Tina Ngata (Photo supplied)

Two weeks ago, we ran a piece by three Black New Zealanders who talked about the anti-Black racism they’d experienced in Aotearoa, and especially the use of the N-word.

The ensuing Twitter fallout has been, as Tina Ngata writes here, “embarrassing, disheartening, and at times gut-wrenching”.

(This is an edited version of a piece originally published here.)

 

I remember very clearly when I first heard the N-word used as an insult. I was around nine years old.

Before that, I’d heard it as a pet’s name, and I’d heard some whānau use it for a nickname. To me, it didn’t seem any different to other names like “Rover” or “Bill”. But once I heard it levelled as an insult, it clicked that it must have some kind of meaning to it, so I went to my mum and asked: “Mum what does n***** mean?”

She was in the kitchen at the time. She stopped what she was doing and asked me where I’d heard it. I don’t recall if it was me or a friend who’d been called it — but the very next thing Mum said to me, in a careful, deliberate manner, was: “You must never, ever say that word. Do you understand me?”

She then told me about the history of the Ku Klux Klan, and of slavery, and the slave trade. She told me that when we use that word, we call up that history, and it’s not our history to call up.

To this day, I have a hard time letting the word move past my lips, and in spite of hearing it used in Aotearoa over the years, I’m glad my mouth has never gotten used to it.

I have, however, heard it many times — it worked its way into our lexicon (both English and Māori) very early on. And since that discussion with my mum all those years ago, I’ve learned a lot about its use both here and across Te Moana nui a Kiwa — as an insult, nickname, and even as a place-name since the arrival of the coloniser.

Recently, I’ve seen it levelled, in an insulting and demeaning fashion, by our own, against a Black American man here in Aotearoa.

It was just the latest in many instances where a Black person I know has been called that word within a very short time of their arrival to Aotearoa. In quite a few instances, it’s their first experience of being called that word.

Yes, they had to come to Aotearoa to be called the N-word.

The ensuing fallout exposed numerous pain points — for our Black community here in Aotearoa, for Māori kiritea, and for Māori and Pasifika in general.

Within an hour of witnessing a Black man being called the N-word, we had managed to make the discussion about non-Black people’s feelings. While many recognised the anti-Black harm levelled in the use of the word itself, a far greater number failed to see the anti-blackness in the fallout that followed.

Black people were told that now was not the time for raising the issue of anti-blackness, that they shouldn’t speak in such angry ways, and definitely to not point out the white skin of those they were responding to.

At one point, it was suggested that calling a tangata whenua “white” was the same as calling a Black person the N-word.

Black people also had words placed in their mouths and were called anti-Māori, divisive, ignorant, and made to feel, again, like outsiders.

The discussion even extended to a Pākehā (who claimed his entitlement to be part of the conversation because he has brown children and is, farcically, making a documentary about the N-word in Aotearoa) calling the police on the Black man who was called the N-word, and falsely accusing them of violence. It has been embarrassing, disheartening, and at times gut-wrenching.

Now, allow me to be clear on my position (as we all should when entering into conversations about power and bias). I carry Māori lineage alongside Czech, Scottish and Cornish. So I am Māori, and I am Pākehā, with neither cancelling out the other.

How I present is another thing entirely. I am Māori kiritea.

My skin can move from being very brown in the summer, to being very light in the winter. Much of my pathway was shaped by my own whiteness and proximity to whiteness (that is, people believing I was white, or at least, “white enough”).

Why is “how I present” another thing altogether? Because skin colour is a building block of race, and has been since the concept of race was created.

Skin colour influences how you experience the world. Race is different to ethnicity in important ways, in that it can be applied to you without any knowledge of your culture. Whereas ethnicity is something we often claim ourselves, and which can communicate our cultural, religious and national identities, race zeroes in on how you present, visually.

Race critical theorists often pinpoint the early stages of racism as being around the 14th century, with the advent of the Doctrine of Discovery — the creation of the “Black” race for the purpose of enslavement, and the creation of the “Native” race for the purpose of dispossession, even though there were huge cultural and genetic variations within those groups. Both were, of course, subordinate to the “European” race — hence the rise of white supremacy.

This hierarchy of power was embedded into our global power systems, and shaped our modern economy, international relations, legal frameworks, media, and power systems.

It’s also meant that, from the very earliest stage of this mission for global dominance, when the children of Africa were ripped from her breast and traded around the world, their story has become intertwined in deeply complex ways with the Indigenous peoples of the lands they were taken to — and the common oppressive experience of white supremacy.

Here, in Aotearoa, colonisers applied the N-word liberally to anyone who was not white. Without the full context of what the N-word meant, or the relationships or experience to appreciate its inference, it was often seen as a mere descriptor and absorbed into our lexicon.

Back then, before the ease of international travel, cross-cultural education, the civil rights movement, decolonial theory and the internet, there were a lot more excuses for centring ourselves in our understanding of that word.

Now, not so much.

It is dangerous to consider something intractable simply because it has managed to stick around for a long time.

We must acknowledge the context of cultural appropriation of blackness, anti-blackness and the use of the N-word in Aotearoa. Yes, it has history specific to here. But that should not be used to erase the history that came before its arrival, and the power dynamics that stem from that.

