When racism is the topic at hand, in a public arena anyway, my experience is that people fall into the wallpaper. Or at least respond with a disapproving sniff and stiffened spine. It is a topic that provokes a fair amount of defensiveness and no doubt anxiety, which is a bugger given that what I really want to shift to talking about is, as bell hooks calls it, white supremacist ideology (and patriarchal, and capitalist). Far more useful, and I would say apt – but at this point perhaps a step too far, though I’m working towards it – trust me…
Racism has formed the backbone of more conversations than I care or am able to remember. For me, and the people I care about, it really is that important. And that pervasive. Lately I’ve noticed that when students ask me whether I think their work or their presentation (of which the issue of racism is often a part) is too radical or controversial I have to shrug and admit I’ve lost all perspective on the matter. It is so much a part of the daily fare of my life and discussions with friends and to a lesser extent whānau, that what strikes me as completely normal and unquestionable often provokes outrage in alternate audiences (some might even say universes). I used to try and keep up with the popular discourse through agonising hours spent listening to talkback radio – it was a useful exercise allowing me to hone my ability to counter even the most outrageous ‘race’-based claims (and not of the Brash-type fantasy). I’ll revisit it occasionally, but I’ve lost too many radios (smashed against the bedroom wall) and grown tired of the rinse-wash-repeat style arguments to bother much. On top of this, despite the tedious repetition, the truth is the willful ignorance such rhetoric implies is kinda painful.
Thanks to the wonders of the Facebook-kumera-vine (and this is the only way I get my ‘news’ these days, since I can no longer stomach the gossip that masquerades as news in television/radio/newspapers) I stumbled across a recently published article – Unspoken racism endemic in NZ. Racism has had a fair bit of play in the media of late, this on the heels of “dangerous, stirring, radical, troublemaker” Professor Margaret Mutu’s comments on white immigration, which outraged those much more comfortable when the real problem is highlighted – those brown, shifty looking immigrants. To add to the mix the previously written about flash mob haka that have featured in the 2011 RWC buildup and the RWC opening itself have sparked indignation by some at the continual shoving of that pre-historic culture down one’s throat (oh, the irony. Do tell me about the agonies of forced assimilation white person). Having written on racism as a postgraduate student, and driven to understand this thing that felt so omni-present in my life (and yet I was assured was soooo last century) I have read about everything on this topic I could lay my grubby little hands on. When it comes to accusations of racism in Aotearoa I have come to the conclusion that such accusations don’t serve the interests of Māori at all, or our often similarly maligned brown or Asian immigrant brothers and sisters (although stay away from those white ones, aye Margaret?). They serve the dominant group – white people. While some may offer in their discomfort the assurance that hey, at least we’re talking about it, too often the conversation is one-sided and presented in such a way that only entrenches problematic understandings and attributions of the term. The aforementioned article may be one of them.
First, despite the promising title, in content such articles perpetuate the widely held myth that racism is the inherent property of individuals – the result of a poor attitude or faulty cognition. Thanks Psychology. If only those prone to such maladies would apply themselves to eradicating or mending the error of their ways the issue of racism would be null and void. Here’s the problem with this idea. It reduces racism to shitty attitudes or behaviours that a person or group of people perpetuate on a demonised ‘other’. What it allows for is the counter assertion that those privileged in the exercise of racism can claim to also be its victims. “I once had a Māori call me white trash, I suffer racism too” is the beleaguered cry. Logically, it fits and yet fails to capture the horror that racism lived entails. As UK Health Science Professor Raj Bhopal puts it
Racism can cause death and despair in ways that are, with the exception of disease epidemics, almost unparalleled in human history (2006)
Further, in seeking remedy-to-racism, this kind of definition implies we need only implore those whose thoughts are in error to ‘try harder’, as the article author unsurprisingly does…
We all need to work on our thinking and attitudes so we can go forward together as the united and wonderfully diverse people of New Zealand that we aspire to be.
What gets hidden or subjugated in such definitions is the actual lived effects of racist practise. Those little things like … I dunno … extensive removal of land and subsequently inter-generational poverty, mass incarceration, the disappearance of one’s history, the suppression of one’s language and all that entails, and so on and so forth. The sombre consideration of the level or degree of such effects renders the notion that these arise as the result of shitty attitudes a rather ridiculous one. In reality the causes are complex and beyond the scope of this post, but far more damaging than individual instances of bigotry, no matter who they arise from, are hegemonic ideas. We live in the type of post-colonial society that as Edward Said has argued are founded on an ideology of racism (and white supremacy) that continues long after the initial invasion has ended. As Moana Jackson puts it
One of the great myths in this country is that colonisation has ended but no one has yet been able to tell me when it ended. And if colonisation is the systematic dispossession and the denial of rights and equality of indigenous peoples, then it definitely has not ended – Moana Jackson, 2010
When (un)settler societies implore their native peeps to “move on, it’s 170(ish) years ago dude, get over it” not only do they conveniently overlook the contemporary manifestations of colonial practice (Foreshore and Seabed Act I and II, anyone?) they also have no understanding that this ideological dominance persists or how it is maintained. Someone I know once said in a thoroughly racist society blaming individuals for their racism is a bit like blaming a fish for being wet. Ae, tika. Best we start looking at the quality of the water.
Second, when white people point out the racism of other white people, it allows for a differentiation. The very fact that ‘I’ discourage their racism means ‘I’ am therefore not myself racist. I’m one of the good guys. Of course that is not the intention, but we all know the road to hell is paved with good intentions, right? The sad part of writing a critique such as this one is its potential to discourage a genuine and perhaps even heartfelt desire on the part of the article’s author to respond to the issue at hand – to right/write the wrong so to speak. The diatribes of a Paul Henry or Michael Laws seem so much more worthy of condemnation, and yet their blatant, unapologetic, apoplectic bigotry is so damned obvious they make the current article under examination that much sweeter by comparison. Plus lets face it – they too easy. I get that the mitigation of one’s own culpability is merely an unintended if fortuitous by-product. And yet to let such common misinterpretations stand, given the seriousness of the topic, allows the perpetuation of the ideas embedded in articles such as this one. Here a line is drawn in the sand of good and bad (attitudes and thoughts) and racism becomes the property of a few errant ‘extremists’ or ‘fringe dwellers’ (such as those often most easily characterised as racist – the neo-nazi skinhead) but the responsibility of all right thinking kiwis.
As New Zealanders we could all be thinking better about issues around the relationship between Maori and pakeha. We need to condemn thoughtless racism whenever it happens because such acts are never helpful. To borrow a Salvation Army slogan, “We’re all in this together.”
Thoughtless? Hmmm, I suspect (and suggest here) that thought, as in ideas, may be at its core. Yes indeed, we all could be thinking better, but misconstruel of the meaning of racism aside, positing this as a ‘choice’ to be encouraged is a privilege in and of itself. For some of us, our lives – as in our wellbeing and the wellbeing of our whanau, tamariki and so on, depend on it. Hence while we may indeed be “all in this together”, some of us have more at stake than others.