In an edited extract from Towards a Grammar of Race, Patrick S. Thomsen writes about 'the Erasive Racial Politics of Judith Collins'.
I have absorbed through media-induced osmosis more details about Judith Collins's Sāmoan husband than I have ever cared to know. New Zealand's 2020 general election campaign may have introduced him as one of our own (Sāmoan) to the majority of New Zealanders, but for me and many of my colleagues, Judith has worn him proudly as an instrumental key to doubtful cultural competency and speaking rights — as well as a self-bestowed entitlement to speak over Sāmoans — for many years.
As I am a queer Sāmoan with no Sāmoan husband, my modest claim to appropriateness in offering these critiques rests on the not-so-insignificant fact that I enter this conversation from the standpoint of an actual Sāmoan who grew up in South Auckland, raised by a solo mother in a state house. These experiences, and my subsequent training to PhD level in social research, position and orient me to the topics that I discuss. Therefore, to build my contribution, I choose to forefront Pacific and Sāmoan ways of knowing and disseminating knowledge through storytelling.
The University of Auckland, 2002
I remember the first day I heard Judith Collins speak. An impressionable first-year, I was working part-time at a call centre on Symonds Street, and I often found myself running after the 471 and 472 bus to and from my home in Manurewa. It was election season, and politicians began to spring up unannounced across campus, like a game of whack-a-mole, at a moment's notice. My New Zealand politics class had even been addressed by the Prime Minister, Helen Clark.
A year prior, as a high school student I had stood on the very platform I was now seated in front of and delivered speech after speech to earn a most promising speaker award in a region-wide debate competition. The panel discussion I was about to listen to, however, would bring me no such joy. The topic of the discussion I recall vividly. Affirmative action policies, the quota for Māori and Pacific students at law school — this was the discursive poison of the day. A well-trodden, albeit heated, conversation in more contemporary times, but at this particular critical juncture it all seemed brand new for many of us in New Zealand. Ōrewa was two years away, and Labour were under no threat from the Nats in the polls. Despite this, Judith's position was very clear. In her mind, quotas were 'race-based advantages' and a disincentive to working hard.
Judith introduced us to her Sāmoan husband. She explained that he had been forced to look after multiple people within his family, and he had needed to do his study after coming home from his full-time job — multiple — at one point. In her interpretation, this was a story of triumph in spite of his cultural obligations. And the cards that he was dealt — Sāmoan, poor, migrant — were not a barrier to his success in New Zealand, so why should we 'expect' special treatment to get into law school.
I found my mind drifting towards her Sāmoan husband, whose story seemed to give her access and authority to speak about our work ethic in comparison to his. I wondered how and why she had become so comfortable to speak so openly about his experiences in front of a room of Pacific youth. This, despite not sharing in any of our gafa (genealogy) — she even struggled to pronounce correctly the word, the country, the fanua (land) of our ancestors called . . . Sāmoa. She was challenged by some students, and predictably doubled down, then urged us to not sell ourselves short: we had earned our spots in university, so why should we water down our achievements and discourage others from our communities from doing the same?
White women and racialised hypogamy
Hypogamy is the act of marrying or partnering with someone of a lower social, educational or economic class than your own. Often it has been practised by men, as a way of exercising control over their spouses. More recent scholarship has sought to trace how hypogamy has become more common among women marrying downward on the educational scale, as a surplus of highly educated women begins to pool in many industrial societies. The concept of hypogamy compels us to be attentive to how power hierarchies pivot on the axis of socially constructed roles such as gender. Critical race theory also asks us to consider similar questions about how this axis of power pivots around race.
Many Sāmoans, like many Pacific peoples, occupy a lower socio-economic position in New Zealand's class hierarchy in comparison with Pākehā and Asian communities. There are multiple, complex, conflicting and coincidental structural and historical reasons for our communities' perpetually marginal positioning in New Zealand society.
These structural inequities also function as a material barrier to the advancement of Pacific communities in relation to other racialised groups in New Zealand, and they also confine higher educational opportunities for Pacific youth. Students who come from poorer communities — where Pacific people are over-represented — are likely to lack the material resources that would allow them to attend better schools, come from stable home environments, or afford learning materials. They are less likely to see university as a place or destination for them, and they also lack the social and academic capital that would help them navigate these colonial systems of learning. Māori and Pacific students have described overt and subtle forms of racism that have negatively impacted their experiences of study in our higher learning institutions.
In her university speech, all these complexities are washed away by Judith Collins's husband's experience, which she advances as a marker of what is not just possible but, by inference, expected of us by mainstream New Zealand. By attaching herself to her husband's experience, Judith qualifies herself as someone who is positioned appropriately to condemn any Pacific or Sāmoan person who fails to meet these standards as personally irresponsible and simply not working hard enough. This demonstrates not only where race and gender intersect, but also how race and class meet and conspire to condemn us to racially evasive and elusive politics, as reflected in Judith's access to her husband's narrative through a racialised hypogamy. It is one that allows her to invert the conventional power dynamic of hypogamy by leaning into her privileges as a white female politician in New Zealand and claiming authority over experiences that further generalise and marginalise Pacific peoples.
Politics of distinction and the hazards of exceptionalist narratives
At their core, all the references to her Sāmoan 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 forms of systemic oppression and institutionalised racism. This is a powerful political tactic. It validates a vacation from complicity in racialised institutional and systemic structures for mainstream New Zealanders, who are purposely kept ignorant of the systematic and institutional ways of a grammar of race, racialisation and racialised politics. 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.
Judith Collins' insistence on emphasising that her Sāmoan husband overcame all his obstacles suggests that all other Sāmoans should follow this example. It compels a sense of self-responsibility that is evocative and alluring for its connectedness to notions of diligence and honest hard work.
The utterance of a sentence about a spouse as an entry point to a racialised community is a dangerous political tactic that is a shrewd weaponisation of race and ethnicity for political gain. It is a strategy that many of us who are positioned in the margins are cognisant of, but it is one we fear, for its wider uncritical acceptance by those in the centre. In simple words, Judith is given the benefit of the doubt because she is white, and especially because she is a woman who is married to a Sāmoan. Our critiques of her politics will never matter when there is no power and platform beyond the pages of books and in the digital world, where marginalised groups often congregate.
The task of understanding and dismantling the processes and structures of race, racism and racialisation for New Zealanders is more urgent than ever. The task of understanding and dismantling the processes and structures of race, racism and racialisation for New Zealanders is more urgent than ever. There is a poor understanding in general around the deep, structurally embedded ways in which racialisation builds the social world that we experience as Sāmoans and Pacific peoples.
Towards a Grammar of Race
(Bridget Williams Books, $39.99) is out now