Yellow Peril by Tze Ming Mok

What's the problem with white?

Guest Peril: Hannah Ho, one of the organisers of 'Sweet As?': Ethnic and Pakeha New Zealanders talk identity and dominance in a colonised land, 9-10 June 2007, St Anne’s Hall, Newtown, Te Whanganui a tara/Wellington.

Why do some white people get grumpy when they get called white people?

I would hazard a guess that it’s not because those people reckon they are actually beige, peach, off-white, cream or pink, rather than literally white. I suspect it’s because being called white is real close to the bone, the white supremacist bone. (And I don’t mean the 20 National Front members in New Zealand.) When I call white people white people, I reference systems of white privilege and white dominance. Which does sound awfully close to white power and white supremacy . . . Purely semantics?

In the national collective mind, white is the national default setting. This fact should feed into the discourse on national identity. But, if you point that out or start talking about it, people get nervous. Why? Because identifying whiteness is pointing to a power structure that we’re not meant to talk about.

It’s all about dominant culture. When we talk about “the real New Zealander”, or what constitutes “Kiwi values”, we have to talk about dominant culture. If we don’t we’re like fish who don’t know they’re swimming in water.

These discussions on culture, as opposed to race, are important because race is no longer a barrier to technically being a New Zealander. You can be any sort of ethnicity to be a New Zealander. But to be a “real” New Zealander, according to the mainstream argument, you have to buy into dominant culture and values. And when you buy into that, you can forget the foreshore and seabed, inequitable health care, dominant culture-geared education system, or any other thing majority-enforced inequity. Different world views? That’s divisive. That’s not the “Kiwi way”.

So, we get back to labels. Without the dominant culture analysis, “New Zealander” is easy. New Zealanders just “belong” to New Zealand. We can forget Aotearoa. We can forget our colonial and migration history. Forget Māori sovereignty, stolen land, the White New Zealand League, Poll Tax, dawn raids, because we’re all just New Zealanders. Right? In the context of national identity, pretending that you can be “just a New Zealander” (whether you’re white or not) is denying white privilege. It dismisses power dynamics that benefit some and disadvantages others. And it means that you can’t scapegoat the National Front as the only ones who are racist and white.

I guess that’s the real reason why white people don’t want to be called white, because then they’d have to fess up. The objections to being called Pākehā or tauiwi are kind of the same, because the terms are inherently about being in relation to Māori.

Shock, horror!! Well, hey, no-one’s just one label. You can be Irish and Pākehā and white and middle-class and heterosexual and monogamous and a man. Just like I am Chinese New Zealand and tauiwi and middle class and queer and a woman. Yes, everyone can suffer multiple oppressions, have multiple identities, and have multiple responsibilities!! Amazing!!

Yes life is complex – and things are hardly ever either/or. When Māori use tauiwi as a term they don’t think that Cambodian tauiwi don’t experience racism from Pākehā, tauiwi. They aren’t saying the Irish were never done over by the English, that the Romans never did over the Pagans. That the Greeks, Italians and Dutch never experienced discrimination from English tauiwi. Tauiwi gets used to point to the fact that all us non-Māori, enjoy and benefit from the past and continued colonisation, no matter where and when, we, or our ancestors, migrated here.

So have a think about privilege. Because sometimes it’s not just about the ‘having”, but about the “not having”. Not having to be yelled at “fuck off home chink”. Not having to be told that Asians are driving the housing market up so that “ordinary Kiwis” can’t afford houses (never mind neo-liberal economics). Not having to worry about walking home late at night. Not having shop keepers follow you around in shops. Not having to hear stupid Irish jokes. Not having to be “randomly” searched at the airport. Not having our friends in blue check your license and ask if you own the car you’re driving. Not having to ask if there’s wheelchair access. Not having the government always taking your land “for all New Zealanders”, and not returning land they said they would. Not having to ask for the Treaty to be honoured.

If you’re having trouble thinking of things you don’t have to worry about, you can get off your computer and talk to someone who doesn’t look like you.

If you are interested in this stuff and would maybe consider getting off your computer to talk about it with other people, come to the “Sweet As?” conference. It’s all about national identity, dominance, colonisation and social justice. Check it out.

-- by Hannah Ho

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