Moana Jackson: Understanding racism in this country

by Moana Jackson
Sun 25 Feb 2018
8 min read

So once again racism has been in the news. In the last few months, the numerous examples that have become public have been almost as tiresome as they have been offensive.

Whether it has been some ageing Pākehā man belittling Māori (and being given media coverage as a misguided expression of press freedom), or a shop owner selling golliwogs (because “the customers like them”), the ridicule of racism has been sprouting everywhere like some noxious weed that never seems to die.  

It’s heartening that the worst cases have been condemned by many people on social media and elsewhere. But even the most genuine and angry criticism seems to have had little effect, and it’s sadly almost certain that, sometime soon, another racist weed will burst forth somewhere else.

It's not being cynical to make such a prediction. Rather, it’s simply to acknowledge that racism as an ideology and a practice is deeply embedded in the history of this country, and that it’s still too often misunderstood or divorced from the colonisation which spawned and sustained it.

Wherever indigenous peoples have been dispossessed, in Africa or Australia or the Americas and Aotearoa, racism has been the constant presence through which the colonisers compounded other ancient prejudices such as sexism and classism.

It has been the hate speech which enabled the states of Europe to justify killing and subjugating millions of people. And it has been expressed in everything from the depictions of lesser breeds that were “half-devil and half child”, to self-serving lies about indigenous societies lacking the capacity to govern themselves.

Like all of the ideas that have been used to justify colonisation, racism developed over time through a complex and uniquely European history, in which the normal curiosity people have about the different and unknown was morphed into a patronising determination to equate difference with inferiority.

At its most perverse, it corrupted reason to seek proof of the inferiority — and at its most dangerous, it stripped away human dignity with no thought for the hurt that it caused. 

The origins of many of those ideas are well known and are often rejected with embarrassment, or a smug claim that things are different now.

Yet the ideas themselves linger still in the dark recesses of every colonising country, and reflect the fact that when European states were colonising all over the world, racism had become their new normal.

The bodies of the racialised “other” became chattels to be enslaved, and lab rats to be dissected and measured and experimented upon.

Forlorn samples of pickled indigenous brains were scanned, and skulls were measured, as pseudo-scientists justified the European will to dispossess by inventing rationalisations about an indigenous lack of intelligence, and even an inability to appreciate the sublime.

Navigators and ethnographers and missionaries and colonising politicians all contributed to an increasingly racialised archive in which indigenous peoples became “warrior races” born to kill and fight, or romantic innocents and noble savages running around naked and saying prayers all day.

Often the ideas were illustrated in various chains of being, in which white Europeans were ensconced in splendid isolation at the top and other colour-coded peoples were placed at lower levels in a kind of inferiority rainbow.

The “yellow” Asians were recognised as having had a civilisation, but kept being pushed down because they were deemed to be treacherous and spoke a language that one scientist called “a squawking babble”.

The “red” and “brown” Native Americans and Polynesians were lower still because they were regarded as savage and promiscuous and less intelligent, while the “blacks” of Africa were described as the lowest because of their “ugliness” and overall incompetence.

Sometimes, a few oppressed Europeans such as the Jews were added to the ladder and defined as a darker shade of pale. When the Nazis turned their colonising gaze on their European neighbours and carried racism to its obscenely logical conclusion, the Jews were then, of course, defined as an irredeemable group of untermensch or sub-humans who deserved to die.

These examples of racism were derived from animosity towards or fevered longing for the indigenous body, and are tedious and painful to revisit. Yet they became the foundations of colonisation here, as they were everywhere else.

When Elsdon Best said “Uncivilised folk such as our Māori may not do any great amount of thinking”, he was merely stating what every coloniser had learned about indigenous incapacity.

And when the Colonial Office told Governor Hobson that Māori did not have “real” sovereignty because we only lived in “petty tribes”, it was simply expressing its racism as a matter of fact.

Perhaps, more importantly, the many grotesque images which racism created are the unacknowledged drivers behind the most recent outbursts.

Those who are unwilling to see golliwogs as racist are drawing on the old images of black people as ugly and objects of ridicule.

And the restaurant owner and customers who think it’s funny to mock Asian languages in a menu, are perpetuating belittling images of Asians as squawking harridans who shouldn’t be taken seriously.

More generally, this racism of the body is the racism which surfaces in the profiling of young Māori as potential shoplifters because they “look” criminal, and in the lower expectations that some teachers have of Māori children, which reflects deeply hidden but very real perceptions that our tamariki are less capable.

Because its contempt has bred a familiarity that is alluring and persuasive, it also often creates a callous disregard in people who might not ordinarily see themselves as racist.

