The Secret History of Whiteness

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What the hell does it mean for a person to be white?

Historically, it’s a question that has been difficult to answer. But it’s also a question that has defined where a person is allowed to live, eat, and work. Race is a social construct, but when it comes to countries like the United States and Australia, being “white” has sometimes meant the difference between being allowed to emigrate to those countries or not.

In a blog post on Monday, I examined Australia’s history as a kind of “white utopia,” much like I did with the state of Oregon earlier this year. I spoke with a number of experts, but I personally found the Italian-Australian experience to have one of the most fascinating arcs. Especially because it so mirrored the Italian-American experience.

Italian immigrants to Australia (much like in America) have constantly negotiated and re-negotiated their “whiteness” with the government and the Australian people at large. Why did the perception of whiteness matter so much? Because from 1901 until the mid-1970s, Australia had racist policies that allowed only white people to come in to the country. So, for Italians who wanted to immigrate, (and in some cases merely stay in the country) their status as “white” was absolutely critical.


At the turn of the 20th century, both the United States and Australia saw Italians as “other:” non-white in lands of predominantly white people. After World War II, things slowly began to change in both countries, and magically Italians became more “white.”

I spoke over email with Catherine Dewhirst of the University of Southern Queensland, who has studied the history of Italian immigration to Australia. I wasn’t able to include her answers to my questions in my piece earlier this week, but with her permission I’m including them in full here.


Novak: Why did achieving “whiteness” as a social construct matter to Australians coming from Italy at the turn of the 20th century?

Dewhirst: This is a really interesting question, Matt. I suppose that being welcomed and accepted as equals for the contributions they could make to Australia was initially an expectation that most Italian migrants must have felt in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There had been a long tradition of ties between Britain and the Italian peninsula even before Italy was unified. And, there were concrete reasons for having to leave Italy – poverty, lack of employment, etc. The idea of Italians being ‘white’ emerged first in the Italian-Australian migrant press of 1905-1909, when they were being targeted in the popular press for not being ‘white’ enough. Once the discourse turned to questioning Italian migrants’ colour (of course, ‘whiteness’ was not just about colour), some Italians took action by working with this construct in order to defend and to justify their and their co-nationals’ right to belong.


Australia’s White Australia policy (the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901) was influenced by the United States’ 1896 Immigration Restriction Act and the 1897 Natal Immigration Restriction Bill. However, even before this, the link between colonial attitudes in Australia to the diversity of migrants arriving, and Italians in particular, has to be understood in two ways.

First, there was a strong link in this era between the territorial, economic and cultural imperialism of Western and Japanese expansion and the growing awareness and anxiety amongst populations in ‘white’ nations that ‘white’ people were outnumbered by the ‘coloured’ peoples of the world. This link was also supported – albeit without rational substance – by beliefs about the supremacy of ‘white’ civilizations, which were reflected in racialist ‘theories’ (from Julien-Joseph Virey and the Comte de Gobineau onwards), scientific theories (like Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and Francis Galton’s eugenics), and intellectual currents. For instance, Charles Pearson, an English migrant to the Australian colony of Victoria, published his book, National Life and Character. A Forecast in 1893, which tapped into these kinds of fears and attained international acclaim as a result. At the same time, the developments of pseudo-scientific beliefs that not all ‘Italians’ were racially pure were mounting in Italy. Such beliefs stemmed from the new field of criminal anthropology and, notably, the founder of the Italian School of Positivist Criminology, Cesare Lombroso.


Second, anti-Chinese sentiments erupted in colonial Australia in the 1860s’ attacks at Lambing Flats goldfield, New South Wales, and gained momentum over the nineteenth century. Despite much discrimination earlier than this, this violence against Chinese settlers had a domino effect on the public’s perceptions about the lack of suitability of Southern European immigrants, especially the dominant group – the Italians – from the late 1890s. Once the Immigration Restriction Act deported Chinese and other peoples considered ‘non-white’, xenophobic trends switched [and] focussed on other settler groups, such as the Irish and Southern and Eastern Europeans. Racism was rampant and no particular cultural/national group was sheltered from it: the Irish had been victimised for a long time in Australia and Britain; and neither Northern Europeans, nor the English on occasions were left unscathed. The Irish were beginning to become more acceptable in mainstream Australian society than before but Southern and Eastern Europeans, whose numbers were increasing around the turn of the twentieth century, began to be scorned. Many considered that the latter were incapable of changing their traditional ways. The general view was that they threatened the construction of a white Australian nation.

