What does it mean to be white?

Published 22 February 2006

Growing up as a white in Africa has been the inspiration behind the art exhibition 'Shades of White' which Shelagh Morgan has chosen to open the year at Southern Cross University's Next Art Gallery.

"Unpacking white privilege is like asking a fish to notice water or birds to notice air," she said, quoting a favourite phrase.

Dr Morgan, who lectures in visual arts at SCU and is the gallery coordinator, said she wanted to encourage community debate on what it means to be white in Australia.

Along with cultural studies lecturers Associate Professor Baden Offord and Dr Linzi Murrie, she has planned a series of exhibitions, concerts and talk-fests to explore the topic throughout the year.

The year-long cross-disciplinary project, which will culminate in a larger exhibition 'Interrogating Whiteness' in October, is being hosted by the School of Arts and Social Sciences. Dr Morgan hopes to encourage the wider community as well as staff and students across all disciplines, to participate.

The starting point for the exhibition is the question "What does white look like?"
A number of prominent local artists and academic staff have been given a free reign to explore that question and not even Dr Morgan knows what they have come up with until the opening night.

"My PhD was about cultural identity and it has always interested me," she said.
"I was born in Malawi. My parents were third generation colonial civil servants working overseas for the British Government.

"They had the unconscious attitude they were civilising agents abroad and yet all around me as I grew up I could see and smell and hear a rich and different counter culture.

"In terms of cultural studies, whiteness is a big issue, right up there with feminism and gender. White is the power base in Australia and university life also reflects that.

"Through this exhibition I hope to get some dialogue happening between people around the issue, to get them thinking. I want people to explore their own attitudes and values by asking themselves how they perceive whiteness. For example, is white a race or is it a social construct?

"If you were blind, you'd have no concept of the colour of a person, so would their skin colour affect how you related to them? Think about flesh-coloured underwear. Think about skin-coloured bandaids. They're always pink.

"Think of our real estate ads with their smiling white families moving into their new homes. What would happen if we swapped them for black families?

"We each have many deeply entrenched attitudes about colour and this exhibition seeks to challenge those stereotypes and make people think about their own values and attitudes and question their own whiteness and privilege."

The Shades of White Exhibition runs from February 28 to March 9 at Next Art Gallery, Goodman Plaza, SCU Lismore campus. The participating artists include:
Lyndal Adams, Karla Dickens, Jan Oliver and Judy Atkinson, Maree Bracker, Jan Davis, Cornelius Delaney, Fiona Fell and Frederick Magallanas, Gary Jolley and Linzi Murrie, Leonie Lane, Shelagh Morgan, Tim Mosely, Ruth Park, Murray Paterson, John Smith.

Photo caption: 'Insertion point in the Visible /invisible patterns of whiteness' is a still image from a DVD titled 'what does white look like' by Shelagh Morgan. 'What does white look like' works through some suddenly obvious ommisions in the representation of Australian community. The original image is a painting by Charles Meere, titled 'Australian beach pattern', dated 1940. Collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Media contact: Zoe Satherley SCU Media Officer, 66203144.