Pākehā Privilege, Pākehā Denial: What New Zealand Can Learn From The United States About Confronting Racism

pakeha denial

Note: While I believe all those benefitting from racial privilege have an obligation to speak out against it, I also want to acknowledge the problematic, perhaps unavoidable, power dynamic implicit in a Pākehā (European New Zealander) writing about issues that personally affect Māori. Perhaps the most powerful move we, as Pākehā, can make to tackle racism in New Zealand is to begin listening to and foregrounding the voices of Māori. With that in mind, I’ve listed some outstanding Māori writers whom I encourage my Pākehā readers to use as an introduction to Māori-led discussions about racism. I also want to emphasise to my non-New Zealand readers that I would leave a completely distorted impression of Māori if I foregrounded only the negative results of racial inequality described in this essay. Māori history and culture, from colonisation to today, are marked by resiliance, creativity and enterprise. This defies summary in a single paragraph, and encompasses everything from the plethora of Māori-driven initiatives in the health, education and social services sectors; to the success in the second half of the twentieth-century in rescuing the Māori language from near-extinction; to the global success of Māori owned and centred businesses—to name but a few. It is no coincidence that when Pākehā turn to symbolism that is meaningful to them as New Zealanders, they turn above all to Māori culture: to kapa haka; to pounamu and bone carving; to the curves of the koru. In short, the positive elements of Māori culture and the Māori people have always, always, outweighed the negative.

Some essential Māori voices:

Marama Davidson

He Hōaka

Mai Journal

Te Wharepora Hou


Pākehā privilege, Pākehā denial: What New Zealand can learn from the US about confronting racism

A favourite tactic of those who want to deny that they benefit from unequal power relations is to point to other cultures as examples of supposedly greater inequality. Every Western feminist can recognise it in the claim that they focus on trivialities while ignoring real inequality in the developing world. There is no meaningful support of feminisms in the developing world here, of course; it is an attempt at silencing those speaking out against inequality in the sceptics’ own societies. This tactic works just as well for denying racism and racial privilege, and, as I will discuss here, no one is better at it than Pākehā New Zealand.

Denial is deeply woven into the fabric of the Pākehā national identity. There was a time when Pākehā New Zealanders really believed their country had the best race relations in the world. When I was growing up, the more explicit manifestations of this belief hadn’t quite been destroyed by the Māori protest movement and, more recently, tensions introduced by increasing Asian immigration. Probably no one would state the myth so boldly today, but it endures, nonetheless. There is still a pervasive belief that other countries, especially Australia, have a much bigger problem with racism, and the idea that the racism discussed in this video is common would probably be genuinely surprising to many Pākehā. In fact, acknowledging personal and systemic racism in New Zealand arouses more than just the discomfort of being recognised as abetting and benefitting from inequality: in a society perennially anxious about how the rest of world views it, it almost amounts to treasonous defamation.

New Zealanders who find it bewildering that white Americans can believe a legacy of slavery and segregation could vanish in a few short decades commit equally fabulous acts of denial. Deliberate policies on the part of the British and New Zealand governments to undermine Māori governance, culture and economic independence have left a legacy of outrageous systemic inequalities—a legacy that has pointed out many times, that I should hardly need to point out now, and yet I do. Illegal confiscation of huge amounts of land, for example, decimated a prospering Māori economy and caused widespread poverty that persists today. The Native school system, which was abolished in 1969 and banned Māori from being spoken, not only alienated many Māori from their own language but, by preparing pupils for unskilled labour, created a long-lasting barrier to Māori aspirations for higher education.

Pervasive negative attitudes towards contemporary Māori exacerbate the disproportionate impact of poverty, crime, poor health and educational underachievement. The academic potential of Māori pupils is damaged by the low expectations of teachers and Māori receive, on average, poorer care from healthcare workers. More generally, Māori—the original inhabitants of New Zealand—are alienated and othered in their own country, while Pākeha culture has become so synonymous with New Zealand culture in the dominant discourse that the signifier “Pākehā” has completely receded from view. Ample research, by Māori and others, demonstrates how this takes place in the mainstream media, where Māori tend to be described as “them” or “they” in contrast to an implicitly Pākehā “us” (see this paper for example). In this system of Pākehā cultural dominance, Pākehā are allowed to be individualised in ways Māori are not. Thus Pākehā criminals are seen as individual moral failures (which, as this fact sheet by the research group Kupu Taea points out, facilitates the erasure of Pakeha criminality), while Māori criminals are instead viewed in the context of generalised Māori criminality.

In the face of these glaring inequities, Pākehā denial of their racial privilege is so complete that the dominant narrative is, unbelievably, one in which Pākehā are presented as victims. Pākehā negativity towards the Māori language, for example, coalesces around widespread dislike of the word “Pākehā,” which, it is often (falsely) claimed, is really a slur meaning “white pig” or something similar. The most pervasive form that this denial takes, however, is the fallacy of ‘Māori privilege.’ Denunciations of “Māori privilege”—which applies, variously, to any attempt to honour the obligations of the Treaty of Waitangi; any attempt to remedy systemic racism; and the four Māori seats in parliament—are everywhere. Aspiring politicians who use it readily find a receptive audience. Indeed, the myth of “Māori privilege” is so pervasive that it did not strike the leader of one political party as absurd to compare the situation of Māori today with the way “the aristocracy were legally privileged in pre-revolutionary France.

