Max Harris: It’s imperative that discussions of whiteness don’t lead to paralysing navel-gazing, and instead are a catalyst to organising for social change.

At a recent talk I attended, Claudia Rankine, a Jamaican-born American poet and academic, spoke about how, in many places, “white life is a standard for normal life”. Whiteness is seen as “neutral, nonpartisan, and normal,” she said, and we’re encouraged to think that “white people are The People”.

In contrast, people who aren’t white are either “invisible — or hyper-visible.”

Rankine called on those in the audience, including white audience members, to name whiteness — and to do more to understand it.

“To name whiteness is to name dominance,” she said.

I want to talk about an aspect of whiteness in Aotearoa New Zealand. And when I say “whiteness”, I’m not just talking about skin colour. I’m talking about the power, privilege, and patterns of thinking associated with white people.

Whiteness is connected to economic power and class — and is probably least understood by those it privileges. Most white people seem blind to its existence, while most non-white people are not.

I’m a white, Pākehā New Zealander, aware that I have blindspots — but perhaps not aware of what all those blindspots are. I grew up mostly in Wellington, spending quite a few years of my childhood in Thorndon. My parents’ roots are in England, Scotland, and Wales.

Many Māori, Pākehā, Pasifika, and Asian New Zealanders have commented on whiteness in Aotearoa. Of course, I can’t speak to experiences of being non-white. I write from the perspective of having grown up in Pākehā-dominant spaces where features of whiteness have been particularly visible to me.

That includes noticing hostility towards Māori (and others) among Pākehā as early as when I was at primary school in the 1990s, even though I went to a creative, diverse school (Clyde Quay School in Mount Victoria). It also includes hearing anti-Māori comments at law school in Auckland.

I think for those of us who identify as Pākehā, or grew up in Pākehā-dominant spaces, there’s a special responsibility to strive to be aware of our own advantages in Aotearoa New Zealand.

. . .

To understand how we came by those benefits and privileges, it’s helpful to begin with history.

Māori arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand a least 800–1000 years ago, by some accounts even longer. Europeans arrived just 250 years ago, from 1769 on. The Declaration of Independence was signed by Māori rangatira in 1835, assuring Māori of sovereign power. Te Tiriti o Waitangi was signed in 1840, which provided for Crown government and Māori powers of full chieftainship, on a bedrock of equality.

By 1858, after some major Crown-initiated military incursions, the Pākehā population and Māori population were at the same level: about 58,000. From that year on, the Pākehā population grew larger than the Māori population as further settlers arrived.

In the 1860s, the Waikato War saw the invasion of Māori land and the removal of huge swathes of land from Māori control and, in the same decade, the Native Land Court forcibly split up collective Māori land holdings. In these periods, Māori won many battles against well-resourced colonial armies, engaged with traders, and adopted and adapted aspects of Pākehā religion and custom.

But this strong Māori agency didn’t stop the government from violently intervening in many aspects of Māori life. For example, the government threw the peaceful leaders of resistance at Parihaka (Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi) into jail in 1881, and banned traditional Māori health and healing practices through the Tohunga Suppression Act 1907.

Against that backdrop, and in the face of strident and steady Māori resistance (through movements such as the Kingitanga and the Kauhanganui assembly), racism — the maintenance and perpetuation of the superiority of one racial group over another — became embedded in New Zealand society, and advantages accrued to Pākehā through institutions and individual behaviour.

Racism has helped to sustain colonisation over time, as Moana Jackson has pointed out, and it is still present. Māori make up 51 percent of the prison population, but just 15 percent of the general population. For the same category of dangerous or negligent acts, according to JustSpeak’s research, 46 percent of Māori apprehended are prosecuted, compared to 9 percent of Pākehā. The Māori unemployment rate is 9 percent, while it is 4.5 percent for Pākehā.

White advantage is maintained in many ways: through intergenerational wealth, discretionary decision-making, and everyday racism.

. . .

One aspect of how racism is talked about in Aotearoa is white defensiveness in response to discussions of racism. By white defensiveness, I mean an anxiety, closing-down, and insecurity among white people and white-dominated institutions when racism is raised.

I see at least four types of white defensiveness.

