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Racism and the media – exploring the said/unsaid

The role of philosophy is not to discover that which is hidden, but to make appear that which we do not perceive because it is so near
Michel Foucault

Brilliant thinker that Foucault is (and I do particularly like this quote), I think the greatest appeal of these words is that they remind me of the admonishments of our kuia and kaumatua on the marae – it’s not what’s said you should pay attention to, its what’s not said that says the most*.  Ironically.  Focussing on the hidden, the invisibilised, the unspoken is thus an intense preoccupation for me, and carries over into my wary perusal of the media.

I intend to write a series of blogs on racism and the media, highlighting what mostly passes under the radar – the hidden racism (tricky little bastards) that is not so hidden that it doesn’t massively impact, intertwine with, and help circulate the ideological racism I find most disturbing and have written about previously.  I generally have little to no interest in the usual ‘racist’ incidents that draw the attention of the media and raise the ire of the general public.  The Andy Hayden controversy, the Paul Henry debacle.  As I’ve argued before, accusations of such blatant and impolite racism serve only those usually making them – white people.  From my perspective such individuals, horrid as their misdemeanours may be, are a product of the ideological and systemic racism I focus on – a symptom if you will, and not an anomaly.  To illustrate I have to go back to my first piece of writing on racism in the media which was part of my post-graduate Honors thesis.  And actually here I did draw on one of those “oh my god, did he really say that?” incidents, but only in a way that hopefully emphasises my point, not detracts from it.

We’re not going to be told what to do by some cheeky darkie – Paul Holmes

The media furore that followed Holmes’s 2003 diatribe quoted in part above, incorporated a fair amount of intense scrutiny as to whether Mr Holmes was or was not ‘a racist’.  A tricky manoeuvre that characterises racism as the property of individuals, and errant ones at that.  “We’ll show you how not racist ‘we’ as a country are, by hanging the man out to dry”.  Crisis averted, as you were.  I’m lead to lament once again, if only that were true.  Alarmingly, in much of the public censure the focus was on the epiphet used – cheeky darky.  That Holmes had dared to point out the colour of a person’s skin, and in a derogatory manner too (that’s the cheeky part) was unconscionable and even worse – threatened New Zealand’s ‘racially’-progressive image overseas (an image akin to our 100% pure one I suspect).  On top of ‘racism as an individual trait’, what such a reading suggests is that it is pointing out the colour or ‘race’ of a person that is racist.  Racism no longer exists if we are colour blind – we don’t notice, or purport to notice, the colour of the person/people we are speaking about.  When this is the limited understanding  that is promoted, then the similar furore that followed Hone Harawira’s now infamous ‘white mofos‘ comment becomes understandable and only emphasises what many prefer to believe – ‘racism’ is not a matter of white privilege or structural disadvantage, but a poor attitude that any and all are capable of.  Sadly even academics (shock, horror) are guilty of conflating the two maligned individuals and thereby supporting this limited definition.  Worse, they collude with the notion that racist incidents indicate a ‘dark underbelly’ (an interesting descriptor itself, dark depicting of course-all things bad and scurrilous) rather than a pervasive system of thought that washes over and through us all.  Commenting on the academics findings, Race Relations Concilliator Joris de Bres only drives that limited definition home

I think the majority of New Zealanders are positive on race relations but there is an unquantified minority with hateful views.

No, no, and not even!  The insidious part of what Holmes said, by my reading, is not the ‘cheeky darkie’ slur, but the part of the statement that the media paid no attention to whatsoever … “we’re not going to be told what to do by…“.  Cheeky darkie is a sticks’n’stones type comment that while revealing a certain amount of ugly on the part of the speaker, has overshadowed the problematic assertion in those overlooked words that there is an order to ‘our’ society that is being threatened – and that really won’t do.  Some people get to tell some people what to do, and quite frankly,  that ain’t the role of brown/black folks.  As the fabulous Karlo Mila puts it

Darkies in our society are supposed to know their place, and not rise to the cheeky heights of world leaders.

Really it doesn’t get much more colonial than that – reminiscent of the attitude that accompanied first settlement here and elsewhere, and is still pervasive today.  Ideological racism/white supremacy.  Paul Holmes is not merely guilty of failing to think before he spoke.  In fact, its the unthinkingness of his pronouncement, that emphasises my point.  Racism at its most damaging does not require thinking – it is simply the drawing on stereotypes, on common understandings of who ‘they’ are and by comparison who ‘we’ are, and how our relationships must be structured.  Such understandings of superior/inferior; civilised/uncivilised; superordinate/subordinate; those that matter/those that don’t, are as pervasive as the air we breathe.  Paul Holmes’s unfortunate comments don’t mark him out as a renegade racist.   Personally they do little more than confirm my suspicion that he is a public man who can expound at great breadth, but understands little in depth.  He is simply a product of his environment – what we should expect in a country founded (in its ‘New Zealand’ form) on racism and still thoroughly awash with it, not an exception to the racial-harmony rule.  The examples abound, and in blogs to come I intend to make that case.

