Tuesday, 26 July 2011


“I wouldn’t feel comfortable… like all Pakehas would be happy with their daughter coming home with a Maori boy? The answer is they wouldn’t.”

What struck me about this statement when it was first made was the patriarchal prejudice that who might impregnate your daughter is more important than who your son might impregnate. Who your son marries may be a different matter of course.

But I was more interested in the fact that Hone Harawira’s statement and the ‘white M-F’ers’ quote, (written in a private email and published without his knowledge or consent) were widely cited on public fora as a counterbalance to racial remarks made by several white commentators.

Harawira may have meant what he said or he may have been winding people up by recycling a common Pakeha prejudice. Whatever his intention, it resulted in him being accused of being racist and, to the simplistically, and to the ideologically minded, ‘Maori racism’ cancels out ‘white racism’.

We humans are intensely social animals with very distinctive faces and an extraordinary ability to recognise subtle difference in facial and body gestures. We devote a large amount of our brain to deciphering and storing visual information about other humans.

In the course of our social evolution we have developed such widely differing cultures that the members of those cultures can find it hard to understand each other and not just in terms of speech.

But, you only have to look at the babies and very small children of all cultures and classes – to see the indicators of a common heritage. Tiny tots are never racist or snobs. That’s acquired; learned for the most part from their parents.

Recognition and wariness of difference or a preference for those who are the same as you, does not necessarily mean you are racist.

Racism is commonly defined as prejudice or unfair discrimination based on race. For that definition to mean anything there has to be an underlying acceptance of the idea that there are distinct ‘human races’, the members of which possess definable attributes and characteristics.

This is the basis of the broad, quasi-scientific categories of Australoid, Caucasoid, Mongoloid and Negroid. There is a complex debate about the extent to which there may be definable ‘racial’ differences but racism is not about any actual differences, it is about relative superiority and inferiority.

The origins of racism lie in the misappropriation of Darwin’s ideas about evolution to create a ‘scientific’ basis for the superiority of the ‘white skinned’ peoples of the world – and the English speaking white peoples in particular.

If humans evolved from ape-like ancestors any humans who, because of the shape of their skull or colour of their skin were closer to the ape, were not as highly evolved.

These ideas, which reached their peak at the height of Britain’s imperial expansion, proved to be useful in legitimating colonialism and assuaging guilt over slavery.

The horrors of the early African slave trade had not required an ideological mask largely because the lives of the ordinary European sailors, labourers and paupers were not so far removed from those of the slaves, ie they experienced a lesser degree of exploitation and brutality and had only nominal freedom.

But science and the rise of an educated middle class demanded a more sophisticated justification for such a brutal economic exploitation and for the processes involved in annexing other people’s countries.

The answer lay in the twin hierarchies of race and social class helped along by notions of male supremacy.

Colonisation brought the benefits of white (superior) civilization to the dark (inferior) races; industrial capitalism brought benefits to the labouring classes.

Thus a natural curiosity about or wariness of those who don’t look or act the same as us, morphed into beliefs about ‘racial’ superiority and inferiority that were used to justify brutal economic exploitation, enslavement and genocide – and still are.

That brutality in turn was justified as being the result of ‘human nature’.

But this didn’t and doesn’t happen simply because of human nature. It’s as much human nature to be inclusive, cooperative and compassionate, as it is to be exclusive, uncaring and harshly competitive.

Racism as an ideology serves a definite function; it divides – and to divide is to conquer and rule.

I get very concerned about the overuse of the term ‘racism’ – because the application of it to any and all prejudiced views or conduct risks emptying it of all political meaning.

The fact is, we all discriminate; every waking moment we make choices about how to act that are based on perceptions of difference. We also all prejudge, ie we arrive at conclusions based on incomplete or biased evidence – very often what someone in a position of authority has told us is true.

Sometimes those processes of discrimination and prejudgement result in outcomes that are good ones for us and not harmful to others; but sometimes they result in unjust attitudes and conduct towards others.

There are those for whom it is advantageous that people take decisions based on biased or incomplete information. A most potent element of this ideological strategy is the creation and promulgation of negative stereotypes based on exaggerated difference and the counterposing of those against equally exaggerated positive stereotypes.

If those stereotypes gain added legitimacy through an appeal to religion or science or by tapping into real concerns and fears, their ability to increase prejudice and to foment division is enhanced.

The fact that many societies place a social premium on lighter toned skin is often cited as evidence that colour prejudice is both universal and ‘natural’. But the origin of this isn‘t ‘racism’ but social class.

The labouring classes or castes had weathered skin. Only those who had others to labour for them could keep the soft paler clean skins they were born with. Thus a paler, soft skin on the face and hands was the most potent symbol of privilege, marking out the owner of it as a person who does not have to labour.

The Chinese fetish of tiny bound feet had a parallel in the Victorian fetish of tiny corseted waists. Exaggerated fashions such as sleeves that hang down over the hands, extremely high heels, very long fingernails were (and are) social markers sending out the message that this is a person who does not labour – either at all, or at least, not by hand.

The seeds of social Darwinism’s racial hierarchy fell on very fertile soil.

Martin Van Beynen (Press, Oct 16) argued that Paul Henry was not being racist because he did not overtly promote the superiority of one race over another.

But, as a current affairs presenter, Henry’s personal prejudices are combined with a considerable power to influence public opinion. That combination of race-based prejudice and the power to influence others took his statements into the realms of racism.

The same applies to Tony Veitch’s statement about Serena Williams, to Paul Holmes’ labelling of the UN General Secretary as a ‘cheeky darky’, and to Michael Laws’ steady stream of prejudice. We all know that the ‘feral underclass’ is code for brown people.

Racism needs to be viewed as the combination of negative prejudices based on skin colour or social or cultural attributes, and unfairly discriminatory acts that gain legitimacy through the exercise of social, political, economic or military power.

That was, and largely remains, a European phenomenon but it is not inherent to Europeans. I have no doubt that the ruling class in China, in its pursuit of the wealth of Africa, has no greater regard for the African people than the Englishmen who grew rich on the slave trade.

This is where Hone Harawira needs to be careful. He may have very good reasons, historical and contemporary, personal and cultural, for feeling antipathy to white New Zealanders. But the moment he generalises the conduct and characteristics of some white New Zealanders to all white New Zealanders and uses his political power to add weight to his words, he enters that arena where personal prejudice becomes racism.

However his power to influence is arguably way less than that of the white majority.

To understand why the words ‘nigger’ or ‘black Mfer’ in the mouth of a white person has more ‘power’ than the words ‘ honky’ or ‘white MFers” in the mouth of a black or brown person, you only need to look at which continent is still being pillaged, what peoples are still at the bottom the world’s hierarchy of power and privilege.

In the vicious, divisive and cruel hierarchy of colour, white still trumps everything, yellow trumps brown – and yes, brown trumps black.

Africa – the cradle of human kind, whose peoples’ forced labour laid the foundations of industrial capitalism and the Europeans’ world dominance, is the richest continent with the poorest people.

And that’s the context in which remarks like Henry’s and co have to be put.

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