I remember how much like a punch in the gut it felt to hear, at the age of 16, how my then-boyfriend’s mother had said to him, “Well, dear. It is not as if we will ever let you marry a Maori.” He reported to this me with a shake of his head and a laugh, until he caught sight of my reaction. I stared at him with my mouth open, my eyes welling with tears. I had been staying at his house with he and his parents in Wellington, and it was shortly before I was due to leave. She had said this awful thing even as I was staying under their roof. To be honest there was a little bit of context to that remark, he and I had been caught the previous evening in a little bit of a compromising position (cuddling on the same bed fully clothed, with door closed, in 1986, if you MUST know) , and he had been trying to mollify her annoyance. So that was her ultimate riposte; I wasn’t marriageable material anyway, so what did it matter what he did?
Once he saw my reaction my boyfriend realised, I think, how far over the line this comment was, and how painful it had been for me to hear. Actually, funny post-script..when I did leave, he and I went to the airport, and as we waited in the terminal, there was an announcement over the speakers that there was a phone-call for me at the Air New Zealand desk. At the other end of the phone was his mother, apologising to me, and saying how she really didn’t mean what she said, and what a wonderful person I was. And while I never married her son, in the years that followed, when I would visit, she always treated me with the greatest respect, and with real (so I felt) affection. I never held any long-term resentment over the comment; I just filed it away, I guess, under ‘moments that make us figure out who we are, and who we are not.’
I was reminded of that moment when I read about the Marae employee Blake Ihimaera receiving an unwelcome telephone message, when the employee of the car company she was hiring from inadvertently failed to terminate the call, and he and his colleague had a moan about Māori people; they needed to be sent to their own island, and why the hell did they want their own prison anyway. Blake describes the moment she heard the message as being one where the bubble she had been living in burst. She had lived, up until that time in a pro-Māori world, and this moment had shattered that bubble, maybe forever. I absolutely got that, that’s how I felt. I knew, at my tender age then, that there was racism and I knew Māori had had a bad deal (didn’t quite know the details back then) but this was the first time I had really felt belittled directly for simply being who I was.
What I have learned in the intervening 30 years is that this kind of casual bigotry is endemic, but that it is only rarely a means to its own end. When my boyfriend’s mother said what she said, of course it was racist. But it was also designed to hurt him because of the rule that we had broken. I was the means to her end of belittling him and his choices, more than anything else. We say the most awful things to the people we love the most. When I listened to the conversation between the car company employees, I heard that kind of racist ‘locker room talk’ between people that quite possibly don’t know each other all that well, and are looking for ways to connect. And Blake, like me, was the means to that ignominious end.
So in that sense it’s a mistake to call this racism casual at all, there was nothing casual about it in either event. The first example was one of deliberate punishment for transgression, and the second was a deliberate social strategy (so so it seemed to me). The awful thing in that second example is really how easily Māori people, or any people for that matter, are sacrificed to that long social process of building useful relationships. The things I have heard over my life about Chinese, Samoans, Iraquis, Somalians, Aborigines, when the speaker thinks he or she need a bit of social lubrication to get by, are pretty depressingly awful. Many such bigoted comments have been made by Māori and Pasifika, unsurprisingly. And here’s the thing: they almost always work. The raucous “FAARKthat’s funny!” laughter, the common raised eyebrows, the nod, the half shrug, the quiet ‘yeah, well…’. I have never seen anyone walk out of that kind of personal conversation, and that includes me, although I’m a lot better now at calling that kind of talk bollocks when I hear it, than I was in my 20s or 30s. I have enough social capital that I can afford to lose some of it, you see.
It’s easy enough to say, ‘well just call it out. Call all that racist behaviour out, and if you put up with it you are as bad as they are. Boycott that car company for being racist bastards.’ Yep, good call, consequences change behaviour, right?
Now let’s look at our own lives and see how honest we really are in calling bigotry out when we see it. Or are we actually quite fond of it? Is this a dirty little secret tool that we actually do keep in our kete of social interactions? Maybe lots of us don’t. I hope so. But my theory is we will sometimes put up with or promulgate outrageously untrue statements about large swathes of people we gleefully put to the sword for a moment of fellow-feeling. Or perhaps we do it to make a point, or to punish someone, or whatever our immediate social need is at the time. And social media provides us with the massive echo chamber of bigotry to play around in. This comment on Facebook summed up the problem nicely:
they should be sacked from their job not good enough that this is 2017 and we are still experiencing these racists remarks in our own country Damn white trash is all i can say
Doing it for the likes, right? in fact, 29 as at last count at 5.28pm Monday and three comments; all vociferously in favour.
Ah, basic social anthropology I guess, in group/out group, nothing new to see here. But if we are to preside over the gradual death of ‘casual’ racism in our society we can’t shame it into extinction if we don’t also eradicate our own love of casual bigotry.
So. Sport and weather it is, then…
I’m not sure it can be eradicated. I fear that the urge to delineate and affiliate with each other by affirming shared in group/out group definition is so deep in our fibre that it is more realistic to manage it.
I remember discussing many years ago with Tipene O’Regan (as he then was) some research we’d both seen (from US researchers) measuring eye dwell on planted news stories about sad car accidents and other incidents where they changed the names of the victims and their families to signal likely membership of some of the ethnic subdivisions of US society. Not surprisingly, people spent far less time (often negligible time) considering stories about people who appeared to be not of their own ethnic background. Indeed their eyes passed on to another story as soon as the tell tale names identified the parties as ‘other’.
The unexpected finding was that there was an insignfiicant difference in this behaviour between people who considered themselves (and were considered by others) to be non-racist or colour blind, from those who expressed conventional prejudices.
There are many survival instinct behaviours and intuitions for which permanent cultural management is more likely to be useful and successful, than the denial and false hope of eradication.
The Victorians reportedly tried to eliminate sex from polite society’s recognition. It survived of course, just undercover. Our generation is busy trying to eliminate any respectability for even just violence (for example in self defence, or response to aggression) notwithstanding near universal popular culture and historical evidence that it is as normal and central to being human as dance and song and story telling and altruism in service of your kin etc.
The nation state had to elevate common interests and external threats, to replace small group and religious and regional hatreds with citizen common bonding and concern for each other irrespective of ethnicity.
We may have been unwarrantedly confident in thinking we could mould human material without such props at the same time as “celebrating” and fostering sub-group identities in naive multi-culturalism. We may be better to focus much more in everything we do on the feelings and values and interests we share inside New Zealand. We might need to tolerate the possibility that for many people the need to identify and to feel superior to outgroups will cause them to contrast values and feelings and interests pejoratively. If so it is safer if that is directed at people and groups outside the country, or sublimated into excessive sports team loyalty or other tribalism.
The worst kind, it seems to me, is the tribalism that coincides with physically observable attributes. But religious hatreds show how dangerous it might be to foster ‘them and us” even without physical distinctions.
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