The Mad Butcher, Peter Leitch

First, there’s Denial. Exhibit A is the response to the Mad Butcher’s comment to a Māori woman that Waiheke Island was a “white man’s island”. It’s hard not to think of a more straightforward example of a racist comment: a comment that, regardless of intention, had the effect of maintaining a sense of superiority among a dominant group.

Yet on social media and in the Mad Butcher’s own response, there was a stretching to deny that the comment was racist: it was “light-hearted banter”, a joke, or misinterpreted. Another example has been the reaction to Taika Waititi’s recent remark that New Zealand is “racist as fuck”.

On the AM Show, Duncan Garner called the comment “sabotage”, and Mark Richardson insisted Taika Waititi couldn’t speak for everyone (though Taika was clearly speaking about trends and tendencies).

These were examples of defensive denial: kneejerk responses that attempt to deny that there is racism, rather than taking claims seriously or considering its roots.

The second type of white defensiveness is Diversion. This is where, in instances in which facts about racism or colonisation are raised, the conversation is derailed through a claim that Māori themselves are guilty of some other wrong.

A common claim, which I have seen on social media multiple times, in response to discussions of Māori disadvantage, is that Māori themselves perpetrated disadvantage by extinguishing Moriori people on arrival in Aotearoa New Zealand. That myth has now been definitively refuted. But it doesn’t stop people from raising it as a way to deflect attention away from a case of individual or structural racism.

There are many other examples of deflection: ill-informed claims about sexism within Māori communities or allegations that Māori benefit from “reverse racism” — through, for example, affirmative action programmes at universities.

The problem with claims of reverse racism is this. If racism is about the maintenance and perpetuation of the superiority of one racial group over another, it’s illogical to talk about racism in favour of Māori. Māori haven’t held a position of underlying economic or social superiority in New Zealand since European arrival, and therefore can’t be said to have maintained or perpetuated any superiority.

A third form of defensiveness is Detriment-centring. That’s where there’s a focus on the disadvantages faced by Māori, but without any acknowledgment of the advantages or protective factors which flow from being Pākehā. These deficit narratives appear to sympathise with Māori, but they negate the agency shown by many Māori throughout history. They play on negative stereotypes that reinforce Māori failure and inferiority when compared to Pākehā success.

I could recite any number of personal experiences where being Pākehā has protected me. I’ve been let out of a police cell by police in a situation where I think (and know from evidence) that non-Pākehā might not have been given the benefit of the doubt. I’ve seen myself as a Pākehā positively represented on-screen, in the media, and elsewhere. I’ve had the comfort of never being followed in a shop for wearing a hoody.

And there have been many other moments where I think the fact that I look like people who predominate in positions of power — and this relates to class and gender, too — has provided me with benefits.

Duncan Garner and Mark Richardson on the AM Show

The fourth form of defensiveness is the demand to Move on. This is where defensive demands are made for discussions about racism to end.

Some commentators, as settlements for historical claims under Te Tiriti o Waitangi begin to wind down, have begun to talk about not just a “post-Treaty settlement era”, but a “post-Treaty era” — an effort to see Te Tiriti o Waitangi as a historical relic rather than a lasting basis for healthy relationships in our society.

Gareth Morgan co-wrote a book in 2014 called Are We There Yet? The Future of the Treaty of Waitangi. The title — especially the word “yet” — implied an impatience to move on, rather than to understand the full effects of the past on the present.

But suggestions that the Treaty settlement process has been burdensome are wrong, given that, as Julia Whaipooti has recently pointed out, the total amount of money spent on Treaty settlements ($2.2 billion) equates to the standard operating costs for New Zealand prisons over two years.

Whether those calling for New Zealand to “move on” take this view of Treaty settlements, what is clear is that calls to move on share an element of defensiveness that we see in Denial, Diversion, and Detriment-centring.

. . .

It’s worth wondering whether there’s anything unique about Aotearoa New Zealand that might make white defensiveness worse here than in other countries.

Here are three possibilities. First, the realities of racism threaten the constantly-paraded myth that New Zealand has the best race relations in the world — the jarring sound of reality in the face of that myth may produce particular defensiveness.

Secondly, something I’ve noticed while living overseas is that New Zealand social life is often characterised by laidback, at-ease attitudes. But this can make it harder to call out bad behaviour, and may raise the stakes of defensiveness where real racism exists.

