Towards a Grammar of Race in Aotearoa New Zealand edited by Arcia Tecun, Lana Lopesi and Anisha Sankar (Bridget Williams Books, 2022), 256pp, $39.99
Behind the facade of ‘nice New Zealand’ racial discrimination festers away at every level of society, though often in subtle, circuitous, complex ways, and despite so-called affirmative action. One in every three complaints to the Human Rights Commission currently concerns racial discrimination. In November 2022, after his defeat at the polling booths, Auckland Mayoral candidate Efeso Collins, who is of Sāmoan and Tokelauan descent, and was for a time the front-runner, said polling research showed that ‘the race factor’ was a key reason for his loss to Wayne Brown, who implicitly played ‘the race card’.
But ‘race’ is a slippery word that has different connotations for different people. It’s a polarising and ambiguous term. Towards a Grammar of Race in Aotearoa New Zealand gathers together fifteen essays and discussions by eighteen contributors, who mainly use the careful language of academic discourse in order to avoid the inherent value judgements of the vernacular, while they reflect on how people talk about race on social media, in mainstream journalism, and in general public forums.
Unconscious bias, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Blackness, New Zealand’s colonial history of race-based prejudice, flax-roots activism, neo-liberal precarity, the rise of a consultant class able to exercise various kinds of privilege, the rise of self-identifying groups seeking to exercise autonomy, are all touched on here, if not fully explored.
The three editors, who are professional academics and also global nomads currently not based in Aotearoa, claim enthusiastically by way of an encomium: ‘there is something for everyone in this collection’. And indeed they have canvassed and present a range of viewpoints, perspectives, testimonies and provocations, though all the contributors are, in fact, connected in a collegial way and endorse the kaupapa of this book, as it is explained in the Introduction, co-authored by the editors.
The inclusion of the word ‘towards’ in the title is to confirm their intention to keep debate open-ended and ongoing and conclusions provisional, evidence-driven. The phrasing ‘a grammar’ invites the consideration that there is more than one way to present the messy, complicated, even paradoxical, matter of ‘race’. The word ‘grammar’, meanwhile, denotes a formal, agreed-upon language for talking about different responses, but it also confirms that ‘race’ exists as an active process.
‘Race’ itself is a concept perhaps as old as humanity, and as many here argue, ‘race performs the work of power’. Racism is aligned with classism and sexism, with wealth and privilege. Racism is best understood as systemic and institutional; it often co-opts the unwitting and possibly non-existent ‘silent majority’ in its interests. Race, then, is social, not biological; it is a means of control, employing triumphalist narratives to endorse a dominant group. Defined this way, racism can be contested and rolled back. Though before that might happen, there is defensiveness, hostility, hysteria and sometimes violence to contend with. Racism possesses a siege mentality.
Global ideas of race flow into our homes and lives through our mobile devices and social media accounts every day. Lana Lopesi points out, in an essay entitled ‘The Digital Rub of Racial Grammars and Ethnic Fragility’, that this means in New Zealand people are no longer confined, as they were a decade or two ago, to the Pākehā-non-Pākeha ‘binary of the national imaginary, but rather can place themselves in transnational communities, transindigenous communities and global communities of colour’, and can do so instantaneously and continuously. However, the rapidity of social media communications can also spark the expression of ‘irreconcilable or “irrecon-tweet-able” differences’.
She then goes on to discuss the New Zealand-Fijian artist Luke Willis Thompson, nominated for the Turner Prize in London for his 2017 silent-film work ‘Autoportrait’, which is based on a police shooting incident in Minnesota, USA, in which a Black man was shot and killed. This led to an internet debate about the artist’s motivations, with accusations and counter-arguments flying about his ‘right’ to use the subject matter, despite or because of his Fijian fakapapa. To his overseas detractors, he was engaged in exploitation because he was ‘white passing’ (or looked ‘white’), and they do not acknowledge Pasifika genealogical bloodlines and our colonial history. There’s a lot to unpack here and Lopesi’s essay isn’t quite agile enough for the complex task. But she does offer the observation that ‘irreconcilable tensions emerge [when] there is friction between a global grammar of race and its misinterpretation in a local context’.
In his essay ‘My Husband is Sāmoan, So Talofa’, Patrick S. Thomsen tells us that he was half-watching an interview on John Campbell’s Breakfast show with politician Judith Collins in which she responded to a question from Aigagalefili Fepulea’i Tapua’i, head girl of Aorere College at the time, with the reply: ‘My husband is Sāmoan, so talofa.’ For Thomsen, himself of Sāmoan descent, all the references to her husband ‘rely on a hazardous black swan logic, which claims a single example of so-called excellence or success is all that is needed to invalidate [decades] of systematic oppression and institutionalised racism … In this way, race becomes merely a surface-level exclusive question of interpersonal racism acknowledged by those who are the unmarked, privileged default: Pākehā New Zealanders.’