Those who rushed to patronise the restaurant challenged for its racist menus, were either unwilling or unable to see the offence that was being caused. And those who continued to walk down a track gouged into Te Mata Peak after it was closed — even though they knew of the offense and anger that the original racist act had caused — just didn’t seem to care.

Their indifference mirrored that of the denied racism which regularly surfaces in attacks on the reo and the Treaty — and even in excuses for satire.  

Such blatant expressions of racism are easy to identify. But colonisation also grew out of, and bred, another type of racism, based on the belief that the values and institutions of the colonisers were somehow inherently better than any others.

Thus, whenever colonisers entered indigenous jurisdictions, they always dismissed the political and constitutional structures which were already there, and replaced them with their own. In the process, they not only asserted the superiority of their systems, but declared that they were “universal” and “normal” as well.

What had been forged in the specific cultural and historical contexts of England or France suddenly became so “culture-free” and “race-less” that a colonial governor could confidently assert that the English way of doing things simply existed in an “independently supreme” condition. 

With that arrogant confidence, the colonisers actually privileged their European power in places where it had never existed before.

The racism inherent in that privileging was a prejudice pretending to be neutral.

Today it’s simply seen as the reality rather than an imposition — and it is rarely, if ever, acknowledged in discussions about racism. People may talk about institutional racism, but the criticism is usually targeted at the way a particular government agency may have acted in an individual case, rather than the racist grounding of the institution itself.

Instead, the institutions are simply seen as an unchallengeable and unchangeable reality, and are then defended by some people alleging that any possible Māori alternative is “separatism”, or a case of Māori seeking special privileges.

In the light of history, there is a strange hypocrisy in such allegations when all Māori are trying to do is address the real privilege which the colonisers established through our dispossession.

If the profiling and ridicule that derive from ancient contempt for indigenous character can cause a visceral despair, the racist privileging of colonisation persists for Māori as a silenced and ongoing powerlessness. In its own way, it is no less damaging than the maligned body, because it is almost like a sly, behind-your-back claim of superiority masquerading as equality.

For a long time, the sordid truths of racism have been denied or minimised in this country because of the view that the honour of the Crown led to us having the best race relations in the world.

That presumption is no longer as widely accepted as it used to be, but there is still a misguided belief in the generally good faith nature of colonisation here.

As a result, any racist acts or comments have tended to be seen as individual exceptions to an honourable rule, rather than a systemic part of colonisation itself.

Thus the source of “Kiwi identity” has most often been found in the origin story of a good keen man wanting to give everyone a fair go, rather than the less comforting truth of a racist unfairly benefitting from the dispossession of those who were racially defined as less worthy.

Many non-racist people of goodwill are now trying to address that legacy, although most continue to focus attention on individual acts rather than the systemic realities which have privileged colonising power.

One unfortunate consequence of that emphasis is that the very idea of racism has become an abstraction described in various ways as unconscious bias, casual racism, or unintended prejudice. Such terms can have some value, but they can also too often excuse the perpetrator and fail to address the usually unarticulated distress that racism causes.

Even more problematic than the abstractions is the unwillingness of some people to even use the term “racism”. Academics who claim, for example, that it’s “unhelpful” in discussions about, say, the biases within the criminal justice system, run the risk of closing off debate in the same way that a former prime minister did when she attempted to stop Māori from using the word “holocaust” to describe colonisation.

Refusing to name something is always a barrier to finding a solution, and it’s certainly clear that until women named sexism and the patriarchy, or gay people named homophobia, it was almost impossible to begin the journey that might resolve their oppression.

Being honest about the past — and the present — is the first step a people have to take to settle injustice, and there is much hope in the way that so many people have challenged the recent weeds of racism.

They are trying to be honest about the dishonest injustice of a racist history, and are part of an inevitable reaching out to a time like that dreamed of by Martin Luther King, when his children would be judged by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin.

Remedying the racism that continues to sustain the privileging of colonising power requires even more honesty, as well as a certain courage.

But the Treaty of Waitangi has always provided a glimpse into a constitutional relationship which will allow that to occur.

The challenge is how brave and willing and honest this country can be in realising that nothing is ever unchangeable, and that the just exercise of power can never be based on essentially racist assumptions that are themselves unjust. 


Dr Moana Jackson is a Wellington-based lawyer with a Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāti Porou whakapapa. He specialises in the Treaty of Waitangi and constitutional issues.


© e-tangata, 2018

Love what we do? Support us in our mission to strengthen the Māori and Pasifika voices in New Zealand media.