Desert Training for Whites: Australian Road Movies

By Harris, Hilary | Journal of Australian Studies, January 2006 | Go to article overview

Desert Training for Whites: Australian Road Movies


Harris, Hilary, Journal of Australian Studies


My interest in Australian road movies is motivated primarily by the desire to work within recently emerging theories of anti-racist whiteness in Australia. My concern with Australian texts and contexts was fuelled by an assumption that Australian whiteness is produced and re-produced through locally specific racial regimes, at the same time that it is constitutive of and constituted by global elements of hegemonic whiteness. My writing on the road movie itself stemmed from its unique value as a site from which to unpack an anti-racist understanding of whiteness as a 'glocal' phenomenon, requiring both global and local readings, resistances and revisions. Its value derives from the fact that road movies in both Australia and the United States grapple with versions of whiteness that are (re)imagined against a given landscape, for almost without exception throughout its post-second world war history, the logic of the genre's setting has combined with its narrative logic to produce a 'non-white' landscape traversed by refugees from hegemonic white society.

Writing today as an American citizen permanently residing in Australia in the uncertain months following September 11, 2001, I find this 'glocal' analysis of whiteness in relation to the desert landscape that is so central to Australian road movies even more compelling. As the ubiquitous images of the World Trade Centre towers collapsing are replaced by equally ubiquitous images of brown men marching across desert landscapes, or brown people demanding sovereignty for their desert homes, I find my present writing motivated by twinned observations: that while the hijackers' network apparently stretches from Dallas to Manila, the predominant landscape of the 'war' offered by American and Australian media alike is 'the desert', and, that it is important to any consciousness about this war's stockpile of rhetoric that Australia shares with its ally the United States a deeply ambivalent relationship to the history and present of 'the desert', including, significantly, its own desert and the brown and black peoples who live there.

Australian scholarship regarding desert landscape is, of course, legion. Still, the current crisis demands a renewed and enlarged conversation. The methods and foci of anti-racist whiteness studies, I believe, remain a relatively untapped source of both questions and answers regarding the 'training' that non-desert dwelling Australians have in reading the desert and its meanings in relationship to 'our way of life', to 'the civilisation' that was attacked. What is the extent to which white racism (conscious or not, overt or not) is supported by that training, and implicated in it? (1) And what conclusions might be drawn, and what tools might be generated, for helping citizens in white-dominant western countries to read the past and present of media representations depicting white engagements with the desert and with the people who call it home. In other words, explicitly anti-racist methodologies might help media-saturated citizens read history back into this resurgence of what Roslynn Haynes calls the 'discourse of negation' regarding the desert, (2) where the desert is not-home, not-civil, not-productive, not-even-of-this-time, that is, not-modern. Perhaps in so doing, we might yet refuse the historical imperative of that discourse, which was that 'the European settler'--now international-warrior-with-western-values--must redeem the desert through blood sacrifice, thereby granting that benighted land 'identity, meaning and legitimacy'. (3) Perhaps, instead, we might re-imagine the relations of whites (and their western nations) with 'the desert'. What this essay hopes to add to such a history, then, is to place one small piece of Australia's filmic history of representing European encounters with the desert against the larger contemporary crisis of western nations as the keepers of civilisation versus Middle Eastern nations as the literal and metaphoric deserts of civilisation. …

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