants, especially non-white migrants can also be explained by theories of whiteness.

Sydney University anthropologist Ghassan Hage in his White Nation (Pluto Press, 1998) argues that Australia has its own "national aristocrats" who have "attributes of dominance" which, funnily enough, happen to coincide with "whiteness".

"To be one of these aristocrats, it is important to be born here (as long as you are not Aboriginal), but that is not enough. Those who are not "white" but aspire to be can acquire "national capital".

It's a tricky business, though, and you cannot necessarily achieve the national dominance that "real" whites enjoy. "Having blond hair is valuable, but if one has blond hair and an 'East European accent', this does not make one more national than having brown hair and an Australian accent. Thus we can say that the Australian accent is more valuable than the blond hair as a national capital," he writes.

The further away from whiteness people are, says Hage, the worse they are treated - by those who police who gets into Australia in the first place, by governments and by those who "make it" economically. Those who are considered to be "Third World" get rougher treatment than those who are considered "standard NESBs (non-English-speaking background people), Hage asserts.

David Hollinsworth says "migrantness" is particularly hard to shake off for those who do not come from English-speaking backgrounds. "Almost regardless of when and why they came to Australia, and irrespective of how many generations have passed since arrival, these people are still 'migrants'. By contrast, Anglo-Celtic migrants 'settle' in Australia largely because they were always 'the settlers' - those whose work, dreams and stories dominate the national imagination."

But perhaps it will be this "shadow side" of Australia, the dominated migrants and Aborigines who will lead "whites" to a different way of being Australian.

Basil Varghese was born of Indian parents in Africa and has been in Australia for 30 years.

"My thesis is that we have to come to terms with Aboriginal Australia without any guilt. We have to say, 'This has happened.' As a migrant who came to this country in 1964, it's not good enough for me to say 'it was the Anglos who did it'."

Time and again, those seeking to heal race relations in Australia have argued that white guilt about the past is useless. Guilt is a crippling emotion. Curiosity, openness and a sense of humour are better companions for such explorations.

Patricia ní Ivor has considered the good and the bad of whiteness: "White people have to be proud of their culture. At the same time we can acknowledge the difficulties."