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Real Housewives and the real racism New Zealand prefers to pretend doesn’t exist

A Black woman living in New Zealand talks about this week’s episode of Real Housewives, and why it’s indicative of a broader racist culture in New Zealand we still refuse to acknowledge.

This week’s episode of Real Housewives has left many people shocked. They cannot believe that there are white people who think it’s okay to say the N-word. Some want to take Bravo to task for airing this episode in the first place. Others are appalled that this may have been a ratings ploy.

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I was shocked, too. But for different reasons. I am shocked at the country’s shock, which leads me to believe that many New Zealanders are either unaware of what happens in their proverbial backyard, or know and don’t care. I’m a Black woman who has lived in New Zealand for the last 15 years, and I want to make something clear at the outset: I’m writing about anti-Blackness in New Zealand.

While I acknowledge the racism experienced by other racial/ethnic minority groups, those are not my experiences to narrate and I will not be discussing those here. To those people, and to tangata whenua in particular, I see you and I stand with you in solidarity as we fight against a white supremacist society that affects our people in salient and specific ways.

Let’s take a stroll through that backyard. I can sense the reluctance of many of you. I can see you shaking your heads and I can hear you protest “I’m not racist!” That seems a little inaccurate given that many New Zealanders don’t even acknowledge whose land their backyard sits on, but okay. Let’s get back to the Real Housewives of Auckland.

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This episode is important because it reveals more about New Zealand than many New Zealanders are willing to acknowledge. Julia Sloane’s comment and subsequent justifications reflect the anti-Black racism that is constantly perpetuated in this country. Sloane used a racist term, feigned ignorance, and offered a confused explanation which showed that she simultaneously did not know what she was saying and knew she’d said something terrible.

She went on to offer an apology that lacked an apology. How can you apologise for making a racist statement if you won’t acknowledge the racism in your statement? What Michelle Blanchard wanted was for Sloane to meaningfully recognise that she used a racial slur and apologise for it – to own up to what she said. That’s not what Sloane did, and if you think it is, you should seriously reflect on how you apologise to people.

The acknowledgement of Sloane’s racism – and I mean real ‘that was racist regardless of the intention’ acknowledgement – was nowhere to be found in Tuesday night’s episode. But reality television has a way of reflecting the society in which it is produced. Please do not make the mistake of thinking that this is an isolated incident. There are many white people in this country who think it’s okay to say the N-word, and do so frequently. They’re part of the reason I no longer attend live hip hop shows. There’s something about being in a roomful of people who aren’t Black yelling the N-word that makes me feel really unsafe. Yes, even if it’s in the song – because you cannot say it if you aren’t Black.

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If you’re outraged that Bravo aired the episode but not outraged at the fact that Sloane said the N-word, your racism is showing a little. Sloane’s husband, Michael Lorimer is clinging to the irrelevant fact that it was “an old boating term” as tightly as many New Zealanders are clinging to their gollies (don’t worry, I’m getting to those). The show is not responsible for the N-word coming out of Sloane’s mouth. Sloane is. As for Lorimer’s claim that the term was taken out of context, there is no context that would make sense for Sloane saying that word aside from the one of racism that he and his wife are adamantly denying.

In sharing my thoughts, I am not going to provide a lesson on the painful historical legacies of the N-word. I am not going to tell you why those who are not Black should not use it. After all, Louise Wallace did a truly fantastic job of conveying its complex history and the ways in which Black people use it when she said “Kanye, they all do.” Um, thanks, Louise. When Sloane used the racial slur against Blanchard, my heart broke. It broke for Blanchard. It broke when I saw Blanchard’s pain. It broke in the same places that never get a chance to heal. It broke because of the painful familiarity that I and many others have with the formulaic script when situations like this unfold:

White person: *makes a racist statement*

Black person: * expresses their hurt and warranted anger*

WP: *Says ‘that’s not what I meant’ or ‘you’ve taken it the wrong way’, or my personal favourite, ‘you’ve taken it out of context’.*

BP: *continues to express their hurt and warranted anger*

WP: ‘I am not racist. That’s absurd! How can I be racist when I have many Black friends. You should know! You’re one of them.’

BP: *tries in vain to explain why they are hurt and offended. Is understandably angrier* (At this point, the anger is perceived as irrational and the Black person is seen as ‘out of control’).

WP: ‘But that’s not what I meant. I would never say something racist’

WP: ‘How is what I said offensive?’  