As non-Black people, when we say the N-word, there is simply no escaping the fact that we’re invoking a history that we do not carry in our bodies, that we do not carry in our movement through this world. The word simply cannot be weaponised against us to the same effect.

We need to understand anti-blackness as the context which allows for it to be taken, claimed and used repeatedly.

I’m not going to define anti-blackness because that’s not for me to do, even in Aotearoa. That is for Black people to do — and we have a wealth of Māori-African, Māori-Black-American, and Black tangata Tiriti who can, and have provided that definition. Herehere, and here are links to their voices.

What I will talk about is how we’ve come to miss the rampant anti-blackness right in front of us, especially in the recent discussions about the use of the N-word.

Often, when anti-blackness is raised in Aotearoa, it’s derailed by Māori (often Māori kiritea) who insist that colourism be understood in light of themselves and their experiences of being light-skinned Māori. Here, whiteness as a race is consistently confused and conflated with ethnicity and whakapapa.

When that’s pointed out, and someone’s whiteness is mentioned, it’s called insensitive, un-nuanced, and even ignorant to the cultural context of Aotearoa. We rarely go a few months without a new thinkpiece about how difficult it is to be Māori kiritea and the judgement that comes from our own. In that sense, we have repeatedly held each other to account over our anti-whiteness.

We cannot, however, seem to bring the same energy for anti-blackness. I have watched Black people in Aotearoa exercise incredible grace and restraint over the years as they sought to progress the kōrero on anti-blackness, but they have been continuously derailed or shut down by our own. I have seen their distinct experience erased as Māori claimed the mantle of being “the Black people of Aotearoa”, and watched Black allies back away from the discussion.

At times, they backed away out of respect for tangata whenua. Sometimes it was to protect their own wellbeing. Sometimes it was just sheer exhaustion. Being kiritea myself, I’ve not wanted to force a discussion that would draw further fire their way — but I see now that our ineptness in this space has contributed to a context where Black people are routinely exposed to harm.

We cannot allow that to continue.

To begin with, we need to understand the difference between race and ethnicity. It is clear our people don’t like being called white by other people, and take particular issue when it’s coming from a Black person.

We’ve been defined by others for so long, and even mis-defined by our own, that it is instinctively egregious to have someone else “label” us. When people who understand the difference between race and ethnicity call us white, it is a challenge to accept all that comes with it, and to understand the limits of where we can go, and where we cannot go, in our discussions. To those who don’t understand that difference, it feels like a denial of our whakapapa and a re-defining of who we are. Being tau in all of our whakapapa resolves this site of mamae.

Second, we need to decentre our own mamae and listen to Black New Zealanders who have decentered their own pain for us, repeatedly.

For Māori kiritea, when we hear “this isn’t your place”, it raises all of the pain of being shut out by colonisers, and by our own. Similarly, when we are told of the privilege of being white in a white supremacist world, we feel that the difficulty of being white-presenting in te ao Māori is being negated.

While we do experience the intergenerational legacy of racism, Māori kiritea don’t have an experienced reference point for being pulled over, or incarcerated, or denied a job, or denied justice, or denied service, because of being Black. Even for dark-skinned Māori, or Māori mau-moko, this experience is not a continuation of millions being irrevocably displaced from their cultural identity, enslaved and lynched. Critical to that is a deep understanding and respect for the distinctiveness of Black history.

Leading on from this, we need to understand that white supremacy is a system, and it exists in acts, words, and policy — not in genes or skin colour.

Appearing white provides an opportunity for abusing the privilege invested in whiteness by a white supremacist society. However, having white skin is not innately bad. The domination of white privilege abuse in the stories of colonisation means many of us struggle with the idea of being called white (even though we say it easily enough).

We fear that, in accepting the whiteness of our presentation, this must necessarily make us white supremacists. To combat that, we need deep wānanga on what it is to carry and respond to whiteness responsibly.

In his book How to be an Anti-Racist, race critical theorist Ibram X Kendi says:

“In the end, anti-White racist ideas, in taking some or all of the focus off racist power, become anti-Black. In the end, hating White people becomes hating Black people.”

Those words rang through my mind throughout the debate as the obsession with evading and rejecting whiteness completely eclipsed the core issue of anti-blackness. Who loses out in this equation? We all do. White people, Black people, and in particular, Māori-Black mokopuna. In much the same way, anti-whiteness, even as a trauma reaction to colonisation, becomes anti-Blackness and also becomes anti-Māori.

As difficult as they’ve been, the recent discussions on anti-blackness have probably surged us closer to racial justice than Aotearoa has been in a long time.

I’m just sorry that, as is so often the case in this global system of anti-blackness, Black people again had to pay the price for that.

 

This is an edited version of a piece that was first published on Tina’s blog

Tina Ngata (Ngāti Porou) is a researcher and scholar, and the author of Kia Mau: Resisting Colonial Fictions. Her work involves advocacy for environmental, Indigenous and human rights. This includes local, national and international initiatives that highlight the role of settler colonialism in issues such as climate change and waste pollution, and which promote Indigenous conservation as best practice for a globally sustainable future.

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