white women
(Image: Wikimedia Commons/Henry Moses)

Such was the absurd imagination of the white man when it came to black sexuality, wrote the psychiatrist and cultural theorist Frantz Fanon in 1952, that “no longer do we see a black man; we see a penis: the black man has been occulted. He has been turned into a penis: he is a penis”.

This reveals the underlying anxiety and cause of the violence and hatred directed at black men by white men: white men feared that white women would willingly enter into sexual relationships with black men, and that their mixed-race children would threaten the economic and social dominance of white men.

To understand race in the settler-colonial context, we must understand the centrality of sex. It all came down to sex: who was allowed to have it, when, and with whom. It was through sex work that some white women were able to assert financial and social independence. It was through rape that slavery was enforced and reinforced. And it was through sex that whiteness and white male authority could be both bolstered and undermined.

Segregation, lynching and the Black Peril moral panics that swept Southern Rhodesia in the early 20th century, all occurred for the same reasons: to keep white men on top. White society, then, hinged on the myth of “protecting” white women from rape, but in reality, what they were really “protected” from was their own liberation and any capacity to form meaningful relationships with people of colour.

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Miscegenation was reviled not because it was unnatural or against God’s will as claimed, or because white people really thought black people were dirty; it was feared because it threatened white male domination and white supremacy, which hinged on maintaining a fictional notion of racial purity as a mask for economic and political power.

White people are not united by a shared ethnicity: they are united by access to institutional power. This fiction of a white race unravels as soon as we consider that “white” is the only racial category where any mixing automatically excludes one from the racial group.

Indeed, for a long time the South’s one-drop rule meant that just “one drop” of black blood, even going back several generations, could, and often did, leave even the fairest-looking white ostracised from white society. Any white-appearing person who socialised with black people was viewed with mistrust and suspected of attempting to “pass” as white in order to access white entitlements and privileges.

A popular genre of romantic fiction in the Jim Crow South revolved around the “tragedy” of a white Southern belle or gentleman who discovers on the eve of their wedding day that one of them is “black”; the wedding, naturally, has to be called off.

As Jewish-American sociologist Abby L. Ferber explains: “The frequency with which these revelations occurred immediately before the individual was to be wed highlights anxiety over ensuring racially pure reproduction.”

The situation was similar in other settler-colonies. Historian Ann Stoler has written extensively on the construction of race, gender and white society in European colonies in South-East Asia and Africa. What they all had in common, she argues, was the double standard that allowed white men to have sex with and rape colonised women while white women were not only expected to remain sexually virtuous but were charged with policing the overall sexual morality of their community.

White women had little to no contact with the local colonised populations, and as such their perceptions of brown and black sexuality likely had even less relationship with reality than those of white men. Unsurprisingly, similar anxieties arose in all the colonies regarding the “safety” of white women; these concerns intensified whenever the white population perceived their control to be threatened, regardless of whether the threat was coming from within their own white community or from the restless colonised population.

So, for example, when colonised men from Papua to Algeria to South Africa began to agitate for their civil rights, the number of rape charges (conveniently) increased. These “attempted rapes” include a Papuan man who happened to be not far from a white residence, a Fijian man who had the misfortune of entering the hospital room of a female European patient, and an African servant who paused outside the door of his sleeping white mistress.

If merely being in the same vicinity as a white woman rendered colonised men vulnerable to accusations of attempted rape, writes Stoler, then this effectively means that “all colonised men of colour were potential aggressors”.

And, naturally, all white women were potential victims who had to be closely guarded, their movements restricted, their innocence protected, their distress alleviated. Like their counterparts elsewhere, white women in Australia were excluded from positions of authority, leadership and most occupations. Charged with the upkeep of the family home and the burden of carrying the honour of white civilisation, they often spent much of their time in isolation. And so “white woman” as an archetype was one of racial purity, Christian morality, sexual innocence, demureness and financial dependence on men all rolled into one.

To step off this pedestal meant no longer being regarded as a “woman”.

This is an edited extract from White Tears / Brown Scars by Ruby Hamad (MUP $32.99)