A new collection of essays discusses the different ways we talk about racism and race in Aotearoa.
It examines our understanding of ethnicity and culture, alongside colourism and race — and how we often confuse what these are. It also places Aotearoa’s history of colonisation in a global framework, pointing to the importance of that context in our own framing of racism.
In this excerpt from Lana Lopesi’s essay in the collection, she looks at how online discussions of race often rubs against the dominant understanding of ethnicity in Aotearoa.
The full version is in Towards a Grammar of Race in Aotearoa New Zealand, published by Bridget Williams Books. Lana is one of its editors.
Recently, someone asked on Twitter what people think about the term “mixed race”, and whether it works in the New Zealand context or belongs only to the United States.
The tweet resulted in a lot of answers. Some followers thought that the term was fine — that it just is what it is — while others refuted the term because it upheld racial notions of blood quantum.
Overwhelmingly, there was a sense that people felt the term was an Americanism, that notions of race are flawed, and that ethnicity was a much nicer way of identifying.
This tweet, and the responses, are an example of a rub that plays out regularly, particularly when it comes to language around whiteness, white-passingness and colourism.
I would posit that this happens because these concepts can create feelings of ethnic fragility, when one feels as though these ideas impede on one’s ethnicity, or even one’s indigeneity.
From 1916, New Zealand’s census statistics counted race (just Māori and Pākehā), and by 1936, respondents were asked to define their race by fractions of blood. Everyone else was counted as “race aliens”.
By the early 21st century, this had changed to being based on ethnicity, which today is the prevailing feature of national race discourse — perhaps a part of New Zealand’s racial grammar.
As defined by Stats NZ, ethnicity is “not a measure of race, ancestry, nationality, or citizenship. Ethnicity is self-perceived and people can belong to more than one ethnic group.” Thus, ethnicity is to do with one’s ancestral cultures, tribal/village/clan affiliation, and religion.
For many people, this is something which, under colonisation and assimilationist policies, has been under threat, and that threat of ethnic erasure is still very much alive and active.
But one’s ethnicity is different from race, which is a constructed system of oppression that is implemented through imperial projects via the categorisation of people by phenotype like skin colour.
Although they are different, race and ethnicity are also very intertwined. Online, it is the distinctions and similarities between notions of race and ethnicity that rub together and cause tension — often leading to a conflation of notions of race and racial power with ethnic identity.
While it is something that is constructed, race today has real-world impacts through the way people are racialised, meaning that different bodies are oppressed in different ways based on how they appear in the world.
Thus, if we agree that race is a modern formation of power, then we can see how the grammar around whiteness, white-passingness and colourism is also to do with power under modernity. And so, being white-passing, and benefiting from white privilege and colourism, is about holding social power, at least compared with those who do not.
Race, then, is a socially constructed structure of power that we are part of even if we refuse to acknowledge it, and one’s ethnicity is about personal ethnic identifications, whakapapa and ancestries.
Part of the challenge of the online environment and this rub is that racial grammars flow in here, with no consistent understanding of how race operates, and so it can — when used incorrectly — come to stand in for notions like ethnicity and whakapapa.
So while race and ethnicity — racial power and one’s ethnic identity — are connected, they are also very separate things.
For many Indigenous communities, racial power manifests through notions such as blood quantum, essentialist authenticity narratives, and assimilationist policies, which often pit people within their communities against each other.
For those who are white-passing or benefit from white privilege, shifting the emphasis to race from ethnicity can make them feel as though their own position in the discussions are in jeopardy, because of feelings that they are not “enough” of something.
And so, when we talk about notions like white-passing or colourism within communities, many people do get defensive and outright reject that language and those notions because of how that makes them feel in relation to their own ancestry.
You could go so far as to say that the refuting of race, by those who hold varying degrees of racial power, is an abuse of social power. This could be read through the work of someone like Frank Wilderson and the Afro-pessimist tradition, which would posit this as a form of anti-Blackness, in which junior partners maintain their “humanity”, and by extension their whiteness, at the expense of people who don’t have the same level of social power.
There is a real perception that any discourse on race is American, and that we are susceptible to an overwhelming US influence. While that notion bears truth, it is also somewhat misdirected, and it obfuscates the role of the UK and the colonial logics that underpin the racial power found globally.
As an aside, the Twitter thread that I discussed at the start of this section revealed that the term “mixed race” is actually British.
The simplistic reaction to reject anything that is American is part of a wider cultural amnesia that stops us from seeing racial power as being a force that is shared and operates the world over, including in our lovely little archipelago.
Dr Lana Lopesi is an author, art critic, editor and multidisciplinary researcher from Tāmaki Makaurau. She is Assistant Professor Pacific Islander Studies in the Department of Indigenous, Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of Oregon. In 2018, Lana published her debut book, False Divides (BWB Texts), followed by Bloody Woman (Bridget Williams Books) in 2021.
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