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“Us”: Reckoning with New Zealand’s Racism in the Wake of the Mosque Attacks

On Friday the horrific Christchurch mosque attacks stunned the nation and the world. Across the country there is a deep sense of heartbrokenness that this happened in our seemingly ‘safe’ country. Many have described feeling profoundly shocked and in a state of disbelief. Politicians fronted up to TV cameras on Friday looking like stunned mullets. News anchors were all expressing the same sentiment: How could this happen here?

In Christchurch, Mayor Lianne Dalziel said she knew nothing of a Neo-Nazi threat in her city. National MP Gerry Brownlee was offended and outraged at the suggestion there is a Neo-Nazi problem in Christchurch. What they are both saying, emphatically, was this: They are not “us”.

This selective memory is deeply troubling. Do they really not remember that a white supremacist and leader of the National Front stood for mayor in Christchurch recently? Three times. The last time was in 2013. He got nearly 500 votes. That might not seem like many. But it’s nearly 500 people who agreed with him. (In 2004,  the first time he stood he got nearly 2 per cent of the vote, coming in a middling fifth place out of ten candidates). This same man has been convicted for firebombing a marae. He recently tried to set up a white separatist community in North Canterbury. ‘White pride’ marches and gatherings have gone on sporadically on the streets of the city for years. Only three years ago at the Christchurch white power annual ‘Flag Day’, a guy got stabbed. Largely, these ‘skinheads’ were just seen and treated as a bit of a joke. As oddballs.

But as anti-racism activists wondered, what was it going to take for these white supremacists in Christchurch and elsewhere to get noticed? Now we know: it has taken a full-blown tragedy. One of the most heartbreaking things I have read  about the lead up to the mosque attacks was the efforts Muslim women leaders put into trying to raise these issues, and how resolutely they were ignored.

The uncomfortable truth is that as a society, for the most part, we just accepted these white supremacists.  By and large, we let them go about their hate mongering business like it didn’t really matter. Maybe we muttered a few condemnations under our breath. From the outside, for Pākehā, they seemed a bit odd and a little scary. Easier to just hurry past and get on with other things. Maybe the vast majority of us didn’t like them, but as a society, it never felt pressing enough to do anything systematic to challenge them.

Thing is, we really can’t claim total ignorance here. There have been a plethora of New Zealand news stories warning us about this threat, of Jewish graves being desecrated, pig carcasses being left at mosques, refugees being beaten up, Asian students being abused on the streets, and a Molotov cocktail being thrown at a marae.

This inattention is a type of racism in itself. This apathy. Turning a blind eye. It speaks at a very deep level to a lack of Pākehā connection, accountability and empathy towards those who white supremacists targeted: Māori, Pasifika, migrants, Muslims, refugees, the Jewish community. It speaks to the social bubble that most Pākehā live in, where we don’t come to really understand the grinding, corrosive and threatening effects of everyday racism and hatred.

And here is a hard truth few of us Pākehā want to hear: Deep, deep down I think it speaks to a racism in which we Pākehā just don’t respect or value these people enough, don’t think their saftety is worth personally fighting for. At a subconscious level, we have had trouble seeing them as ‘us’. It shouldn’t take a massacre for us to feel real empathy, anger and solidarity with those who experience racial hatred.

This is confronting for many New Zealanders to consider. Especially those who think of themselves as fair minded advocates of equality. Most of us do think this way about ourselves. The reality is that believing oneself to be non-racist is now simply not enough. We have to be anti-racist, and that requires a more active position of publicly rejecting hatred, even when it’s not directed at us, and even when it seems to us as ‘not a huge deal’ or far away. It also requires us to take a deep look at how the structures of our society embed racism into the normal and the mundane, how our institutions have protected skinheads from any real consequences for decades.

And that requires reckoning with a colonial past, with the fact that our nation was built upon the racist principle that Māori needed to be ‘elevated’ up by the ‘progress’ of a ‘superior’ white society. Racism has long tentacles. Of course it’s still with us in a myriad of insidious ways.

