Waitangi is an opportunity for us to talk about challenging Treaty issues, so let’s talk about colonielle oppression, writes Tina Ngata. (This is an edited version of a piece that was first published here.)
Like most Waitangi Days, this year I reflected a lot on the incredible women who have led our Tiriti justice movement over the years.
I spent time with my daughters and thought about who I want them to look up to and who I need to protect them from — and where I need to focus my energy in order to leave them a better world.
Curiously, I noted, many others took the opportunity to acknowledge Waitangi Day by celebrating the prime minister. I mean, sure, there’s lots that can be said about her in comparison to her forebears, but it’s probably the least appropriate day to carry out that exercise.
Waitangi is an opportunity for us to talk about challenging Treaty issues, so let’s talk colonielle oppression.
By colonielle, I mean coloniser women who benefit from and exploit colonial patriarchy. They have an arsenal of tools at their manicured fingertips, including deadly tears, the camouflage of gender rights, deployment of their colonial male protectors, and the manipulation of media.
New Zealand is steadfastly committed to drinking its own Kool-aid when it comes to race relations. We have stitched-in blinders when it comes to convincing everyone that we are kind, and just and equitable.
We are the archetypal pearl-clutching, apron-wringing Stepford wife of a nation, refusing to face our darkest truths and insisting, through gritted teeth, that everyone just enjoy the damn trifle.
Even when we have moments of apparent insight (like the Dawn Raids apology), they are portrayed as the errors of a previous era, historical transgressions that this new, shiny government can heroically make up for (even utilising the metaphor of breaking shackles). And, unsurprisingly, when just weeks later that history repeats itself, it is treated as an aberration of the colonial system, not a feature.
Between New Zealand’s compulsive delusions about its own innocence, and the additional racist layering of white feminism, New Zealand society is ripe ground for colonielle racism, which occurs against a backdrop of “no racism to see here”.
Over the past week, we have seen it demonstrated, as women of colour were gleefully thrown, yet again, under the bus by a white female journalist, Charlotte Bellis, for her own ends.
MIQ has played a crucial role is keeping us alive and relatively safe from Covid, but it has also generated its own injustice, particularly for New Zealand citizens returning home, and has itself become heavily politicised. So, naturally, the anti-Labourites and anti-Ardern crowd came out strong, upholding Bellis as the white Mother Mary spurned from safe lodging.
Blissfully ignorant or uncaring of the fact that she had employed time-honoured colonielle tactics of exploiting misogynist patriarchal power and stealing/appropriating from women of colour for her own benefit, the New Zealand commentary managed the trick of impassioned laziness, as they failed to look beyond their own cultural and political context of MIQ and PM Ardern.
And even as Afghani women, such as Muzhgan Samarqandi, pointed out that Bellis is doing more harm than good, and had been actively silencing their pleas — and as other eloquent writers such as Rafia Zakaria pointed out that she is employing privilege and exploiting misogyny (seriously, read those links they are very, very good) — the chorus of Bellis supporters, part political opportunist, part colonielle faux feminist, chimed together that there is NO racism at play here.
Now, we need to appreciate the New Zealand context here. White women racism is its own genre, with its own characteristics and features (including white women feminists exploiting colonial systems that oppress non-white women, and society that protects that behaviour, and using feminism to cloak racism). Elizabeth Woolstonecraft, considered a founder of the British suffrage movement, used slavery as a metaphor to discuss the treatment of privileged white women in the UK.
It’s a chilling reminder, in this age of faux-oppression, that white supremacists co-opting victimhood is not new, and in fact has its own historical narrative.
In the USA, white women suffragettes sided with racist white female slave owners because getting women the vote was more important than halting lynchings.
This genre of racism also sits at the heart of the New Zealand feminist movement, with Kate Sheppard being centered as the iconic leader of New Zealand and the world’s feminist movement, all the while erasing that wāhine Māori held political power long before this, or that Kate Sheppard’s Christian Temperance Union applied horribly racist policy against the sacred practice of moko kauwae for wāhine Māori, a powerful cultural attack on the sacredness of wāhine.