BP: *tries to explain*

WP: *begins crying* ‘I am a good person. Why are you attacking me?’  

WP: ‘but that wasn’t my intention’

WP: ‘it was a joke’

WP: *redefines the racist statement by separating it from historical context, and highlights intentions which are always good. Gives the racist term a new meaning, because, ‘words do change over time, you know. Actually, you’re the real racist here’

WP: ‘ In fact’, (because there’s almost always an ‘in fact’), ‘I do great things for the community, especially for you people’.

WP: ‘intentions, intentions, intentions, context, joke, I would never. I feel so upset and completely attacked. Joke, context, let’s just move on. Ridiculous. You’re attacking me [insert more comments with no accountability for the racist term used and hurt caused].’

At this point, the conversation becomes a discussion about intentions and context. The main focus is no longer the racist statement that was initially made but is now the sheer impossibility that the white person could be racist, because, they have Black friends and have since childhood. Oh, and it wasn’t their intention. During this point in the narrative other people come to the defense of the white person and rally around them to offer emotional support throughout this truly taxing ordeal.

I’m sure I’ll be accused of being a hater who’s overreacting, because that’s what happens when racial/ethnic minorities call people out on their racism. But when you use a racist term, and continue to defend it, especially after people have told you it’s racist, it’s pretty clear that you hold racist beliefs. Lorimer insists that the show’s intention was to “make Julia look bad”. Make Julia look bad? Did we watch the same episode? We must not be talking about the same episode that portrayed Sloane as the distraught white woman in distress.

The tears. Oh God. The emotional moments at yoga. I’m so relieved to see that Sloane had a relaxing time at laughing yoga or whatever it was that all the white women did the day after Sloane showed her racism, which none of them had called her out on. I was not expecting the show to center Blanchard in this narrative – and it didn’t.

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As Tyrone Russell pointed out on Breakfast, the show focused almost entirely on Sloane. We were subjected to hearing about Sloane’s feelings and her intentions, and the fact that she’s had Māori and Pasifika friends since childhood, and, AND she’s written three books to teach children a language she can barely pronounce, so how can she possibly be racist? The damsel in distress was on display for most of the episode.

What about Blanchard? What about her wellbeing? I’m sure that ratings were a primary motivation in airing this episode. Bravo, is, after all, in the business of reality television. This is an example of how white people and their intentions are centred in conversations about racism. The episode and its aftermath are following that very familiar script. We must also remember that reality television has a history of exploiting Black women’s experiences and deliberately failing to intervene in racist and harmful situations for the sake of ratings. But that’s a topic for another day.

Racial slurs are part of Sloane’s vocabulary. But she’s not alone. Last year the editor of Rip It Up magazine, Andrew Johnstone, wrote a review of the film Dope. He used the N-word several times and also provided offensive, racist, and stereotypical descriptions of Black people. I was livid. I reached out to Rip It Up but never received a response. Grant Hislop, the publisher of Rip It Up later issued a statement that removed the N-word from its historical context and focused on the author’s intention which we all somehow managed to misconstrue.

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Hislop also made sure to mention the great things Johnstone has done for the community: “The writer is not bigoted and is in fact an avid promoter of equality in all areas of our community.  Hislop continued: ‘One only needs to read other articles we are publishing to qualify this.” Somehow, Johnstone’s intentions and the fact that he’d written other articles about minority groups magically separated the N-word from its painful and violent historical legacy and prevented his use of it from causing Black people any pain. Because this is totally how good intentions work. They’re magic wands. I must still feel pain despite your good intentions because I don’t believe in the magic.

Using racial slurs is not the only way to convey your racism. It’s possible to express racist sentiments without ever using a single racial slur. We shouldn’t frame racism as appearing solely in the form of slurs because we miss an opportunity to address the racism present in the causal statements that work to uphold it. New Zealanders show their anti-Black racism in many words and ways.

