Language subtly, and often unconsciously, perpetuates the status quo. It reinforces power structures. The words we choose can expose our underlying value systems, beliefs and assumptions. Listening to Radio New Zealand this time last week, I heard a cracker: a very exposing choice of words indeed. To me, it exemplifies how White-New Zealand positions itself as the norm, daily.
Now, before we get into examining the cracker, rewind a bit, to understand the backdrop. Who could have failed to notice the Mayor of New Plymouth last week – Andrew Judd. I hope everyone in Aotearoa has. Andrew, you are truly a lightbeamer.
In my last post, I’m not in your shitty Club, I’m a lightbeamer, I discuss the awkward moment when you decide whether or not to call someone out for their shitty behaviour. Kia ora Andrew for using your platform of power and privilege for others, by calling out not only the racism around you, but in your own life.
For anyone who hasn’t noticed him: Judd announced he will not stand again for re-election in New Plymouth’s mayoralty as a direct result of the abuses he has suffered at the hands of fizzing (spitting, Nazi-attired, name calling, ranty-letter writing) racists. All because of supporting Māori in his district. This last sentence sums it up. Māori constituents in his district. ie, the people for whom he is a mayor, people who may have voted for him, people who’s taxes pay his way. People who are people. You know, the ones who get representation in local body government. He understands that being a mayor means – being everyone’s mayor. Listening to, and attending to the needs of all. Lightbulb moment.
Thanks for reading on, back to the cracker you’ve been waiting for. On Tuesday May 10th, minutes before Radio New Zealand’s Checkpoint asked if we are a racist country, Mike Williams (former Labour Party President) sat on Jim Mora’s RNZ afternoon panel, to discuss among other things, Māori seats in government. Renown for its dearth of colour and lack of gender diversity, the panel perspective was never going to be broad. This discussion was in relation to Judd’s New Plymouth experience.
Later, during Checkpoint, John Campbell could have answered his own question with Mike’s comment.
Because, Mike said:
“I am in actually in favour of the Māori electorates for rather an odd reason, I think they have proven a great safety valve, and, when we’ve had near revolutionary situations over the foreshore and seabed act, all of that explosive force has gone into politics, but I’d also say that Māori are only slowly integrating into our political system. You have a look at the Māori seats and the average turn out in the general seats which are predominately European, is pushing 80% in the Māori electorates it’s just 50%, so I think the fate is very largely in their own hands.”
Ok – great you are in favour, but um, a few things…. Lets break it down.
- ‘our political system’? The 1840 Treaty of Waitangi and the subsequent 1952 New Zealand Constitution Act which paved the way for Representative Government – was supposed to be all about two peoples coming together. So, who do you mean Mike, when you say ‘our’ political system. You’ve excluded Māori already in your comment…. But, I guess White-New Zealand often say ‘our’ in the sense that the political system has always been set up to serve their/our purposes. Yay for us! A good start.
- ‘slowly integrating’. Hmm. I didn’t realise this was still the aim. That Māori are some how ‘over there’ and we are ‘here’ – wherever here and there are. And that they need to come over and blend in more. Policies of assimilation are more of a 1930s kind of a thing, Mike.
- ‘near revolutionary situations’ So, the only way to rein em’ in is with a few representative seats? Keep em’ quite, keep em’ happy kind of thing? I prefer revolution myself.
- ‘fate is very largely in their own hands’ -pull up your socks now Tāngata Māori! Dust your hands off Pāhekā. As if the deal Māori get has got nothing to do with the political system and social structures?!….made by and large for White-New Zealand. Face palm.
Sorry to pick on you, Mike – but you provided such good fodder. I don’t mean to make so many presumptions about you either. I don’t know your whakapapa. I’m Pāhekā by the way. But whoever you are, your words certainly came across a certain way:
Now back to Andrew: Every group of people have different needs. Judd recognised this and worked with it. He understands that equality only comes of equity. He has learned a lot, he has changed. Bravo. Perhaps his fizzing mates (and Mike Williams) could do with a language lesson in order to get them on board. Pictures always help me learn, so here is an image I REALLY like. It explains equity far better than I ever could with words.
