Migrant and Refugee Rights, Tino Rangatiratanga

Watered-down biculturalism: How avoiding the ‘r-word’ undermines our liberation movement

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May Day rally for Migrant/Refugee Rights (source: Aaron O’Neil).

Dr Arama Rata is a researcher at the National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis, and the Māori spokesperson for MARRC (Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign).

At an otherwise ordinary meeting, volunteering on committee addressing biculturalism, I had an awkward moment.  Not one of those social media awkward moments that mildly embarrass, yet ultimately endear us to our online friends.  No, this awkward moment was more akin to Paulo Freire’s ‘contradictions’: those experiences that force us to analyze and reinterpret our social realities.

Our meeting had been progressing productively, when a fellow volunteer, a Black woman, brought the meeting to a screeching halt.  “What about racism?” she had asked.  What. About. Racism? You see we had been marching through our agenda, offering solutions to problems faced by Māori within the organization, without one mention of the ‘r word’.  After a short but pregnant pause, we acknowledged our colleague’s question and wrote ‘exposing racism’ on the whiteboard (we were in the midst of brainstorming) followed by ‘and structural inequalities’.  In that awkward moment we had been forced to address racism, but after the briefest consideration we had reframed racism as ‘structural inequalities’, and carried on with our biculturalism meeting.

Don’t get me wrong, Māori are not shy to address racism; for many of us it is never far from the surface of our consciousness.  But what had occurred in that meeting, I’ve come to realise, is common in ‘bicultural’ spaces, as Māori and Pākehā attempt to reach agreement by speaking in euphemisms our colonisers are comfortable with.  Limited though they may be, there are mechanisms in place to deal specifically with Treaty breaches, and many institutions have policies that offer vague commitments to uphold ‘Treaty principles’.  And so we adopt the language of our colonisers to exploit policy provisions, and in so doing attempt to dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools, one Treaty principle at a time.  However, in doing so we water-down our liberation movement, and fail to address the root cause of our oppression.

There’s no shortage of examples of racism reframed so as not to offend the ‘mainstream’ white majority.  Even our most racist institutions cannot tolerate the r word and tie themselves in linguistic knots to avoid the term.  Take prisons.  It is no secret that Māori are grossly overrepresented in the prison population. A 2007 report[1] from the Department of Corrections themselves identified prejudice resulting in harsher consequences for Māori within the criminal justice system. However, nowhere in their 60 page report do they describe the system as racist.  In fact, they attempt to dissuade readers from concluding the system is racist, warning, “The figures lend themselves to extremist interpretations” describing, by way of example, those who would “accuse the criminal justice system of being brutally racist.”  To avoid using the r word, the report opts instead for the term ‘bias’.

Ten years on, Corrections still show an aversion to the r word.  To their credit, Corrections have implemented an education program to address the unfair treatment of Māori, but they continue avoid framing the prejudice as racism, employing the further diluted term ‘unconscious bias’.  Appearing on TV3’s The Nation back in 2015 to discuss the program, Police Commissioner Mike Bush skirted the r word, stating, “our data… showed there was a disparity in the way we applied some of our discretion.” But reassured viewers that, “like any good organization you have to recognize there can be some unconscious bias.”

Corrections by no means monopolize the euphemism ‘bias’.  A recent report revealed teachers held low expectations of their Māori students, adding to a growing body of research showing that this type of racism is rife within the education system. However, the authors of the report opted to call a spade a flat, rectangular, sharp-edged digging implement, as they described the racism towards Māori as “negative cognitive bias in teachers’ judgements.”[2]

The terms ‘cognitive bias’ or ‘unconscious bias’ are not entirely without merit.  It is useful to acknowledge that the processes driving racist decision making often occur without conscious awareness.  And training programs that teach participants to acknowledge and mitigate the effects of unconscious bias can be helpful.  But it is precisely because these processes are unconscious and ubiquitous that we must name racism, unpack it, dissect it, hold it to the light, and free ourselves from it.