Nathan Rew, in his essay ‘To Speak of Liberation in a Black Oceania’, writes that ‘while not all of Black Oceania may face genocide as West Papua does today, the treatment of West Papuans by Indonesia fundamentally demonstrates the degree to which colonial capitalist states can and will dehumanise Black life in the pursuit of profit’. He goes on to say that when New Zealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta was questioned about New Zealand’s support for the liberation of West Papua, ‘she echoed Indonesian claims that the West Papuan genocide was a domestic issue’.
In another essay, four organisers of a Black Lives Matter march in Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington) in 2020 discuss the event and their participation. Beth Teklezgi, 21, and her twin sister Selome mention life in Ethiopia as Eritrean refugees and moving to New Zealand aged 10. For Selome: ‘Growing up in a mainly white-dominated country can make you feel that you are lesser than and unseen by others … learning about African-American activists gave me the power of voice I needed to cope with it.’
In her co-authored essay dwelling on encounters with ‘the n-word’ as it is used in New Zealand, Adele Norris provides personal testimony: ‘I relocated to New Zealand in November 2015 as a Black heterosexual cisgender female, and as a university lecturer in the social sciences … My second and third encounters … came from an older white female peer who twice referred to me as an “uppity Negro” because I refused to participate in an inessential task that she wanted to add to my high workload.’ She then adds: ‘[Another] colleague eventually stopped asking me about my weekends because I so often experienced some kind of racial profiling, whether on the university campus or in the local shops.’
Sharing his testimony in the same essay, Guled Mire states: ‘Through intermediate and secondary school I became acquainted with being called the n-word and I accepted it as part of my plight … Because I desired to fit in and belong, I accepted its use as a normal part of my experience, despite feeling humiliated … Every Black person raised in New Zealand can recall the same story of falling out with a Brown friend, and the language quickly going from “What’s up my n—a?” to “Fuck you, Black n—a”. It is an especially isolating feeling when you get this treatment from other people of colour.’
This pair of essayists concludes: ‘(In New Zealand) the n-word continues to be used in everyday encounters to express anti-Blackness, and these encounters reflect more of the state of racism and supremacist attitudes than extreme acts of violence.’
Race is code for a specific set of life probabilities. Various essayists here visit the notion that Pākehā culture is still taken as the norm and that though we have moved on from the paternalism of a narrative depicting Good Māori versus Bad Māori, a version of this stereotyping lingers. That Māori are ‘the problem’ for which solutions are needed ensures that the tilted playing field built on colonial white settler foundations persists as the status quo.
Theorist Simon Barber, invoking the Māori activist Moana Jackson, suggests that ‘we are still in this Wakefieldian moment where capitalism and colonialism are interlocked and what’s needed is re-Māorification or restoration.’ That is to say, society needs to recreate a holistic relationship with this place based on Māoritanga. In his essay ‘Whiteness, Blackness and Somewhere Inbetween’, Morgan Godfrey looks at the classifications Pākehā have applied to Māori over the decades that incorporate aggressive, period-era language opportunistically designed to establish subordination. He points out that in the 1970s, ‘Blackness’ was adopted as a strategy. Māori radicals referred to themselves as Black, inspired by the American Black Power movement, ‘an identification undertaken in solidarity’. Godfrey doesn’t mention, however, the dispossessed, working-class Māori who joined the Black Power gang networks at that time: entities created in poor areas by Māori ‘trouble-makers’ to provide Māori youth shunted through the penal system with a sense of belonging and work-scheme opportunities.
Garrick Cooper, in his essay titled ‘Hidden Beneath Tiriti Justice’, offers a contemporary assessment, stating that the wealth, capital and influence of ‘Māori tribal bureaucracies’, along with the prominence of Māori leadership in government and Māori in academic institutions ‘have never been greater. Yet most of the social indices that represent Māori disadvantage remain [the same] despite attempts to redress them’. Cooper argues ‘a symbiotic relationship’ with the Crown has brought mutual benefits, but the relationship is asymmetrical in the Crown’s favour and ‘tribal bureaucracies acquiesce in this’. The ‘powerful and educated elites’ prefer to distance themselves from poorer ‘disconnected Māori’, an underclass that seems ‘to have been cut adrift’.
Taken together as a collection, Towards a Grammar of Race in Aotearoa New Zealand, a title with didactic schoolroom echoes, is a fascinating compendium of responses to the agenda of colonialisation in this country, as framed by the concepts of critical race theory, latterly brought to prominence by the sustained fulminations of Tucker Carlson and Fox News against its ideas. Though occasionally desiccated by a surfeit of jargon, this very readable book nevertheless honours the promise it makes ‘to present ways to think about racism and what that might be’ at this present moment in the nation’s narrative.
DAVID EGGLETON is a writer and poet based in Ōtepoti Dunedin. His most recent book is Respirator: A Poet Laureate Collection 2019–2022.