Even in the recent 125-year anniversary celebrations, New Zealand largely failed to grasp the opportunity to expose, and dismantle, the legacy of colonielle racism in Aotearoa, and failed to explore the colonial and Indigenous context within which the New Zealand suffrage movement played out. (For a wonderfully articulate exploration of this truth, read this piece by Leonie Pihama.)
So, let’s just get clear about something. The moment someone says a situation is “not racist” that is, in itself, a red flag.
Racism exists in acts, deeds, words, thoughts, and policy which uphold a system of racial injustice.
Our entire world is built on a system of racial injustice. The global economy was born of, and is maintained through, racial injustice. The New Zealand government, which creates the system of policies that shape our lives, is premised on racist ideals of European supremacy. Those ideals are upheld today as we see Waitangi Day after Waitangi Day pass without the government ever volunteering to address the injustice of our racist, Treaty-violating constitutional framework.
Treaties are tools for equity. You cannot achieve treaty justice by applying the Treaty within an inequitable system. While racism remains at the roots of our society, it will inevitably rise to the surface in implicit and explicit ways. It will be provided for in policies, protected in institutions, and enabled in individual acts and words.
It is in its ubiquity that the power of racism rests. It is the systems that refuse to accept its presence, even in the face of it, which allow racism to not only be maintained but proliferate.
It’s the society and organisations which always point to others but never to themselves that fail to dismantle it and permit its presence as the default experience for everyone who isn’t white. Which is why we say, in the critical theory of race, there is no such thing as “not racist”.
You are either actively exposing and addressing the ubiquitous system of racism as it appears in your organisation, through antiracist education and policy, or you are enabling racism to remain — which is racist.
Which brings us to the case of Aiomai Nuku-Tarawhiti who was followed through Farmers Tauriko by a staff member, and then profiled as “undesirable”, and told to leave. Farmers have apparently held an investigation and the whānau have a meeting with them soon, to be mediated by the Human Rights Commission. In an email to the whānau, Farmers contested that the incident was not, in their opinion, racist.
It might be possible to suggest that being followed and called “undesirable” is in itself an objectively neutral experience that is without explicit racist intent and could not have caused racialised harm.
But let’s take one factor off the table early: intent.
Racism is not experienced by intent. It’s not about the person that did it, but rather where it lands, who experiences it, and the power relationships between them. This phenomenon did not happen on a blank canvas.
We have an older white woman, in a position of authority, following a young brown woman for no reason than how she “looked”, labeling her “undesirable”, implicitly accusing her of doing something wrong, or being somewhere wrong — and explicitly looking/being wrong — and directing her to leave.
This occurs to Aiomai as a member of a people who have been unfairly judged, labeled, villainised, disempowered and displaced for generations. It occurs to her as the next generation of a long line of brown women who have been subjected to the colonial gaze as either “desirable” or “undesirable”, with equally disastrous consequences.
It occurs against a history, passed down to Aiomai, where native women and children have been specifically targeted by a colonial project with the aim of leaving their people morally dejected, deflated, and easier to oppress.
To have applied such treatment in a way that ignores that reality, is, in itself, racist. It erases the harm that this experience creates WHEN COMBINED with the longstanding experience of being Māori in colonially racist New Zealand and being a young woman of colour in a racist world.
It expects her to receive that experience as if she were, in fact, white.
So, after another Waitangi Day has passed, and we see our land is still not back, our rights to self-determination remain denied, and the power systems that enable racist abuse of privilege remain, I celebrate and uplift Aiomai Nuku-Tarawhiti who is standing her ground, along with her whānau who stand by her side.
She is standing up to the system that has protected and enabled white women to exploit colonial power against brown women. Drawing on the long history of wāhine Māori who have held and protected this land from the time of Atua to this day, continuing a legacy carried by Whina, by Eva, by Naida, by Tariana.
You see, it’s not just trauma that travels through the generations, but also mana, strength, and forbearance. Aiomai is here because every generation before her survived everything colonisers had to throw.
They tried to move her out of sight, but she is not moving. She is a powerful wāhine and, even as a rangatahi, is forcing racist colonial systems to confront themselves — and for that, she is my Waitangi hero, and she should be yours, too.
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.
This is an edited version of a piece first published on Tina’s blog.
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