Are white voices amplified and privileged over indigenous voices?

Native Affairs screened a story last night on Tim Morrison who spent the past 18 months defending a manslaughter charge for a crime he didn’t commit.

As usual, Twitter was an abundant hive of activity and commentary. But one particular comment stood out to me,  the commenter stated she did not ‘trust white indigenous rights activists’ because ‘in a culture of white hegemony, white voices are amplified and privileged over indigenous’.

While the first comment seemed to be more personal in nature, I think in a different (but related) context the second point is extremely important.

In my view, white voices that advocate for Maori or advance Maori issues are often subordinate to our dominant Maori activist voices. Moreover, most white indigenous activists in NZ will defer to our Maori voices for commentary on indigenous issues and our better journalists will request comments or interview Maori voices known to be respected in Maori communities.  So in this respect, I think Maori are very skilled at having their voices heard and advancing indigenous issues in NZ. I’m more concerned about gathering the support necessary to implement change and this is why I consider white indigenous activists as vital for building grassroots relationships. Since Maori are a minority, we need to build support networks and the first step is in embracing those who support our cause.

I think we should be careful about distinguishing between people who advance issues as allies of indigenous voices and those who advance them as a means of thwarting the decolonisation process.

I do agree that in a colonised country white voices are amplified to the detriment of indigenous voices but more so in the context of white voices serving as an impediment to neutralising the privilege of being white in NZ, or alternatively stated, as a means of maintaining that white privilege.

In Open Letter to the Pocahotties: Annotated Version, the author makes some very good points on how when referring to ‘white’, ‘racism’ and ‘privilege’, the usual response is defensive and those who refuse to acknowledge their white privilege often cite their own historical misgivings as justifications for their racist actions.

I also found an excellent article on the top 10 list of how not to respond to indigenous experiences of racism. The author here highlights many of the common responses to charges of racism and briefly explains the problems with such responses. For instance, many argue that some racism is worse than other racism. In the NZ context Maori are often belittled because Australian Aboriginals have a much worse experience of racism than Maori. The article highlights that racism is deplorable no matter how you frame it.

Another relevant point is that some people use ignorance as a shield because their reality differs from the reality or experience of an indigenous person; they often claim that the indigenous persons experience is just wrong because it doesn’t match their reality.

A common reason (noted in the article) that I hear in NZ is that while we were racist in the past we are not now. Notwithstanding the statistics, the cases that evidence institutional racism, and the everyday responses from supposedly non-racist white NZer’s that perpetuate the egregious racial stereotypes.

In summary, my view is that white indigenous activists in NZ are usually respectful and aware of their privilege and will often defer to Maori voices for commentary on Maori issues. However, many white NZer’s are still tied into their privilege and do not understand that they have it or that their privilege perpetuates racism in NZ. I believe that we need white indigenous activists to help show those who enjoy white privilege that there is no shame in acknowledging and understanding that privilege and the inherent racism and surrendering it once its understood. Such persons need to understand that the shame is in trying to justify it.

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4 comments

  1. I don’t know whether I qualify as a white activist, but I’ve certainly always held a position that is at odds with Colonialism and believes we should work towards resolving this injustice. As the offspring of working class Scots, our family has always had empathy for the injustice done to Maori in New Zealand, it was my father who made me read about the Land Wars and about Ti Whiti and Tohu, who were held up as his hero’s. My education is limited, mainly because my school teachers chose to teach me about Tudor Stewart England rather than our history and none of my family have made it to a tertiary institution. So it was only through some self and family directed reading that I gained a slightly better understanding. Racism was never a part of our worldview, I’m ensuring it’s as anathema to my children, yet I do understand and wouldn’t question that in New Zealand, I do have “white” privilege.

    What confuses me about the discussion you were having last night however is the idea that because I am *White* I can’t be an ally. I appreciate Maori don’t want to have to be legitimized by *White* supporters, but surely part of your conversation is in order to establish with those who *have* privilege that they do so, and if they then work with you to attempt to diminish their privilege and to question *White* orthodoxy, isn’t this a good thing?

    Also, I do take some exception to a homogenous *White*. Many of our histories were also dictated by English Imperialism. It’s a pity to be lumped into their lot. But also, history has a long arch, those who plundered the world as English Imperialists continue to do so. And they will as happily extract value and steal from the *White* population as those they have previously destroyed in search of more resources. 100 yrs from now we may have a very different view as to who exactly makes up the privileged elite. That’s if they haven’t killed us all first through ecological collapse.

    Which does bring up another point. Those living in ‘The West’, of every creed and hue, are privileged over all of the rest of Humanity, who subsidize our cell phones and computers with their slave labor, (http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/10/conflict-minerals/gettleman-text) and who are murdered and live under the hum of drones in order for our petrol prices to lubricate our economies. As Vinay Gupta recently noted, even if you’re teaching meditation, you’re likely teaching it to a Hedge Fund manager or an Advertising Exec.He touches on it about half way through this. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fid0yRyhCP0)

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  2. You make valid points Carrie. The concept of ‘white indigenous activists’ is new to me, and I can’t say I immediately warm to it. Can you explain what that means? Fair-skinned Maori? Also, be careful with ‘our Maori …’ voices, people, anything really. While I’m not thinking you use it patronisingly, it does have that history.

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    1. I hadn’t heard of ‘white indigenous activist’ either, before last night. I asked for clarification because I too was concerned about whether or not it referred to skin colour. The commenter asserted that by white she meant of European descent in NZ context Pakeha. My apologies also, I wasn’t aware that using ‘our Maori’ had a negative history, I guess being Maori, It felt like the natural term to use to indicate inclusivity. I will be more mindful in future! 🙂

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