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’.