As things stand today, Jacinda Ardern’s statements that “this is not us” are incorrect. This clearly is us. Admitting this is the first step in dealing with our racism at a societal level.

But if we take Ardern’s comment as evaluative rather than declarative, that she is stating what should and ought to be rather than what is, then she is indeed right. And her public rejection of this sort of hatred and violence through the statement “this is not us” is important.

But to think about how to make the statement “this is not us” a reality requires a much knottier conversation about who ‘us’ is. ‘Us’ means feeling connected to, responsible for, accountable to, in solidarity with, and empathic towards people. That even in our diversity we all share certain baseline rights and deserve the same dignity. Not just in the most dire of times.

Those in the media who talk about ‘other’ peoples as ‘them’ sow the ongoing divisions that white supremacy needs to sustain itself. When state institutions don’t take Nazi skinheads seriously because they’ve just become a normal ‘harmless’ part of our city life, then they have become a part of ‘us’.

The outpouring of solidarity from across New Zealand is necessary and heartening, and it is meaningful. This is indeed the time to focus on the victims and their community of this terrible tragedy.

Over time, to stop something like this happening again, for this anger we currently feel to be truly effective in combating racial hatred, we need to take a wider view, and work on the exclusions of empathy and solidarity that underpin this ”us” we keep taking about. We need to think about what responsibilities we each have to keep all of “us” safe from racial hatred and discrimination.

Recent Books by New Zealand Anthropologists

Three excellent booked have recently been published by New Zealand anthropologists, which deal with the ways in which neoliberal policies are reshaping health, fisheries, and education. Collectively, they reflect the critically engaged, politically grounded, and globally comparative flavour of anthropology in Aotearoa New Zealand.

One Blue Child by Susanna Trnka (Stanford 2017)

“One Blue Child examines the emergence of self-management as a global policy standard, focusing on how healthcare is reshaping our relationships with ourselves and our bodies, our families and our doctors, companies, and the government. Comparing responses to childhood asthma in New Zealand and the Czech Republic, Susanna Trnka traces how ideas about self-management, as well as policies inculcating self-reliance and self-responsibility more broadly, are assumed, reshaped, and ignored altogether by medical professionals, asthma sufferers and parents, environmental activists, and policymakers. By studying nations that share a commitment to the ideals of neoliberalism but approach children’s health according to very different cultural, political, and economic priorities, Trnka illuminates how responsibility is reformulated with sometimes surprising results.”

Book review by Ema Hrešanová here.

Private Oceans: The enclosure and marketisation of the seas by Fiona McCormack (Pluto/University of Chicago Press)

“Grounded in fieldwork in New Zealand, Iceland, Ireland and Hawaii, McCormack offers up a comparative analysis of the mechanisms driving the transformations unleashed by a new era of ocean grabbing. Exploring the processes of privatisation in ecosystem services, Private Oceans traces how value has been repositioned in the market, away from productive activities. The result? The demise of the small-scale sector, the collapse of fishing communities, cultural loss, and the emergence of a newly propertied class of producers – the armchair fisherman. Ultimately, Private Oceans demonstrates that the deviations from the capitalist norm explored in this book offer grounds for the reimagining of both fisheries economies and broader environmental systems.”

Book review by Sarah Ensor here.

Death of the Public University: Uncertain Futures for Higher Education in the Knowledge Economy by Susan Wright and Chris Shore. (Berghahn 2017)

“Universities have been subjected to continuous government reforms since the 1980s, to make them ‘entrepreneurial’, ‘efficient’ and aligned to the predicted needs and challenges of a global knowledge economy. Under increasing pressure to pursue ‘excellence’ and ‘innovation’, many universities are struggling to maintain their traditional mission to be inclusive, improve social mobility and equality and act as the ‘critic and conscience’ of society. Drawing on a multi-disciplinary research project, University Reform, Globalisation and Europeanisation (URGE), this collection analyses the new landscapes of public universities emerging across Europe and the Asia-Pacific, and the different ways that academics are engaging with them.”