Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Racism in the media: case of Paul Henry

The recent media frenzy around Paul Henry and the racist comments he made against the current Governor-General, Sir Anand Satyanand who is of Fiji-Indian descent has made me think about the way people have reacted. Some of the reactions also has racist implications in the context of Aotearoa and the fact that this is colonised land. While I would critique the use of the term "New Zealander" I think it's important to understand why many non-white migrants want to be included in this category.

This is the background: In an interview with John Key, the current right-wing prime minister, Henry asked about who was going to be selected as the new Governor-General and whether they will look and sound more like a New Zealander. This is a video clip from that interview:



"Are you going to choose a New Zealander who looks and sounds like a New Zealander this time ... Are we going to go for someone who is more like a New Zealander this time?"

Reactions:

John Key: Laughter, ignoring it initially. Then later said he was "taken aback" and said what Henry said but "wrong" but refused to define it as racist, not taking responsibility for what Paul Henry said.

Personal vouches for Governor-General: In the media, people have come to the Gov-Gen's defence by vouching for his New Zealand-ness: "born and bred New Zealander", "not just a New Zealander but a very fine New Zealander" people had to testify and confirm that he is actually a *real* "Kiwi".

Gov-Gen: "I am a New Zealand-born New Zealander. I am reliably informed I was born in 37 Dryden Street, Grey Lynn at the Bethany. That's all I need to add to the chemistry."

TVNZ: "The audience tell us over and over again that one of the things they love about Paul Henry is that he's prepared to say the things we quietly think but are scared to say out loud." + 2 weeks suspension without pay.

Paul Henry: he made an "apology" which is transcribed at the end of this article. In this apology, he claimed he was "at least half gippo", a derogatory term that stems from "gypsie" which is also a racial slur for Roma people - as showing internalised racism somehow cancels out the racism against the Fiji-Indian community (and non-white migrant population in general).

The general left and some political parties are calling for him to be sacked.



I think it's great that most people are disgusted by these blatant expressions of racism, but there are also problems with the way people have reacted. While it is racist and arrogant for Henry to feel so entitled to say that someone doesn't "look or sound" like a New Zealander, the reaction of "we are all New Zealanders" is not that much better. And the way the people had to prove how he was actually a "real" New Zealander by vouching for him and the way he felt compelled to give an exact address for where he was born is ridiculous and shouldn't need to happen. By talking about being "born and bred" here, it sounds like a New Zealander is defined as someone who has to be born here or at least grew up here. But I think it makes it really clear that one of the privileges that white/pakeha people have is that they don't have to constantly validate their existence here, their power and dominance here is questioned but rarely the right to be here and belong here.

What else is also insinuated in these reactions and discussions is that being a New Zealander you have more rights here or entitlement to belonging and being here. So the first question are, who defines what a New Zealander is? Who gets included in this imagined community, what constitutes a 'kiwi' or New Zealander? Who sounds and looks like a New Zealander? Who defines this? What is the criteria? Birthplace, time of residence, citizenship, accent, cultural knowledge, historical knowledge? What does it mean if you fit or don't fit into this category?

The identity of "Kiwi" or "New Zealander" not only marginalises those who aren't considered New Zealanders by the mainstream but also those who don't have access to the power of definition over what constitutes New Zealander or "Kiwi" - it is Pakeha that get to define these terms, not the tangata whenua and this is part of the ongoing problem of Pakeha dominance and colonial power.

When Don Brash made the Orewa speech, asserting that "we are all New Zealanders", it is an easy way to minimise and hide the power relations and history of violence on this land, as well as undermining tino rangatiratanga. The discourse of liberal/neo-liberal multiculturalism in general also hides the power inequalities between different ethnic groups and still allows Pakeha culture to dominate.

On the other hand, I think it's important to understand why many non-white migrants (of whatever generation) assert their identity as a "New Zealander". The term carries with it some kind of right to belong here, it's like a code word for "don't tell me fuck off home" or "stop questioning where I'm from and leave me alone". But it's often when non-white migrants assert they're a "Kiwi" they had to disclose some personal history and to back it up, like "my grandparents were born in New Zealand", "I've lived here for 15 years", "I'm 2nd generation" or "I've grown up here since I was really young" etc. .

I've heard many Pakeha anarchists say that they don't consider themselves a New Zealander and I think it is a white privilege in this country to not have to feel compelled to assert your identity as a New Zealander and/or deny that you are a New Zealander because the general population would not question whether you belong here or not. And the mainstream, that is predominantly Pakeha would not ask such a question like "Are you a New Zealander? Do you consider yourself a New Zealander?" because if you are white and speak with a 'kiwi' accent then most people would assume you are a New Zealander, you don't have to assert that identity to be included in this 'imagined community' let alone having to back it up with credentials of being born here, assimilation into Pakeha culture or whatever.

So I just got back to Aotearoa and at the airport in Tokyo, I was waiting for my flight to Auckland and there was a bunch of high school students from Waikato waiting as well. They just spent 2 weeks in Tokyo. One of them asked me where I was going, I said Auckland. They said, "We're going there too. What are you doing in Auckland?" I answered, "I live there, I've just been in Germany for a few months." Then they asked again, "are you visiting Auckland?" I said, "No, I live in there." I had to say "I live in Auckland" twice for them to understand that I live in Auckland, so I think there's still this underyling assumption (even though I have a "kiwi" accent) that Asian = not New Zealander i.e. not belonging in New Zealand.

I just have this last point cos I think it's been totally ignored in these discussions: the Governor-General is a role that is fulfilled in the political system of New Zealand as a representative of the QUEEN (of England), New Zealand's Head of State! It's a token political symbol that still connects the political system here to the British monarchy, the Governor-General has no real power anyway. They just sign off laws on behalf of the Queen and have no real power. They just sign off any laws approved by parliament that is put in front of them. What is the point in having a Governor-General if not to remind us, even if just symbolically, that New Zealand is still a British colony?


P.S. I am not a New Zealander, I am tau iwi.