On White Time


I was on strict lockdown for a month. My daily spatial references – the commute, the campus, the workplace –  collapsed into one set of walls. Whenever I did venture to The Outside, where space used to be too infinite for me to grasp, I was suddenly hyper-aware of the awkwardness of narrow footpaths from the nervous stares of fellow pedestrians. Tedium took on a different toil as each day melted into the other. For me, mornings were a long, caffeine-charged affair. Too many hours lay ahead of me with what seemed like no stimulation to fill them, but plenty of tasks to do. Then as the sun started to shine in from my west-facing window, I would crash and the hour hand would chase itself into darkness. 

I wasn’t the only one. My friends expressed a similar temporal dysrhythmia as we carried on. Productivity felt feigned, a mere imitation of the moving on of days, hours, minutes. Time was one of many things we’d previously taken for granted, or hadn’t noticed at all, that began to crumble under our feet and reveal their plasticity. Disconcerting, yes, but it provided an opportunity to question how our ‘time perspective’ shapes how we relate to the past, and how we envision our futures. 

Over the past year or so, I had been exploring my little fixation on how time is subjective through a cultural and historical lens. I realised that seeing time as an objective measurement can be harmful. When our perception of time normalises subjective values, it also obscures power dynamics produced and reproduced from imposed and co-opted temporalities. 

Charles Mills coined the term ‘white time’, which describes the temporal norms that have come to structure so much of our lives. It includes conventions such as Greenwich Mean Time that are more evidently arbitrary, to having 24 hour days and 60 second long minutes. White time is structural; disseminated through temporal containers that hold our experiences and lifetimes. Instead of seeing time as a matter of battery-powered, synchronised machines, Mills viewed it as laden with the racist and imperialist qualities of those who conceived our understanding of it; the Gregorian calendar was instituted by the Catholic church, and the world time that segments the planet into time zones was a cumulative effort of Scottish-Canadian, British and American politicians and engineers. 

To pinpoint the configuring of racialised time, Mills applies Eviatar Zerubavel’s ‘time maps’, which situates narratives of the past, present and future on particular planes, pockmarked with topographical ‘social punctuations’ that “cut up the past” and highlight the events that should be taken as significant. European and colonial history is situated on the ‘white time map’. He draws connections to the post-racial ideology of ‘colourblindness’, where uttering “I don’t see colour” can be just as harmful as active discrimination. Denying individual or collective histories, denying space in the white time map of society and inflicting similar harm. 

For First Nations peoples, the topographics of time seem to be partially recorded in The Dreaming. In Japanangka and Nathan’s Settle Down Country, it is described as “a conglomeration of transhistorical and cosmological concepts’” within which human activity is integrated. This ‘time map’ does not seek to incrementalise time or make its passage linear, core values that the coloniser’s Western legal structures and language had instituted into their conception of time that was specifically geared toward the accumulation of capital. When the colonisers arrived, they immediately attempted to undermine and replace the Indigenous methods to record time with their own to gain control more systematically. A similar tyranny through time occurred when White Australian colonisers reached Bosavi, Papua New Guinea. Schieffelin found that the first rule the missionaries instituted was new concepts of time to change the behaviour and routines of native peoples. They were imbued with Christian ideas of life after death, which sequentialised their individual futures. New words were also introduced to break down time: day, week, year, and afternoon, fabricating a temporal path in line with their own to more deftly manipulate and exploit. As in many cases of settler colonialism around the world, a white linear time map was transplanted onto Indigenous peoples. The colonisers then painted over their histories with a narrative grounded in a god-ordained sequence of civilization, by materialising and manipulating time through language in order to impose on their perceptions of reality. The effects of these re-configurations have resonated to the present and will continue to impact the future of these peoples. 

Mills points out that the white time map still exists in the post-colonial world, in how countries have been lined up along a eurocentric scale of ‘developed’ and ‘developing’. The Global South – as he phrases the commonly used blanket term relegating half of the world to an inferior time map  –  is seen to be in a state of necessary evolution and turmoil, whereas the Global North has reached its appropriate endpoint, where stasis is acceptable and beneficial. 

The language used to describe global patterns of movement within and between the Global North and South are also charted along a white time map. Expatriates are akin to time travellers, transported into the past, a less developed corner of the time map. Conversely, the racialised and stigmatised framing of the term ‘immigrants’ suggests that they are leaving their countries to progress into the more evolved future. What is occurring concurrently and on parallel time planes is cast as ‘behind’ through the normative, hegemonic configurations of white time. 

Multicultural Australia has been created through a rhetoric of national unity that mutes the histories of newer arrivals. Other communities and cultures are forced to be charted on the white Australian time map, measured up against the anglo-celtic core, the norm that blossoms under the guise of unity. Hal Foster, a critic of the Australian model of multiculturalism describes it as an ‘aesthetic pluralism’ where the margins of society are absorbed into the white core, resulting in a form of moral paternalism where immigrants are relegated to only partial citizenship if they do not subscribe to anglo-celtic values. So what can we do about this? According to Will Kymlicka, diversity shouldn’t be treated as an ‘add-on’ – instead it must be incorporated into the foundations of our society, in explicit and implicit norms. A multicultural society should increasingly involve addressing the attitudes of the majority, through education or cultural programs that “treat difference as essential”. Instead of collapsing and linearising histories, we should view our time map as plural and variegated from the get-go. In a temporal sense, the white time map – and other structures – should be dissolved to give way for a variegated and fluid notion of time. 

Only by naming the white time map as part of the structures that have developed and perpetuated racism can we adopt a “new temporal order” as Mills suggests. When time is regarded as a neutral, unifying entity, it normalizes white, European constructions of history and assimilates disfigured narratives, removing aspects of the present and the ability to formulate the future. 



Susanna Li

Author: Susanna Li

Susanna Li is a Chinese-Australian born on Gadigal land but based nowhere for now. She spends most of her spare time reading, listening and occasionally writing about music, culture and politics.

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