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How not to talk to me about racism
12 October, 2016
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How not to talk to me about racism

Facebook. It giveth with one hand, it taketh with the other.

On the one hand I can easily glom* onto already organised toddler gatherings with the greatest of ease and share pics of my kid with his whanau, on the other hand I get an insight into the mindset and politics of people whom I don’t hang out with very often, and that can sometimes be challenging. Especially when the topic of racism in New Zealand comes up.

Now, just in case any of you were under the impression that there was no racism in New Zealand (also, no dairy cows on our farms), this flies in the face of what most adults know about the world, i.e. that the capacity for people to be shitty to each other is seemingly boundless. Pretty much anywhere there are taxi drivers people, there will be racism of some sort. So why would New Zealand be any different?

But for reasons that I don’t fully understand, people – almost always Pakeha people in my experience (your mileage may vary) – have a lot invested in the notion that New Zealand is an egalitarian wonderland where we’re all one big happy family, so they get a bit shirty if you suggest otherwise. Defensive, even.

And I’m trying to be forgiving about that. I really am. Even though it makes me furious. If for no other reason than that it took me until my thirties to really understand that I was a feminist, and that yeah, the patriarchy does need a bloody good smashing, actually.

In my teens and twenties I was, for whatever reason, unable to join the dots between the bollocks women’s mags told me about my body, and sexual politics, and gender inequality. When men undermined me in the workplace, or made lewd comments, or told me to “smile”, I thought it was just because they were dicks. I didn’t see the support system of sexism that some of that stuff was resting on.

But I did get there eventually.

Just being exposed to ideas and having conversations and reading and listening was enough to get me there in the end.

So I have to imagine that it can be the same with racism too. Which is not to say that I’m an expert now. Like all people I’m a work in progress and I’m sorry to say I’ve made mistakes in the past which I’m really embarrassed about now. But I believe the point of life is to grow and learn and try be a better person than you were yesterday.

To that end, here are some things that you should probably not say about racism anywhere near me because it will make it really hard for me to be patient. And also I might cry a lot. Because this stuff isn’t just intellectual thought-experiments for me. It actually hurts when you say this stuff.

Māori people are racist against Pakeha people too

It really depends on how you define racism. I think in this kind of discussion there are generally two kinds of people talking at cross-purposes to each other, using different terminology.

There are people who understand that racism is at its most evil efficiency when it’s used by those in the dominant culture against minorities or oppressed groups (Black South Africans weren’t the minority during Apartheid but they sure as eff weren’t the people in charge). And then there are people who think racism is “making any comment about race”, i.e. Barack Obama is racist any time he talks about the experience of being Black in America. HOW VERY DARE HE?!

Anyway, this short comedy routine by Aamer Rahman explains it much better than I can, and also it’s hella funny.

What about the Aborigines and African Americans? That’s what real racism looks like

Imagine that we work together and you’ve just told me you’ve got a splitting headache that’s making it hard for you to work. You might take a half day if it doesn’t come right because you feel pretty crap.

I listen to what you’ve got to say and then announce that actually, my brother broke his leg last week and that’s what real pain is like. He probably won’t be able to work for a month. I also tell you I think it’s pretty sad of you to be complaining about a pitiful headache given what he’s been going through.

Firstly, can you imagine working with someone like that? What a massive dick you’d have to be to not realise what a completely appalling response that is. You would be entirely justified in telling that person to fuck off.

Here’s the thing, much like sexism (“it’s sooo much worse in Islamic countries – that’s real sexism so stop worrying about whatever godawful thing Trump has said or done”), just because a more extreme form of it exists elsewhere does not negate its existence and effects here. Telling me about your brother’s broken leg doesn’t magically make my headache disappear. I still have a goddamn headache. Same with racism.

Really, the only reasonable human response is “Awh, that sucks. Is there anything I can do to help?” or possibly “I have nurofen in my handbag if you want some”. Is that so hard?

Talking about racism is divisive

In a way, yes. In the respect that it divides people into two groups “people who get it” and “people who don’t”. Try really hard to be in the first group.

But seriously, we should talk about our problems. It’s good to get it off your chest and I can’t tell you how many times, in my writing career (mostly about things that have nothing to do with racism) that someone has commented or said to me “thank you so much for telling that story, it made me feel less alone”. Or it can spur people into action. Make them try and be better.

What I hear when someone says that another person’s experience with racism “separates” Pakeha and Māori is “this has made me feel like there’s a difference between being Pakeha and being Māori and I prefer not to believe that”. I’m not sure why that’s such a threatening idea, but it sure does seem to be for some people.

My Māori friend/son/husband/dentist/accountant’s dog-walker has never had any problem with racism

Good for them! It makes me really happy that they haven’t had to feel really shit in the way that I and many, many, many, many, many, many, many Māori people have. I really wish it were that way for everyone. But it’s not. It just isn’t.

Going back to the headache analogy, just because someone you know doesn’t have a headache doesn’t mean I’m lying about having a headache.

You might also want to consider the fact that they might not be being entirely honest with you. Because they might have decided, for some weird, totally illogical reason, that you wouldn’t react well if they told you what this shit was really like. Maybe they got some crazy idea that you might try to minimise their experience by telling them to worry about Aborigines or something.

Like, is it so hard to imagine that the experience of someone you don’t know that well might be vastly different to that of a close friend or family member? It’s not really that much of a stretch. I think you should at least consider the possibility.

And definitely don’t assume I’m making shit up for the fun of it. Talking about racism with Pakeha people is some of the most awkward, painful stuff ever. I’ll probably turn the comments off on this post because I know it will hurt my soul to read the reckons of someone who really doesn’t get what I’m saying. Not being understood makes me furious and frustrated. I’m only saying these things now because I think it’s important to say them. More important than my discomfort. Or yours.

I have a right to my opinion

Yep, you do. What you don’t have a right to is my agreement. Or to decide how I get to feel about it. Or for it to have no affect on how I feel about you or whether I want to talk to you anymore. Those are not your rights. You get to say things, yes. But so do I. Here I am doing it now.

You have a right to your opinion but so does everybody so you may as well say you have a right to breathe in and out regularly, or stand on one leg, or whistle the sailor’s hornpipe naked while balancing a cabbage on your head. Unless you’re being held as a political prisoner or being raided by the cops because you went to some protests, or you know, actually persecuted, your right to an opinion isn’t really enough of a big deal to bother mentioning.

Just saying…

Just don’t.

*What? It’s a word!

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