The myth of ‘Māori privilege’ touts “equal treatment for all,” a superficial cooption of civil rights language that denies the real injustices of systemic racism. But to pretend that Māori and Pākehā benefit equally from the system in New Zealand is worse than just a spectacular act of denial. That is, to believe that Māori are not systemically disadvantaged—that their collectively poorer outcomes are not the result of external circumstances—can only mean, once the layers are peeled back, to also believe that they are inherently inferior. In this polite way, denial masks deeply embedded racism at the heart of Pākehā New Zealand.

Living in the United States during this time when activism against racism has attained an extraordinary visibility, fuelled by an unending torrent of violence towards black Americans, turning reflexively to this kind of denial is all too easy. As a Pākehā New Zealander, it costs me far less to acknowledge and speak out against racism in the United States than it would if I were critiquing racism in my own country. But for all that New Zealanders like myself may be tempted to feel superior in the face of American race relations, there is a lot we could learn from the United States.

Most notably, in the year since Michael Brown was fatally shot in Ferguson, there has been an explosion of articles in the American progressive media calling on white people to confront and speak out against racial injustice. They urge white people to acknowledge racism more insidious and widespread than the overt hatred of someone like Dylann Roof or the Ku Klux Klan, and they emphasise how prejudice unconsciously shapes (white) perceptions of people of colour, even those of people who don’t consider themselves, or want, to be racist. Much of the discussion revolves around the idea of white privilege, exploring the ways in which white people benefit from it, as well as the reasons why white people react so defensively when challenged to confront their biases and privilege. (For a small sampling of such pieces, see here and here and here and here and here.)

These articles do, of course, elicit enormous resistance from white Americans, yet, from the perspective of a New Zealand media consumer, their presence alone is significant. Discussion about racism in the mainstream New Zealand media rarely moves beyond the observation of overt racism to the issue of personal, unacknowledged bias and the ways in which Pākehā New Zealanders benefit from systemic racism. For all the prominence of the phrase “Māori privilege,” it is significant that the phrase “Pākehā” or “white privilege”—a concept that has proved very useful in examining the ways in which white Americans benefit from systemic racism—generates virtually no hits on the most popular New Zealand news websites. Even when discussions about racism attempt to move to a more sophisticated level—and they rarely do—they are problematic and rife with unexamined possibilities. This is illustrated well by an article that was published this month in the New Zealand Herald, titled ‘Rise of “Casual Racism” in New Zealand.’

The article is notable for broaching the topic of “casual” or “everyday racism”—racism that is more subtle than “blatant racist behaviour” like the “vitriolic racist taunts” that were recently directed at Fijian rugby player Sake Aca. It is a concept that is well established in the American media, but the Herald article shows none of the American media’s willingness (in some quarters at least) to tackle difficult questions about white racism. Instead, driven by the seemingly ubiquitous impulse to protect the myth of a racism free New Zealand, it treats casual racism in this country as the actions of well-meaning people, unused to different cultures, who accidentally cause offence by saying or doing things that they don’t realise are offensive. A sociologist at Auckland University, for example, is quoted as saying that although New Zealanders are “very open and welcoming …. we are not as used to cultural diversity as many other countries that have been familiar with this for a lot longer.” Tellingly, while casual racism in the United States appears to be treated as unambiguously racist—for instance, the article gives as an example President Obama’s description of how African American men are accustomed to their presence on an elevator causing women to “clu[tch] [their] purse[s] nervously or hol[d] [their] breath until [they] ha[ve] a chance to get off”—the examples given of casual racism in the New Zealand context could, the article is at pains to point out, actually be innocent acts. In one example, a New Zealander of part-Malaysian descent describes a white man giving her a exaggerated Chinese greeting—although she finds it “ridiculous” and “very patronising,” the woman doesn’t “believe he was intentionally trying to be insulting.” Even an account by the (white) Race Relations Commissioner of a Pākehā taxi driver who is “serious about his dislike for Muslim people”—he asks her why she is visiting a mosque where “she might be killed”—concludes with the taxi driver arriving at the mosque and realising that “there were a lot of taxis already parked outside and he knew many of their drivers, his Muslim workmates who came over to say hi to him.” In this way, the taxi driver’s highly negative feelings are neutralised by the revelation that they only function on an abstract level: when faced with real Muslims, he is apparently ready to befriend them. As the Commissioner says in conclusion, New Zealanders “are essentially good people who believe in giving others a fair go.”

By characterising casual racism in New Zealand as superficial missteps atop a foundation of genuinely positive attitudes, the article avoids the possibility that it grows out of a broad network of internalised negative attitudes towards other cultures and races. This is bolstered by the article’s characterisation of casual racism as a recent phenomenon; the result of simple unfamiliarity with other cultures rather than a deeply engrained part of our history. Racism towards Māori does not seem to occur to the article’s author as a possibility at all—and it is hard to see how serious discussion about racism in New Zealand, casual or otherwise, can take place as long as Pākehā New Zealanders continue to deny the significant ways in which Māori are affected by racism.

Of course, the conversation taking place in the United States right now cannot be the same as the one that needs to take place in New Zealand. They are different countries with different histories and cultures. Perhaps the fact that the conversation is taking place at all in the mainstream media is the single biggest thing that New Zealand could take from its overseas cousin, although our aspirations should be much greater than this. There are many Māori and others who right now are engaging with the subject in a sophisticated and nuanced way, but, to the detriment of us all, they are not given space in the mainstream media. It’s time to start listening. This is something we need to start talking about.

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