Some of the important conversations I’ve been part of this past two weeks have been about what we can do, as white people, to shut down racism wherever we see or hear it. It’s a duty of care I take seriously. And it can be very difficult to navigate.
To grow up in New Zealand is to grow up in a colonial nation where our Tangata Whenua live with the scars of the past, and with daily life now. I cannot imagine what that’s like. I have pakeka privilege and I’ve never had to wonder if the colour of my skin might mean I get treated differently. That my culture or my faith might make me a target.
I’m sure I’m not alone in coming from a family where “casual” racism is often present. I don’t mean to throw my family under the bus with that – I’m part of them, and I grew up believing the same things. And they’re extremely compassionate, peace-loving, rational people who embrace diversity. They can also say things that I find unacceptable.
Challenging people on their views is difficult enough if you’re basically in a safe space – ie, you’re calling out your family, or you’re calling out another white person. Realistically, you might get into a verbal sparring match, but that’s probably the worst thing that will happen.
I’m very conflict avoidant. But lately I’ve been learning, in many areas of my life, how important it is to stand up for myself. Last year I did some training on having challenging conversations, which has been useful in so many contexts. I learned about how to how to not trigger the other person or myself – or defuse it if it happens. I learned to ask myself what I want out of the conversation before I enter it. I learned how important it is to at least display empathy, because the other person will normally show it back.
All of this is helpful if you’re setting yourself up for a conversation, but it’s harder when things come out of the blue, as racist comments so often do. Whether it’s online, whether it’s a shopkeeper making a throwaway statement, whether it’s family members airing perceived grievances around the BBQ. So often, we have to act in the moment – and the moment can be extremely uncomfortable.
In the past few years since I became a feminist and learned about things like privilege, intersectionality, white saviourdom – probably concepts that are not common around the BBQ – I have learned to examine myself really closely. I used to say that I wasn’t privileged, because I’m a woman, because I’m poor, because I have ill health. But those oppressions don’t undo the privilege I also have as an educated white woman. And it’s important to remember you can be both privileged and oppressed, and not take criticism of white people personally. If you’re on the defensive, you’ve already lost.
This afternoon I spent time with my family, and it was a good time to practice some of the things I’ve been thinking about. It’s “safe” – they’re not going to get angry with me, even if I make them uncomfortable, challenge them, and disagree with them.
Two terms I learned in the conflict management course are “I’m just curious about…” and/or “I’m concerned about…” These are gentle ways of opening a line of enquiry. They’re not always useful, I’m not sure they’re useful in this context, but if you tell someone that you’re “concerned about” their racist views, that might give them pause. Ditto “curious” – it’s non-judgement (even if you’re judging hard on the inside), and lets you understand what their oppositions are – so you can obliterate them with logic.
If the conversation has gotten out of hand, or looks like it might go that way, you can use “cut it out.” I like “Cut it out,” because it can kinda be said in light way, like “ah mate, cut it out,” and then immediately change the subject, or it can be very serious, ie looking the person in the eye and saying “Cut it out. Now.” That sends a really strong message that you’re not going to engage with their rhetoric, and you don’t endorse it.
I also like “I’m not going to have this conversation,” because it’s non-confrontational, it hopefully just stops things before they can go anywhere, and again it sends the message that you don’t endorse their views. Hopefully, it means that next time they go to spout those views, they don’t assume everyone else agrees with them.
Even if it’s a “casual” comment from a stranger, simply saying; “I don’t agree with that,” before walking away might achieve the same effect.
This stuff is hard. It’s hard to call out strangers, and it’s hard to call out those closest to us. I spent some time with my family today and it was a challenge. I love them, and for the most part they are extremely loving, empathetic, open-minded and educated. But they have some beliefs that I do not share, and I really hard to say quite a few times “I’m sorry, no, I think you’re wrong.”
At the vigil on the Sunday after the tragic losses in Christchurch, one of the speakers said that we need to draw people with white supremacist beliefs out of the dark. I thought that the logical conclusion to that speech was so we can throw them in jail. But he said, we draw them out, so we can teach them there’s a better way.
White supremacy doesn’t just look like extremists with guns. It’s far more insidious than that. I’ve been seeing an ad on TV at the moment, for milk, where a young girl goes to get the milk from the corner dairy for the first time on her own. The dairy owner has brown skin, and he speaks with the Kiwi accent. I thought about that for a long time. I’m aware that sure, a lot of dairies in New Zealand are owned by immigrants. But the number of immigrants who own dairies is probably a small percentage of the number of immigrants in New Zealand. Putting the brown person in a service role to a white family is insidious racism – it’s something most of us wouldn’t even notice. I also wondered about the choice of someone with a Kiwi accent. Is that to do with the milk brand, as NZ-owned? Was it because having a brown shop owner was ok, but he needed to sound Kiwi to ensure people didn’t feel too threatened?
I also noted too a new Bunnings ad where the voiceover is someone with an accent. And not an Australian or British one. I think it speaks volumes that I was able to pick that ad out, because hearing a voice like that on NZ TV is unusual.
To the people who complain that immigrants are ruining the “Kiwi way of life.” First, I’d ask you to define what that is, exactly. Second, I’d point that that those people came here for a reason. They don’t want to ruin anything – they’re making us better. Third, if we can’t live our Grandparents’ way of life, that’s nothing to do with immigration, and everything to do with the global economy, infrastructure that’s not keeping up with the world, soaring house prices, no free education, even gas prices (because for me the Kiwi way of life was going for “a Sunday drive,” to a beach or a lake every single weekend. We can’t afford that now – still nothing to do with immigrants, who I’m certain will also love to come for Sunday drives).
It is so hard to know what to do in the wake of this horrific tragedy. Learning more about Islam is a great start. Learning more about other cultures, more about politics, more about gun laws. Examining yourself for your own internalised biases, and holding yourself accountable.
You can encourage others to hold themselves accountable too. Maybe they’ve never questioned why they have certain beliefs or fears. Maybe they’ve never had to try and defend that, and even if you don’t demand they do so in the moment, maybe you leave them with something to think about.
So next time you hear someone say something ignorant, or bigoted, or offensive, please remember that you know what the Muslim communities around New Zealand have done over the past two weeks? Opened their doors, made food, and welcomed us in.
They’ve given us an opportunity to be better people. A better country.
The least we can do is help ensure that hate speech never gets a chance to spread.
Cut. It. Out.