I think the most important thing to note from the Judd saga is that we have a long way to go. That there are some extremely icky pockets of hatred and fear in our society, which are perpetuated by off the cuff, casual comments like Mike Williams’ – I understand it was a brief conversation on the panel, but it was telling. For non-Māori, this requires a deep inner-reflection. Andrew has done this already. Many of us Pākehā and Tau iwi (go look it up) can relate to the following. I relate in a slightly different way, which I’ll elaborate on after Andrew:
There was a silly routine as kids when, if you touched somebody that you thought had maggots, you’d run around and touch someone else and say: “I’m fans.” Meaning, I’m free of the maggots. Then they’d have to touch someone else to get rid of the maggots. And I distinctly remember doing that to a little Māori girl at school. And I think back now: “How horribly, horribly cruel. How hard that must have been for that little girl.”
Yet we thought that game was fun. I reflect on those times now and I can see that’s definitely where it all started. And, from that point on, it gets reinforced by never having to engage — and never having to see the consequence of those actions. Never knowing how that would have affected her in her life.
And, here is my contribution: I have a memory of myself as a 9-year-old in 1994, which shows the power of language yet again. Imagine a suburban Christchurch school. To assist your mental picture, I recall only 1 or 2 visibly Māori whānau and 1 Chinese child during my time at school. Oh, the diversity.
It was a rainy day, we were all making a fantastic mess of the class before the teacher had even finished her morning coffee. We were running around shouting ‘if your feet touch the floor you are a lesbian’. Oh dang, no one wanted to be a lesbian (never-mind none of us knew what the word meant), so there we were, a bunch of 9-year-olds desperately looking for a chair or desk to jump up on. Heaven forbid we were pulled down into the murky depths of the lesbian floor of Room 8.
As Andrew said this stuff has consequences. We were only 9, but one of us heard ‘lesbian’ said in a negative light somewhere by someone. Adults: watch your language.
Not long after this, the mother of a kid in my class came out as lesbian – they are still our close family friends. I now understood the word, and felt a massive shame at my activity a week or so earlier. I hoped like hell that the outburst of jumping on chairs had nothing to do with my family friend’s reality. I’m sure he knows.
The ripples of ‘maggots’ and ‘lesbian engulfing carpets’ have far-reaching effects. This is where it all begins. The sidelining, the slandering, the oppression of people who are not you. The embedding of attitudes that kids carry into adulthood. Into spheres where they have real power to affect change for good or bad.
It is us adults who are responsible for change in societal attitudes. Responsible in seeing that our children do not grow up with the same prejudices we did. So, Mike Williams, be careful with your language.
Now, one last thing before I go. I have a fairly big bone to pick (surprise, surprise) with the way this news story has played out. Because it has all been said before. Many, many times before. That New Zealand has problems with racism, to the tune of thousands marching in our streets during the 1975 Māori Land Rights hīkoi for example, and all the other times anyone but a Pāhekā has stood up and has said something ain’t right! I won’t bore you with a list. We all know Aotearoa has a long history of grass-roots protest movements. Especially when it comes to colonisation and it’s disproportionately negative effects on Māori.
So why are we only asking now, “Does NZ have a problem with anti-Māori racism?” It would seem that we need things whitesplained to us. Or at least the fabled ‘middle Zealand’ do.
Why is it that other people in Judd’s immediate rohe (go look it up) can stand up time again time again and not be heard enough? Parihaka are just next door and Eva Rickard was in Raglan a few hundred kilometers north. Yes, these Māori were heard to an extent over the course of a century – there have been some policy and attitudinal changes. Still, there is great need for a much more seismic shift. More listening to the voices that must be heard. Allowing them to dictate the work to be done in order to make changes. Step down from the pedestal White-New Zealand. Let us move on from ‘consultation at the table’. It is time to realise WE are sitting at their tēpu, and no one really invited us. Ouch. I’ve said enough. The Non-Plastic Māori lays it down real good and proper here.