Take for example Heather du Plessis-Allan’s recent remarks on hip hop, which included the phrase “gangstas and thugs and guns and big gold chains” Really, Heather? This stereotypical description is what occurs to you when you think of hip hop – a profoundly political and culturally significant Black art form? I know that Heather will disagree with me and deny the racist subtext of her words because she actually understands racism much better than I do. Last year she wrote a fascinating piece explaining ‘real racism’ – as opposed to the fake racism we are usually out here lamenting. While I bear the burden of racism, it makes complete sense for a white woman who does not to explain to me what it is. Thanks, girl. I need to ask her how to “condemn real racism”. Hopefully we can start with hers.

brownfaceBack to the golliwog dolls. I have questions that need answers about their enduring popularity in New Zealand. Pak n’ Save pulled the dolls from their shelves after drawing public disapproval in 2015. Antoinette Laird, a spokesperson for the company, described the decision to stock the dolls as “an error of judgement”. Okay, but where is the meaningful acknowledgment of the racist nature of the dolls? I find it disturbing that these dolls are still available for sale on TradeMe, and in markets, antique shops, and gift stores around the country. This is what Acquisitions has to say about stocking the dolls:

“The customers buying [golliwog dolls] are universally people who have a sentimental attachment to something that was important to them in their childhood or people who understand the character for what it was intended to be. If we believed people were buying these dolls as a racist statement we would not sell them, just as we refuse to sell ashtrays, yard glasses, and drinking games. We used to sell the latter and they were very lucrative but we made a decision to stop stocking them, as we believe they contribute to a harmful culture. We do not feel that way about our Gollies.”

Sentimentality and nostalgia are more important than the undeniably racist elements of the dolls. The racism of these dolls is actively denied. It’s so odd to me when the author says that a figure based on a racist caricature of Blackness was not intended to be racist. Apparently, “those who think they should be banned sometimes don’t have accurate knowledge of the history of the Golly”.

Acquisitions, please. You’re doing that thing white people do when they want to justify racism. It is literally a caricature of a minstrel character. Isn’t it interesting that the store has opted not to stock drinking and smoking paraphernalia in the belief that these items contribute to a “harmful culture” but it refuses to recognise the harm the dolls cause. I mean, I guess they’d have to acknowledge that the dolls are actually racist in order to do that. I get that people are clinging to what they feel are treasured aspects of their childhood but what they are clinging to is a racist, dehumanising caricature. You didn’t know? Hmm hard to believe but okay, I get that. Now you know. What I would really like is for people to say “Now that I know that you find it offensive, because it is, lemme take this disgusting piece of racism off my mantlepiece or stop stocking it” rather than trying to redefine racism.

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Speaking of redefining racism, let’s discuss New Zealand X factor judge Shelton Woolright’s justification for wearing  blackface. He defends his adoption of blackface by completely denying its racist connotations. Are we seeing the trend yet? Woolright states that he wears blackface, I’m sorry – “the black face paint”, which is not the same thing at all – “as a form of expression and a point of difference”. Do you know who else wore blackface as form of expression? Racist white performers in minstrel shows that literally dehumanised Black people and caricatured their appearance. That is the legacy of blackfa- I’m sorry, Shelton, I keep getting this wrong – the black face paint. That history does not disappear because Woolright’s decided that what he’s doing is absolutely nothing like blackface. He does not get to decide that. I hope you can see why.

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Dame Susan Devoy chimed in and I really wish she hadn’t. That a white woman is the Commissioner of Race Relations – the person chosen to lead conversations about the racism she does not experience – perplexes me but that, too, is a topic for another day. Devoy’s comments are important because they show how the painful racist experiences endured by minorities are expected to be used as “teachable moments” for people to “be educated”.

Devoy stated that she is “sorry for Michelle but this episode will educate a lot of people about so-called casual racism”. Let’s take a second to think about the exploitative nature of the “teachable moment” and how Tuesday night’s “education” came at such great personal and emotional cost to Blanchard. That is what’s overlooked when we attempt to turn a racist experience into a learning experience. “But how will we know if you don’t teach us, especially when we say a racist thing that we’ll never admit is racist?” you might ask.

Me not teaching you is not the reason you still don’t know. If you’re truly interested in learning, you’ll make the effort to do your research and you won’t expect me to explain it to you. Create your own teaching moments that don’t depend on the pain of Black people. Anyway, “teachable moments” usually become opportunities for racists to redefine racism before denying that it exists. “Teachable moments” also put the responsibility on the person affected by the racism to explain and to educate.

Before you tell me to go back to where I came from because I’m an ungrateful N – Oh, wait, y’all don’t use that word here, right? – think about how that might be a reason for me choosing to write this anonymously. Oh, and try to remember that Devoy said “that kind of ignorant, overt racist behaviour is not part of Kiwi culture”.

Devoy insists that “that is not how we roll here. That is not us.”

Isn’t it?

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