Image: Roy Rochlin/FilmMagic
Image: Roy Rochlin/FilmMagic

ĀteaApril 14, 2018

Grateful horis and model minorities: why don’t we know we’re racist?

Image: Roy Rochlin/FilmMagic
Image: Roy Rochlin/FilmMagic

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, and yet here we are at the end of another week of being asked to prove racism exists.

I have reason to believe the recent gale-force winds were caused by all the people of colour in New Zealand sighing at the same time.

If you missed it (you didn’t) Taika Waititi, director and comedian and Māori and New Zealander of the Year, told Dazed that: “New Zealand is the best place on the planet, but it’s a racist place.” Many people who chose to disagree publicly did so by being incredibly racist.

As Kanoa Lloyd from The Project put it, you either accept that racism exists or you don’t. Trying to explain away low levels of racial bias is still acknowledging it exists. Claiming that people who aren’t white can be racist is still acknowledging it exists. Telling ‘horis’ to learn English properly, and calling Māori ‘greedy’ and ‘ungrateful’ most definitely proves it exists.

My favourite (non) argument is Chatham’s Law, our very own version of Godwin’s – people who trot out the trusty ‘But Māori killed all the Moriori’ argument, but who clearly don’t care enough about their existence to check if it’s true. For what its worth, there are many Moriori descendants in New Zealand who are tired of racists telling the world they don’t exist, and as a historical issue it’s a very complicated (and yes, tragic and violent) one involving only two iwi (at a time when ‘Māori’ was very far from being a national identity) who may have diverted from traditional practices under the influence of destructive behaviours learned from the British… But who can be bothered with all that reading when you can just yell ‘But Morioris!’ into the void?

So far all of the ‘arguments’ for Waititi’s statement not being true have enforced the fact that New Zealanders have been, are and continue to be racist in many ways big and small, with green eggs and ham, on a boat, with a goat, in the rain and on a train.

In fact, Stuff wrote a piece titled ‘Yes, some Kiwis are as racist as Taika Waititi says. Here’s the proof’ about all the comments they couldn’t publish because they didn’t comply with their standards.

Imagine being so racist Stuff won’t publish your comment!

So the question is not (and has never been) does racism exist.

It does.

But it seems many New Zealanders lack a basic understanding of what racism is, and it’s killing our ability to overcome the problem. In 1963, while sitting in his Birmingham jail cell, Martin Luther King wrote: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” We’re not going to succeed in giving ‘nothing to racism’ until people understand what they’re not giving nothing to…

Racism, ableism, sexism, all the -isms are about a structural imbalance of power. One group has too much, the other too little. The goal, if you’re not a megalomaniac dictator, is for sovereignty, health, wealth and opportunity to be shared equally among us all. But as it stands we’re quiiiiite far from that goal because so many people don’t recognise the existence of inequality.

One of the biggest barriers to understanding seems to be the ubiquitous presence of ‘reverse racism’. Trying to explain to outraged Pākehā people that racism and hurt feelings aren’t the same thing is… tiring. But I’ll try:

A Māori person said something hurtful to you based on your pale skin or the way you pronounced te reo, and it made you feel excluded or guilty or bad. Someone called you ‘white bread’ or made fun of your devotion to Taylor Swift. That sucks and it’s discriminatory. But it’s not on par with the health, justice and education systems being stacked against you; police, landlords and employers making biased snap decisions that negatively impact you; or your ancestors’ traditions, language and histories being written out of existence. In many cases, that kind of suspicion and mistrust towards privileged, majority cultures is the result of too many years lived experience of structural and institutional discrimination. Weirdly, it leaves you bitter.

There are of course minority cultures within New Zealand I can be racist towards – our migrants, our Pacific cousins. And it happens, and it’s shit. And I think you’ll find Taika Waititi was referring to that too.

But to be clear, it is very hard for me, a Māori woman, to be racist or sexist to a Pākehā man. I can be a massive dick to him, and let’s be honest I probably will, but he is not disadvantaged by race or gender; I am demonstrably so (obligatory link to empirical data because bros love statistics). He may be disadvantaged by other factors, such as annoying media types like me asking if he needs to be on every board and judging panel in the country, but ask yourself – is that structural or incidental?

Lately a lot of people have objected to the observation that cis-gendered, heterosexual, white, able-bodied men are over represented nearly everywhere that power exists, to the point where they now think they are the marginalised group (hint: they’re not).

I can’t help but wonder if it’s the newness of being named. In Western countries, being those things means you are born into a world that uses language that treats you as the default. You’re the only ones that don’t have to add extra words to the things that define you – Chinese-New Zealander, female director, trans mayor, Paralympian.

So when a minority culture has a name for you that you didn’t sign off on – cis, Pākehā – you immediately assume the worst. Is it because you know deep down that the language you use for people that are not like you is derogatory, so you assume it will be the same going in the other direction?

The comments that make me angriest are those claiming Taika Waititi should be grateful. The idea that he mustn’t criticise the country that ‘allowed’ him to become commercially and creatively successful (after a couple of centuries exploiting the land, resources and labour of his ancestors) is the most dangerous of all.

American athletes who chose to protest police discrimination and brutality against black people by kneeling during the national anthem were subject to similar criticism – told that they should be grateful they were allowed to play sport, accused of biting the hand that feeds, as if success can only be granted by those in power and not claimed by indigenous people in their own context, by their own standards.

Waititi has repeatedly broken out of the model minority mould, his irreverence in comedy stretching to his attitude towards power and authoritarianism. As with most people who excel in their field, he became successful by working hard and persevering and being talented, probably despite, not because of, being a Māori kid who grew up in the country. While I’m sure he’s grateful to the friends, family and creative funding that helped him get where he is today, the idea he should be grateful to a country for ‘allowing’ him to rise above his station as a minority destined for prison is, frankly, an act of violence.

If his humour and sensibility has resonated with you then chances are it’s because you recognise his ability to see to the core of what it means to grow up in New Zealand, laugh at it and then lovingly hold it up for the rest of the world to admire. It’s uncomfortable that he’s now peeled back the layers on a trait we’re not particularly proud of, but I’ve had no reason to doubt his special knack for nailing a quintessentially Kiwi perspective in the past and I’ve got no reason to do so now.

The thing that has made Waititi’s films such a hit isn’t solely the humour, but the accompanying heart. The sweet and the bitter, the funny in the tragic. I have to believe we’re smart and brave enough to recognise ourselves in that formula and at least try to not end up being the villain.

Keep going!