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Photo: MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images
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SocietyMarch 21, 2019

How expressions of white supremacy seep through our society

Photo: MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images

Yesterday it emerged that 10 years of public documents from NZ spy agencies contained zero mentions of rightwing extremism. Yet narratives invoking racialised fears and myths of Pakeha superiority run deep, writes criminologist Elizabeth Stanley

We have officially experienced two acts of terrorism in New Zealand. The first was the bombing of the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior ship by French government agents in July 1985. The second is almost too painful to write: our sadness, anger and confusion for the white supremacist massacre and maiming of Muslim New Zealanders at prayer is profound.

For now, we have to attend to our personal, community and institutional needs – recognise those we have lost, mourn, support those victimised in all ways possible, reassert our community relationships, change gun laws, investigate whether security agencies ‘dropped the ball’, and provide accountability. All of these things, and others are vital today and in the years ahead.

Yet, we might also reflect on the structural and societal underpinnings of this terror. Because despite their significant differences in nature and impact, these forms of violence are bound together through their ultimate expressions of supremacy.

Consider the Rainbow Warrior. In 1985, it was about to sail to the Morurua Atoll to challenge French nuclear testing. Over the years, France deployed about 200 nuclear tests in the South Pacific. The mushroomed radioactive clouds led to cancers and leukaemia across French Polynesia (for civilians and military officers), and devastated landscapes and ecosystems. Some areas are still ‘no-go zones’.

The bombing of the ship – long covered up by the French government – renewed New Zealand’s impetus for its nuclear-free status. However, this terrorism and nuclear testing showed us how powerful states and corporations viewed the Pacific as a place to destroy in the interests of their own national security, industrial growth and global power expansion.

The capitalist, colonial logic of environmental annihilation has intensified in the intervening years, so much so that on the morning of Friday 15 March, thousands of New Zealand school children went on strike (joining many others across the world) to protest against the lack of state action towards climate change. They understand that we face catastrophic anthropogenic harms, largely from powerful states and corporations who remain wedded to exploitative economic, material or technological priorities. With rising sea levels, some of our neighbours could yet make the ultimate sacrifice of dispossession. We face unimaginable global harms.

Sustaining this advanced capitalist, colonising order has depended on rich narratives that invoke racialised fears and perpetuate myths of our superiority. In New Zealand, the early drive was to build a ‘better Britain’, plumped up by warnings about Māori deficiencies or the invasion dangers of the ‘Yellow Peril’. Today, as the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe has noted, western societies are characterised by ‘exclusion, hostility, hate movements, and, above all, by the struggle against the enemy’.

Our dominant desires are to separate, to enclose, to exterminate those who we deem different, and to keep away those who may be a threat (not just to our personhood, but to our wallets and our ways of life). We are busy establishing borders, securing areas and minds, setting out resources, sorting out who ‘belongs’ and who does not. We look to deport those who we cannot tolerate (including climate change ‘overstayers’ from Pacific states) but ease the movement of those whose faces or passports are thought to fit (including French state agents or an Australian neo-Nazi).

Under supremacy logics, the management of populations (and who is ‘us’) is continuously reconfigured. Along the way, there is an active forgetting about how Pākehā and white Australians, Europeans and North Americans sustain privilege. We never have to explain ourselves. We conveniently minimise histories of colonisation and imperialism. In New Zealand, we argue that our lands were peacefully settled, or that colonisation is over. We often assert that we are the ones who are victimised, and we are the ones under threat.

In turn, we build power by profiling racialised and capitalist risks. We consistently seek to manage the behaviour of readily identifiable populations – Muslims, Māori, Pasifika, Asians, environmental activists. We regulate their political and social citizenship through vilification and dehumanisation. We build threats, surveillance, and repressive controls around them. We expect them to conform, and if this does not happen, we demand other members of their group to demonstrate their loyalties to us.

We can see this supremacy in many places. The persistent funnelling of Māori and Pasifika children through care or criminal justice systems. The targeting of Māori and environmental activists as ‘terrorists’ during Operation 8 and its terrifying policing of Māori communities. The security surveillance of Green MPs. The racist predictive tools used by immigration authorities. The casual constructions of ‘dangerous’ asylum seekers. The hushed acceptance of an inhumane Australian asylum regime. The legitimacy given to US-led bombings and drone strikes across Muslim countries. The social scorn and ready criminalisation of Muslim communities and the state reticence to provide protection to complaints of racism, including physical attacks. What would happen if these narratives and actions were reconfigured and directed to our white selves?

All too often, we deliberately withhold care to those who we see as a threat or ‘other’. Our supremacism persists, and it threatens humans, animals and our globe. It is normalised, and it sets the grounds for who or what will flourish, or suffer.

In moving forward, then, let us remember that these acts of terror and destruction are interlinked. We are not the same as the perpetrators who violently declared who could live or die. But, we cannot announce that their expressions of supremacy are not part of how we structure our societies and live our lives.

Elizabeth Stanley is a professor in Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington

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