* I would love to be able to attribute this understanding to a particular kaumatua/kuia but the truth is I’ve heard it so often as to only confirm my belief that contrary to popular mis-representation, Māori have always been superb thinkers – critically and otherwise.  Or as Moana Jackson puts it ‘Māori once were [and always will be] philosophers’.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tarsh #

    Looking forward to reading more e hoa! Once were philosophers! As a bit of a pontificating so & so myself… rather like it!

    September 26, 2011
    • Bearer of discomfort #

      It suits you!

      September 27, 2011
  2. Awesome korero Eka! Its hard to know what to say really as what you are FINALLY putting out there stems from myriad conversations over the years, in which I’ve loved every minute listening to your in depth take on those things so ‘near’, and yet so ‘far’ for many. All I can say is “you go gurl’! And I of course shall be sharing your korero with others. Mauri Ora!

    September 27, 2011
    • Bearer of discomfort #

      Oh stop it lol. Yeah, if these ever get drawn together in a thesis the legitimacy of proclaiming it an individual piece of work is, well, bullshit really. Might have to write in the acknowledgements – ‘collectively crafted over coffee’ 😉

      September 27, 2011
  3. Tarsh #

    Loving your whakaro. Its fascinating how name calling seems so much more abhorrent and deserving of contempt, than the acts of oppression committed by those who deny racism exists.

    When I was still studying medicine, we had some small group sessions which were set up as an avenue to work through some of the feelings/emotions raised from being a doctor in training. In our group we had myself (Maori female) and amazingly another Maori female (there were 7 Maori students in our class of approx 270), one [white] New Zealander male, a male Malaysian student (here for the final three clinical years of training), and the session facilitator, a white middle aged, now New Zealand based, immigrant GP and public health doctor from America, who positioned himself as a vehement defender of publically funded health systems which ensured fair access to healthcare for all people regardless of economic status. Our ethnic, gender, country of birth, and socio-economic backgrounds allowed for some really interesting discussions.

    At each session we were tasked to discuss a situation for which we had had an ’emotional’ response to. These could be good or bad. Typical examples would include dealing with a dying patient, causing pain to a patient (i.e. doing a blood test), and not knowing the answer to a question etc. However, for both the other Maori student and myself the overwhelming issue was systemic rascisim. The Malaysian student was unsurprised at our stories or reactions having been subjected to the same things while in our country. However, although he supported us, he felt unworthy of demanding change to the system as he was on a student visa, and therefore just a ‘guest’. The ‘New Zealander’ was shocked at what we were saying, having never before heard the stories of pain in response to racism from people he respected as his peers. His impression of people who harped on about rascism was that they were all deluded, treaty gravey train seeking, haters and wreakers. The American ‘liberal’ was saddened at our individual accounts, numerous as they were, of racist interactions, but went on the deny the existence of systemic rascism. First he informed me that myself and my people were not oppresed (how could I be, I’m in medical school), then he went on to say there was no need for a Maori led medical school as medicine is medicine and patients are patients (so get that idea out of your radical head), and then he said that the solution was to work really hard, thereby gaining respect and also improving the health of all people including Maori (he must of missed the part about ethnic disparities in, hmmmm, pretty much everything).

    Gob smacked -I know.

    So while denying systemic racsim might not make you a racist, I’d rather be called a @#!4*?) Maowi, then have someone like that making public health decisions.

    September 28, 2011
  4. Patrick #

    An awesome analysis… I think that the response against
    Paul Holmes was not so much a true denunciation of racism as it was a response to the APPEARANCE of racism… the object being not to disturb the picture of NZ as we like to imagine it to be. The same can perhaps be said of Paul Henry, that Mayor up north, anytime someone gets in trouble for spouting off some mildly perjorative remark, when in fact we should be looking deeply into the institutional racist frameworks and institutions that underpin our country – the NZ police anyone? –

    Keep up the good work

    September 28, 2011
  5. Kia ora B. o. D.,
    Another all too apparent aspect of this is the social media, such as this, or more so Facebook, where there is just truly hateful and vicious stuff that has no need to use any pretence in covering up the ugliness and racism – both from the writer and the commenters. All that seems to happen is a quick digression to ugly mud slinging, even threats. What I found most sad about a recent social media encounter in which I supported of Margaret Mutu was not the anger I felt for the individuals “screaming” at me and the vitriol of the rightness of their whiteness. Rather the melancholy in me came from looking in their mirror and seeing myself there. How not so long ago that may well have been me, how I would have rationalized my feelings to find agreement in what they were writing. That these are people I literally know, old friends, schoolmates, workmates, people I encounter everyday. How hard that it was, is, to confront that within myself and change, or at least acknowledge within me that I need to change. And be aware of it on a daily, hourly basis. It saddens me deeply to know how difficult the road ahead is. For me and for them.

    September 29, 2011
  6. Bearer of discomfort #

    Brave I reckon to be willing to look at ourselves, and then balance that personal ignorance up with the understanding that we’re socialised into thinking/believing what we do a lot of the time. I don’t just mean parents… through out education system, media etc. But there does come a point where we have to reflect on our own complicity its true. Well, if we have a heart that is.

    September 29, 2011

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