Whiteness and 'the imperial turn'

Angela Woollacott

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The study of whiteness as a racial category emerged roughly at the same time as historians became interested in postcolonial theory and Subaltern Studies, and forged what became known as 'the new imperial history'. Yet the two areas had different scholarly roots. Whiteness studies grew from labour history, sociology, cultural studies, and feminist theory, among other fields. In this essay I consider some connections between whiteness studies and 'the new imperial history' as they have evolved, and a few of their implications for each other. Recent work has emphasized the global circulation of racial thinking, and historians of empire have located whiteness as a racial category in diverse colonial sites. Arguably, since the 18th century if not before, the white settler colonies have been key sites. Relevant questions, I think, include: Has white settler colonialism been the breeding ground of specific forms of whiteness? How has the whiteness created by white settler colonialism been connected to the whiteness constructed by slavery and postslavery societies - or that of societies shaped by both slavery and settler colonialism? How has Australian history, in particular, contributed to broader understanding of changing historical constructions of whiteness? And how might analyses of whiteness contribute to future work in Australian history? I begin with a few notes on the emergence of whiteness studies, then move to 'the imperial turn', before considering the category of 'settler colonialism'. I then offer a few thoughts on how Australian history has contributed to broader understanding of historical constructions of whiteness, and conclude by speculating about how analyses of whiteness, including work on other settler colonies, might help to shape our understanding of the 19th century in Australia.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHistoricising whiteness
Subtitle of host publicationtransnational perspectives on the construction of an identity
EditorsLeigh Boucher, Jane Carey, Katherine Ellinghaus
Place of PublicationMelbourne
PublisherRMIT Publishing
Number of pages9
ISBN (Print)9781921166808
Publication statusPublished - 2007
EventHistoricising Whiteness Conference (2006) - Melbourne, Australia
Duration: 22 Nov 200624 Nov 2006

Publication series

NameMelbourne University conference and seminar series
PublisherRMIT Publishing


ConferenceHistoricising Whiteness Conference (2006)


  • New Imperial History
  • whiteness
  • postcolonial theory
  • settler colonialism

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