Garrick Cooper and Danielle Davis: Racism in Godzone a hidden evil

Garrick Cooper and Danielle Davis write on the contagious blindness to discrimination in our society.

A Hone Tuwhare poem illustrates how people attribute racist attitudes to other people, never themselves.  Photo / Jane Ussher
A Hone Tuwhare poem illustrates how people attribute racist attitudes to other people, never themselves. Photo / Jane Ussher

The renowned poet Hone Tuwhare wrote a poem entitled, A Pakeha Friend Tells a Maori Joke. When juggling how one might respond to the racist joke, the poem reads, "I mean, it's got nothing to do with me, personally. Some other Maori is copping it, not ME". Tuwhare, in distancing himself, demonstrates the invoking of a spatial trick that many of us go through when confronted with difficult situations. In a kneejerk response, we simply locate the discomfort and its source away from us. "It's got nothing to do with me" and, in so thinking, takes false comfort in not being complicit.

What this line in Tuwhare's poem illustrates is a logic problem akin to that which philosopher Lewis Gordon alerts us to in an anti-black racist world; the theodicean problem. Theodicy attempts to address the difficulty we run into that if we believe God is so powerful and the source of all goodness, why is there such evil in the world? Gordon argues that in an anti-black world, white is the source of all goodness and blacks are, well, simply a problem.

We, of course, now live in a so-called "secular" society. Gordon, however, maintains the logic persists in modern secularism; whomever or whatever is the supreme being or source of all goodness in modern times faces the same critical challenge - how do you account for evil?

New Zealand society prides itself on harmonious "race" relations. We make a point of highlighting mechanisms that recognise indigenous peoples "rights", such as the Treaty of Waitangi, Government support for immersion education, Maori radio and TV etc. We also make a point of noting that Auckland - which recently hosted the hugely successful Polyfest, 21 years and running - has the largest Polynesian population in the world.

We are a good international citizen; we adopt refugees and asylum seekers from war-torn countries. John Key, for example, recently announced that New Zealand would take in a quota of "boat people" from Australia. We are a "multicultural" New Zealand and, according to this thinking, we are a racially tolerant, harmonious country. We proclaim such harmony to the international community, to the United Nations. New Zealand is a source of goodness.

Such is the omnipotence of our goodness in God's own, there can exist no evil in New Zealand. Nor is there room for ambivalence; as our leader John Key's proclamations about our harmonious race relations, in the face of a challenge to this story, demonstrate. For example, following Andy Haden's claim that the Crusaders had a "Polynesian quota", John Key's response was definitive. Andy Haden was wrong, it does not exist. There is no way John Key would conclusively know that the claim was false. A more tempered response may have been, "I find that difficult to believe". Key however, is unreasonably emphatic. It does not and could not exist. It takes blind faith in one's religion, dare we say, fundamentalism, to categorically ignore any opposing position. In political terms it is just as dire.

In response to a reporter's question about NZ First MP Richard Prosser's racist column, John Key performs spatial acrobatics. Key marginalises Prosser as being out of step with mainstream Kiwis. Here the theodicean logic kicks in and one locates "badness" - that is, racism - on the extreme periphery of the source of goodness. Key has difficulty even naming and identifying racism. When explicitly asked if Prosser's column was racist and bigoted, he replied "some people would find what [Prosser] said offensive". That goodness exists does not preclude the existence of evil. Some argue that without evil, goodness could not exist.

Such is the starting point for a possible discussion of racism in this country that there seems to be an inter-generational and contagious blindness by some, if not many, to its existence. Returning to Tuwhare, as the title of his poem A Pakeha friend ... implies, the existence of racism is very close. A recent discussion piece on an internet news website by a New Zealander who recently immigrated here, started with: "Does racism exist in NZ?"

What is fascinating about this is that the starting point is to question its existence. This starting point reflects the starting point of those who have not experienced racism. We cannot be sure that this was the title penned by the author or one given by the editor. To be clear, however, this person experienced and witnessed racism. One cannot even start to discuss how we might address racism in this country if its existence is continuously denied, as John Key's comments on the matter demonstrate. We read Key's comments as a reflection of so-called mainstream New Zealand's views.

In New Zealand, we have another little trick to deny the existence of racism, or preclude even the possibility of talking about it. Rightly, we tend not talk about "races" in this country other than those around a large paddock with a continuous fence. Instead we talk about "cultural" and "ethnic" groups. Following this vacuous thinking, if we don't talk about races then it follows that we cannot be racist. Whilst the word race has been all but erased, race thinking - that is, thinking about people in racial terms - has not been erased, nor have the social effects of racism disappeared.

Tuwhare cheekily likens racism to having a venereal disease. That is to say, it can spread quickly, through intercourse (social that is!), appears generation after generation, is something that we don't want to make public and may even lie to ourselves about in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It is however, curable.

The title of Tuwhare's poem locates the perpetrator of racism as a "friend". Here he started out by doing the opposite of the theodicean move, locating the source of racism close to himself. If we do this, connivance does indeed niggle at one's conscience.

Garrick Cooper works in the School of Maori and Indigenous Studies at University of Canterbury and Danielle Davis is at the Women's and Gender Studies at the University of New South Wales.

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