Thirdly, social capital (the strength of social networks) may matter more in New Zealand because of our small size as a country — and defensiveness could be a reflexive attempt to protect relationships and the value attached to them.

. . .

This is just one aspect of race in Aotearoa New Zealand, and is not meant to diminish the importance of the more visible violence perpetrated along racial (and class) lines through, among other things, incarceration and racial profiling.

It’s also true that this might make for uncomfortable reading for some, especially Pākehā. If that’s the case for you, I’d encourage you to sit with that discomfort. It’s not racist to describe differences in outcomes for those identifying as Māori and those identifying as non-Māori. If it were racist to mention racial groups we’d never be able to describe accurately contemporary social conditions or what to do about them.

This discussion isn’t meant to demonise white people, or Pākehā, either. It’s about being honest and open about our advantages — and thinking about how to dismantle the system that produces them. Pākehā people can, and should, remain proud of our heritage and roots. But we also need to be aware of the injustices of the past and present, and how we may have contributed to them.

One very valid question is how all this relates to class and New Zealand’s system of capitalism. We need to talk more about class in this country — to speak back to another lamentable and longstanding myth that we are somehow class-free. Fortunately, a new generation of activists in New Zealand is breathing fresh life into that conversation. But to talk about whiteness is not to deny that class matters.

Judgments about whiteness can often be a proxy, a way to signal judgments about wealth or economic status. It’s important to be aware of how members of dominant groups are sustaining power through class, race, gender, and other interlocking forces. At the same time — and without needing to uphold the fiction that race is biological — it’s important to recognise that racism can exist even in the most affluent spaces.

And, despite claims to the contrary, honest discussions about the benefits that some Pākehā have received by virtue of being regarded as white doesn’t necessarily prevent the soldering of ties of solidarity. In fact, shared recognition of class-based and race-based injustice can be a powerful driver to action. That is the imperative arising out of all of this: that discussions of whiteness don’t lead to paralysing navel-gazing, and instead are a catalyst to organising for social change.

Pākehā New Zealanders — and others who feel the urge towards defensiveness about racism — need to resist tactics of diversion, denial, detriment-centring, and the demand to move on.

But we need to go deeper than this, too. There’s a need to support Māori-led efforts at decolonisation: the process of understanding and undoing the negative effects of colonisation, and recentring indigenous views.

We all must also push for a different economic order, given the way that the twin forces of capitalism and colonisation have amplified the power of whiteness. Māori shouldn’t always have to carry out the intellectual and emotional labour of educating people, especially Pākehā, about what happened in New Zealand history. We as Pākehā need to educate ourselves and have conversations with other Pākehā.

Everyday gestures matter, too, as Jen Margaret has pointed out: “Pākehā individually and collectively listening, learning, acting and influencing.” It’s through my friendships with people identifying as Māori, some study of history, and involvement in anti-colonial campaigns (including in the UK) that I’ve begun to listen and unlearn behaviours — though I will continue to make mistakes.

And it’s worth heeding the words of Ani Mikaere in He Rukuruku Whakaaro: Colonial Myths, Māori Realities:

For Pākehā to gain legitimacy here, it is they who must place their trust in Māori, not the other way around. They must accept that it is for the tangata whenua to determine their status in this land, and to do so in accordance with tikanga Māori.

… There is no doubt that many Pākehā will find this challenging: their obsession with control over the Māori-Pākehā relationship to date could almost be categorised as a form of compulsive disorder. Giving up such control requires a leap of faith on the part of Pākehā. … Nothing less will suffice if they truly want to gain the sense of belonging they so crave, the sense of identity that until now has proven so elusive.

This reminds us of one important final point. Dismantling systems of oppression, including those based on race and class, is important for the powerful as well as the powerless.

In the memorable words of American poet and scholar Fred Moten: “I don’t need your help. I need you to recognise that this shit is killing you too, however much more softly …”


Max Harris is a former Rhodes Scholar, who’s now an Examination Fellow at All Souls College in Oxford, where he’s completing a PhD. He’s the author of the best-selling book, The New Zealand Project, in which he calls for a values-based politics based on concepts like love, manaakitanga, and creativity.
  © E-Tangata, 2018

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