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Race and Disability History: Casual Paper

April 16, 2011

Decorative element

This is a short paper I gave to Sydney University’s Australian History Postgraduate Group on the 28th of March. I was asked to suggest a reading relating to “Race and the ‘Other'” and comment on its relevance to my own work.

The article I submitted for reading was Laura Tabili’s “Race is a Relationship and Not A Thing.”[1]

It’s one of my favourite articles, but it wasn’t until I recently re-read it that I really remembered why.

As you probably know, I work in the field of disability history.

And Laura’s insistence that “racial processes” are “contingent, protean and relational in nature… [like] all historical processes” allows us to think about race in history in very interesting ways, ways which are sometimes overlooked by historians of race in the Australian context.[2]

It also allows ideas of race to intersect neatly with the kind of thinking that I do, in terms of the history of disabilities.

I remember when I was an undergraduate, one of my honours seminars was Richard White’s “Australian Cultural History.”

At the start of the first seminar, Richard put us into small groups and got us to come up with a list of things that were “cultural.”

I suppose– in retrospect– that point of the exercise was to tease out the idea that almost anything could be “cultural.”

In a typical smartarse undergraduate moment, I proposed that “disability” was cultural (this was back when I was first trying to engage with these kinds of concepts).

So Richard, to paraphrase, said “well yes, some aspects of disability would be cultural.”

And I stupidly insisted that everything about disability was cultural.

This went back and forth for a bit, and eventually ended with Richard saying “But surely missing an arm isn’t cultural?”

And I said, too boldly, “Yes it is.”

Richard just kind of shook his head and said well, “that’s just silly Dave.”

And, to be honest, it was.

Bear with me, because this has quite a bit to do with race.

What I should have suggested, in retrospect, was that the category of “disabled person” is cultural.

And here’s why:

For a long time disability theorists distinguished between what they called impairments—embodied things such as missing arms– and what they called disablements—all the social meanings and disadvantages society attached to these impairments.

Ultimately, however, this distinction collapsed because the only way to discover what constitutes an impairment is through cultural means.

I’ll take blindness, for an example.

On the surface, blindness is self-evidently an impairment: you can’t see.

But when you start to unpack it, blindness becomes more complicated.

For instance, people who are “legally blind” may well be able to see something, if not very well.[3]

The question becomes: how do we decide who is blind, and who is simply bad at seeing?

Where, along the spectrum of seeing, do we set the parameters between having an impairment, and simply varying from the norm?

So, back to the example of the person missing one arm.

Commonly accepted as being a “disabled person” (scare quotes) for sure.

But what about the person missing with one finger?


What about someone who’s missing all their fingers?

Or a hand?

The point is that somewhere along the spectrum there’s a tendency for us to make an arbitrary judgement based upon cultural factors.

Do the missing limbs affect “normal” day to day activities?

Is it possible to perform “normal” routines of self care?

Does the person self-identify as belonging to the disabled community?

So the suggestion is that the category of “disabled,” at least, is a culturally contingent construction.

The most interesting part of disability history is not about what has “been done” to people with disabilities, or how we’ve (scare quotes) “excluded” “them.”

The more interesting questions concern how people have identified, dare I say created, the “disabled other.”

So can we apply this kind of thinking to race, and is it useful?

Yes we can, and, yes I think it is.

I’ll take the example of the Chinese in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The concern of Australian historians has been, for the most part, to chart the different ways that Australian society was “racist” towards Chinese people.[4]

There’s been plenty of discussion of Australians fear of the “Yellow Peril,” and I know McAndrew’s doing some interesting research into how public health policies were applied to the Chinese.

I suppose that it is easy to assume that the category of “Chinese” is not problematic. But, thinking carefully, we find that it inherently is.

How and why the Chinese were imagined as a distinct problem group?

How, in the past, did racial scientists distinguish between, say, the Chinese and the Japanese races?

When we start unpacking their methods of distinction, we immediately find a series of cultural and social assumptions.

My favourite example of this comes from Stanley Porteus, an Australian schoolteacher, who, after a series of (mis) adventures, ended up as Head of the Psychology Department at the University of Hawaii.

Researching racial difference in the 1920s, Porteus found that the Japanese, for instance, were more industrious, less prone to vice (particularly the use of opium), and more inherently proud than the Chinese.[5]

The packaging of culture with race has not necessarily been refined to scientists, nor only applied to Asians.

Government policy regarding half-caste Aborigines, while ostensibly fixated about mathematical calculations of race based on the degree of intermixture, in practice differentiated between Aborigines and white Australians on social and cultural behaviours: can the subject hold a job, do they neglect their children, are they inebriate?[6]

And, as many historians show, Australians have in the past, and arguably today, differentiated between themselves and the other as much through social norms as through physical appearance.

Does the local market gardener’s wife wear a western dress or a chongsam?

Does the wife of the refugee from Afghanistan wear a burqua?

By examining these borderlands, disability historians have engaged with questions of race and racism in new and innovative ways.

To take two examples:

Natalia Molina has done excellent work on immigration between Mexico and the United States.

Using the lens of disability, she has revealed how anti-immigration campaigns fixated on the supposed inability of the Mexican race to perform manual labour, and shown – she is citing Doug Baynton here—that “the concept of disability was instrumental in crafting the image of the undesirable immigrant.”[7]

Coming from a slightly different perspective, Matt Wray, who describes his special field as “whiteness studies” has examined how various perceived inadequacies among poor white people were pathologized.

By identifying poor, stupid, and physically unfit white people as constituents of aberrant groups , the place of the white race as fittest and most intelligent, was consolidated.[8]

And that, I suppose, brings us back to Laura Tabili’s rejoinder: racial processes, like all historical processes, are contingent, they’re protean, and they’re relational in nature.

To me, the big interest of racial history is examining the hows and the whys of these processes.


[1] Laura Tabili, “Race Is a Relationship, and Not a Thing,” Journal of Social History 37, no. 1 (2003): 125-30.

[2] Ibid., 126.

[3] See Legal Blindness: Retina Australia and Blind Citizens Australia  Fact Sheet: Definitions, Blind and Vision Impaired.

[4] e.g.: Andrew Markus, Fear and Hatred: Purifying Australia and California, 1850 – 1901 (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1979); Andrew Messner, “Popular Constitutionalism and Chinese Protest on the Victorian Goldfields,” Journal of Australian Colonial History 2, no. 2 (2000); David Walker, Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia, 1850 – 1939 (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1999). Though of course a number of excellent recent studies have been complicating white and Chinese relations, notably Kate Bagnall, “Golden Shadows on a White Land: An Exploration of the Lives of White Women Who Partnered Chinese Men and Their Children in Southern Australia, 1855 – 1915” (Phd, The University of Sydney, 2006).

[5] Marjorie E. Babcock and S. D. Porteus, Temperament and Race (Boston: Badger, 1926).

[6] See Tony Austin, I Can Picture the Old Home So Clearly: The Commonwealth and ‘Half-Caste’ Youth in the Northern Territory 1911 – 1939 (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1993); Henry Reynolds, Nowhere People (Camberwell: Viking, 2005).

[7] Natalia Molina, “Medicalizing the Mexican: Immigration, Race, and Disability in the Early-Twentieth-Century United States,” Radical History Review 94 (2006): 22-37.

[8] Matt Wray, Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006). For these kinds of arguments regarding Australia, see Warwick Anderson, The Cultivation of Whiteness: Science, Health and Racial Destiny in Australia (Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2002).

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