Novak: How was the British-Australian model of assimilation similar to the American model? How did the models of assimilation differ at the turn of the 20th century?


Dewhirst: Matt, I’m not sure that I can answer these questions properly for lack of having studied the American model in any in-depth way. Of course, it’s generally understood that, while the United States had a long history of diversity amongst its settlers as well as greater numbers of cultural/national groups, Australia was younger (at least in terms of settler status), British dominated, and in need of population growth. Yet, both nations shared the same racial and intellectual concerns of the day, which meant that social and cultural homogeneity was critical. I imagine that this was significant in both the United States and Australia for different reasons, given that the United States had emerged as an imperial and industrialised power by 1900 whereas Australia was still largely under Britain’s political influence for quite some time beyond Federation. (I should mention that Ann Twomey argues that it was only in 1986 with the Australia Acts passed in that year that Australia gained full independence from Britain!)

In Australia, the emphasis was on replicating British ideals. Australia was strongly tied to British laws in most aspects of government. However, Federation allowed independence on economic and immigration decisions. In the climate of constructing Australian society, both before and after 1901, assimilation was highly valued. New settlers had to conform by generally behaving the same way, looking the same way, speaking the same language, preferably practicing the Protestant religion, and showing loyalty to the British heritage and Australia itself, particularly economically. For obvious reasons, this is what made Italians stand out.


The main issue that some Australians expressed for not tolerating Italians or similar migrants was their tendency not to naturalise and not to reinvest in the country. Many feared that most non-British migrants working in the mining, agricultural or non- skilled labour sectors were in the country to reap economic rewards quickly so as to return to their homelands quickly too. As much as sending remittances back to families in the homeland no doubt occurred, I’m not aware of any in-depth study that has shown the economic extent to which any migrant group in Australia did this at the turn of the twentieth century. There was a lot of prejudice at the time and people used excuses like lack of economic commitment to divert attention from their own weaknesses. The Italian migrant press always denied the remittances issue of fellow Italians although it was clearly a natural tendency for migrants. Moreover, it was often very difficult for Italians to become naturalised. In some cases, they needed to live and work within one colony or state for two or up to five years before being permitted to apply. And then there was also the issue of illiteracy, which became the basis for denying Italians British subjecthood if not also entry into the country in some cases through the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act’s dictation test.

I should mention that the Italian-Australia press (1903-1915) reprinted interviews with President Roosevelt from the Italian-American press about his support for Italian migrants in the United States. The Italian-Australia press also keep its Italian-Australian readership up to date on the American debates about the Dillingham Burnett Bill and the Dillingham Commission’s Report that were targeting illiterate Italians for exclusion.


Novak: What role did labor politics play in fears about Italian immigration to Australia?

Dewhirst: It’s well-known that the early left and founding Labor Party were racist and anti-Italian. Perhaps linking in with your second question, Matt, there’s an interesting story about one of Australia’s early socialist immigrants, a Sicilian-Italian, Francesco Sceusa. He was the first Italian to establish an Italian-language newspaper in Australia in 1885. He did a great deal to support Italian migrant workers in colonial New South Wales, but socialism was greatly feared in the Antipodes as elsewhere in the Western world. Sceusa wrote a letter to the Trades and Labour Council in 1892, stating that Italians could only be accepted in Australia if they arrived being able “to read and write” and if their work practices conformed to Australian working standards (that is, not to overwork or to undercut local wages), and only when they presented themselves as clean (he used the phrase, “until they will use soap”) and abandoned their traditional garb as well as illegal ways (that is, Mafioso practices). It was not that Sceusa was anti-Italian; this was his way of fighting what he interpreted as the enslavement of Italians to the capitalist system. Almost immediately following the leaking of his letter to the mainstream press, a group of Brisbane’s more conservative Italians had a response printed in The Queenslander (30 January 1892), suggesting that Sceusa had been unwise, imprudent and unpatriotic in his views. They denounced the idea that Italians (agriculturalists especially) represented “cheap labour in the market”, quoting Sceusa’s words.


I think, however, that one of the most pervasive means adopted by labor supporters for promoting fears about Italian immigration in Australia was through the press and, in particular, newspapers like the Australian Workers’ Union’s The Worker and the popular The Bulletin, and the later tabloid Smith’s Weekly (founded in 1919).

Top image: Italian family living in New York circa 1911. As the photographer notes, they were “so illiterate I couldn’t get their names.” (Library of Congress)