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Thank Heavens for Donald Sterling and other Lightning Rod Racists

Make no bones about it, Donald Sterling helps many of us sleep better in our beds at night. The owner of the LA Clippers gives form to the formless. Like a lightning rod he draws the ire and righteous anger of all of us who pride ourselves on our ability to tolerate difference. He ticks all the right boxes, powerful, super-rich, white, curiously formed (looking as if he has been carved out of aged Lucite), not to mention helpfully braying racist claptrap to his latest (wired-up?) lovely in the grip of his papery claws. (see He is in the mould of the equally odd local multimillionaire Louis Crimp…remember him from a couple of years back? Old, bigoted, wealthy:

“All the white New Zealanders I’ve spoken to don’t like the Maoris, the way they are full of crime and welfare.” (

There is a kind of functional purging that happens when such obvious bogeymen are exposed in this Western society. It reminds me a little of what Aristotle named ‘catharsis’; the ‘pity and fear’ an audience to a tragic play felt when the protagonist invariably fell from what had been a lofty height (Oedipus, Agamemnon and so on). Catharsis in that ancient context meant feeling pity for the plight of the doomed protagonist, and a kind of compassionate fear for ourselves lest we undergo a similar fate. Well. I don’t detect pity for Louis & Don, this kind of modern catharsis is a little different, we feel a kind of cleansing revulsion.

Yet underneath all that disgusted wrath perhaps we also feel a little bit of fear lest we are revealed to have similar bigotries within us. This fear is perhaps at the heart of our curiously formalistic approach to eradicating racist and sexist symbols from our language and our public actions. As Jeremy Clarkson has just discovered, uttering the N-word creates a moment of talismanic horror that he can atone for on the public altar of Twitter ( Eradicating such obvious symbols from our overt actions and words saves us from having to examine what we really think and feel. Replacing these symbols with new ones can also be handy. Keen to be seen as a non-racist? Why, take a selfie with a banana in honour of Dani Alves’ pretty wonderful response to thuggish banana throwers in a football match at Villareal on Sunday. When the banana landed near him as the Brazilian was about to take a corner he picked it up, ate it and carried on. The fact that this was apparently a preplanned marketing campaign is overlooked in favour of the simple beauty of the new inclusive symbol, so right for t-shirts, now selling for 25 Euro each.

I’m not going to engage in a sociological examination (you’ll be relieved to know) of the dynamics and causes of racism, sexism or homophobia. I understand the analysis that tells me that racism (and other isms) is produced from ‘power dynamics’ in society. Those with power can exclude consciously, or otherwise, those without power, based on a denigration of the race, ethnicity, gender or sexuality of the excluded. I get that. What worries me about that analysis is that it (superficially) excuses us, if we ourselves fall into any one or more of the excluded groups, from examining ourselves. I can’t be racist, I’m Māori. Well, I’m less interested in whether an ‘ism’ can be attached to my outward language and behaviour. I’m more interested in the failure of imagination that I am definitely in danger of sharing with Louis and Don. We are all at risk of this kind of failure, regardless of the label we put upon it.

I have a young female relative in my large extended family whom I love dearly. She’s a teenager, a gorgeous, bright, talented girl. And she is ashamed of being Māori. She doesn’t acknowledge her own Māori name, she wonders why the only Māori women she sees (outside of her family) are fat and why the men are all criminals. She can’t yet imagine, you see, that there are other Māori realities, other Māori futures. Even when she sees Māori that don’t fit that mould she may not shift her thinking. Perhaps those ‘other Māori’ are just aberrations to her perceived truth. Like Don, Like Louis, she makes false deductions from limited information, and won’t or can’t (yet) imagine how things could be different. All is not lost for her, and I am ever a believer in the power of human imagination to create change. Eventually I think she will be able to imagine Māori differently. Louis & Don haven’t managed this leap of imagination, it appears, but I would wager that none of us is totally cured from this particular condition. Some people have more power to harm than the rest of us, based on their bigotries, which is why we need protective laws and actions designed to counter and prevent harms from racism, sexism and the like. But let’s not be fooled, Louis & Don are not strange or remote, they are in the room with us.

About Sparrowhawk/Kārearea

Legal academic and writer, Wellington. (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Pākeha. Nō te Hāhi Mihinare hoki)

2 responses »

  1. thanks for thinking outside the box for us… i knew something was rattling around in there (my brain) that needed clarifying..



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