Diluting the language of our liberation movement in favour of Treaty sector speak is also to our detriment as it enables the separation of projects resisting colonialism from those resisting racism, despite the inextricable link between the two.  There’s a reason Māori are suspicious of the term ‘multiculturalism’, and people of colour are just as distrusting of the term ‘biculturalism’.  The terms are often used against us, by those in power, to deny our rights.  Biculturalism, Māori are told, is an outdated cultural artifact. Multiculturalism, they assure us, better captures the contemporary ethnic diversity of the nation.  Thus our concerns are relegated to the past, and our experiences as colonised peoples are overlooked. Yet, when arguing for the inclusiveness that the term multiculturalism suggests, people of colour are denied seats at tables where Māori are represented, and are told Māori rights derive from the Treaty of Waitangi, the founding document of this bicultural nation, thereby failing to acknowledge the cultural distinctiveness and racial oppression of people of colour.

Thus Māori and people of colour become casualties of divide and conquer tactics, as we plead our cases, compare our circumstances, and scrap for the meager resources made available to us.  Yes, our experiences are different, and our positions as colonisers and the colonized put us in a power relationship with one another that should not be ignored. But Māori and people of colour can not allow ourselves to be baited by our oppressors into a fight for the title of ‘most oppressed’: a title none of us want to win anyway.  Colonialism and racism are inextricably interconnected and any attempt to root-out one while allowing the other to thrive will ultimately result in our mutual failure.

How could the ideology racism take hold of us so tightly, permeate through every fibre of our social fabric, and operate through us, even without our awareness?  In 1868, as tensions bubbled furiously in the lead up to war in South Taranaki, Riwha Titokowaru’s representative Toi Whakataka received Crown representative James Booth, at Te Ngutu o te Manu.  Booth reprimanded Toi for the actions taken in response to creeping land confiscations, to which Toi countered, “You are doing a great wrong to us. So great you do not see it.”[3]  While it would be easy to assume that Pākehā actions in South Taranaki were motivated by greed, renowned lawyer, activist, and academic Moana Jackson described the ‘great wrong’ of colonization as ‘beyond motive’.

I never understood how colonization was ‘beyond motive’ until I had an epiphany watching my 2-year-old daughter at play.  Lately she’s been copying her father, trying to swat flies.  Despite being new to the world and endowed with a gentle nature, she has already come to see flies as utterly dispensable, with no inherent value.  She’s learnt to swat them without knowing why.  Her attitude towards flies has been formed.  And with this attitude she doesn’t need a motive to eradicate them.

Racism makes us see some human beings as inferior, as less than, as non-human.  Colonialism, based on racism – on an ideology that dehumanizes – needs no motive, no justification, as the colonist cannot see that what they do is wrong; They are just going about their day, swatting flies along the way, doing wrong that is so great precisely because they do not see it.

One Pākehā official unafraid of the r word was Andrew Judd. While serving as Mayor of New Plymouth, Judd described himself as a ‘recovering racist’. It seems his words were intolerable to some mainstream media outlets; Rather than redefining the term racism, these outlets re-characterised Judd as a ‘reformed racist’[4] or as ‘once racist’[5], conveniently tucking racism away in the past.  But in borrowing Alcoholics Anonymous terminology Judd probably knew that just like addiction, recovering from racism would not be a quick fix but a life long journey of commitment.  To extend the AA metaphor further, the first step to recovery is admitting we have a problem.  And how are we to eliminate racism from our society if we can’t even say the word?

[1] http://www.corrections.govt.nz/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/672574/Over-representation-of-Maori-in-the-criminal-justice-system.pdf

[2] Maori students could suffer from teacher bias: Treasury-commissioned paper. New Zealand Herald. Tuesday 18 April 2017. Nicholas Jones http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11837899

[3] Belich, James. (2010). I Shall Not Die: Titokowaru’s War, 1868-1869. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, p. 53.

[4] https://www.tvnz.co.nz/one-news/new-zealand/reformed-racist-andrew-judd-options-fulfil-maori-representation-date

[5] http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11637995

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