Whiteness as a bioethical problem

Dr Christopher Mayes

Research Fellow, Alfred Deakin Institute at Deakin University and Research-Affiliate in Sydney Health Ethics at the University of Sydney

In March 2018 the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia (NMBA) released new editions of their codes of conduct, standards of practice, and code of ethics. In the glossary section, “cultural safety” was described (among other things) as providing “a de-colonising model of practice based on dialogue, communication, power sharing and negotiation, and the acknowledgment of white privilege”. Conservative media commentators reacted by claiming that white nurses were being asked to apologise for being white prior to caring for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients. Media personality Andrew Bolt called the code a new form of racism and Senator Corey Bernardi characterized the situation as a “new medical Marxism”. These responses serve to illustrate the sensitivity some sections of Australian society have to examining whiteness and white privilege in general, and health institutions in particular.

In recent years, whiteness studies has emerged as a way of examining race relations and the effects of racism by focusing on assumptions that “white” occupies a position of normalcy and neutrality. Black feminist scholars such as Audre Lourde have been significant in turning the critical focus from the racialised other to the institutions, beliefs, systems, and practices that do the work of racialising, while reinforcing white privilege. In Australia, this has meant that instead of focusing exclusively on the injustices suffered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the whiteness analytic lens allows scholars such as Irene Watson and Aileen Moreton-Robinson to draw attention to the material conditions, histories, ideas, and practices that make such racialised injustices possible, and even normal.

This paper explores the historical legacy and contemporary implications of whiteness in the provision of health care, health-related research, and bioethics itself to ask: If biomedicine and bioethics are implicated in the privileging of whiteness, is it possible to begin a process of de-colonisation and move towards a post-colonial bioethics?


Biography:

Christopher Mayes is a Research Fellow in the Alfred Deakin Institute at Deakin University and Research-Affiliate in Sydney Health Ethics at the University of Sydney. He is an interdisciplinary scholar with disciplinary backgrounds in philosophy and sociology. His research interests include food ethics, the history of bioethics in Australia, and social and political theory. He is the author of The Biopolitics of Lifestyle: Foucault, Ethics, and Healthy Choices (Routledge, 2016), which critically explores the use of lifestyle rhetoric and policies to govern individual choice and secure population health from the threat of obesity. His forthcoming monograph, Unsettling Food Politics: agriculture, dispossession, and sovereignty in Australia (Rowman & Littlefield International), examines contemporary political and ethical discourses of food and agriculture in Australia.

In 2017, he received a Discovery Early Career Research Award from the Australian Research Council to research the history of bioethics in Australia. Bioethics in the Antipodes: a history of Australian bioethics since 1980 (DE170100550) aims to provide a comprehensive account of bioethics in Australia. Using archival sources, interviews, and theoretical analysis, this project will advance understanding about the distinctive local and global contributions of Australian bioethics to regulatory frameworks, legal reform, and public discourse.