“Whiteness”, decolonisation and dumping capitalism

Max Harris writes about Racism and White Defensiveness in Aotearoa: A Pākehā Perspective

More accurately that should be ‘one Pākehā’s perspective’.

I want to talk about an aspect of whiteness in Aotearoa New Zealand. And when I say “whiteness”, I’m not just talking about skin colour. I’m talking about the power, privilege, and patterns of thinking associated with white people.

I think that there are a wide variety of ‘patterns of thinking associated with white people’ – whatever ‘white people’ means.

Whiteness is connected to economic power and class — and is probably least understood by those it privileges. Most white people seem blind to its existence, while most non-white people are not.

Sweeping generalisations. Harris speaks for himself, fair enough, but not for ‘white people’. He doesn’t back up his ‘most white people’ and ‘most non-white people’ claims.

I think for those of us who identify as Pākehā, or grew up in Pākehā-dominant spaces, there’s a special responsibility to strive to be aware of our own advantages in Aotearoa New Zealand.

While I have no problems with the term Pākehā I don’t identify as Pākehā. I identify as a New Zealander. I don’t think I have any special responsibilities based on someone else’s pigeon holing of me.

White advantage is maintained in many ways: through intergenerational wealth, discretionary decision-making, and everyday racism.

Some people may take advantage of racial privileges – and not just ‘white people’.

One aspect of how racism is talked about in Aotearoa is white defensiveness in response to discussions of racism. By white defensiveness, I mean an anxiety, closing-down, and insecurity among white people and white-dominated institutions when racism is raised.

Perhaps some people feel some of those things. I don’t.

I see at least four types of white defensiveness.

First, there’s Denial: kneejerk responses that attempt to deny that there is racism, rather than taking claims seriously or considering its roots.

The second type of white defensiveness is Diversion. This is where, in instances in which facts about racism or colonisation are raised, the conversation is derailed through a claim that Māori themselves are guilty of some other wrong.

A third form of defensiveness is Detriment-centring. That’s where there’s a focus on the disadvantages faced by Māori, but without any acknowledgment of the advantages or protective factors which flow from being Pākehā.

The fourth form of defensiveness is the demand to Move on. This is where defensive demands are made for discussions about racism to end.

Let’s move on this discussion.

This discussion isn’t meant to demonise white people, or Pākehā, either. It’s about being honest and open about our advantages — and thinking about how to dismantle the system that produces them.

Dismantle the system?

Pākehā people can, and should, remain proud of our heritage and roots. But we also need to be aware of the injustices of the past and present, and how we may have contributed to them.

One very valid question is how all this relates to class and New Zealand’s system of capitalism.

Dismantle the system of capitalism?

We need to talk more about class in this country — to speak back to another lamentable and longstanding myth that we are somehow class-free. Fortunately, a new generation of activists in New Zealand is breathing fresh life into that conversation.

I think that class in a new Zealand perspective is a largely different different thing – I wouldn’t call it an issue.

There’s a need to support Māori-led efforts at decolonisation: the process of understanding and undoing the negative effects of colonisation, and recentring indigenous views.

Decolonisation? Harris doesn’t explain what that might entail.

We all must also push for a different economic order, given the way that the twin forces of capitalism and colonisation have amplified the power of whiteness.

He associates capitalism with whiteness – it is not just white people around the world who have benefited substantially from capitalism, and who continue to benefit from it, despite it’s shortcomings.

Harris seems to be suggesting dismantling ‘colonisation’ and capitalism.

Dismantling systems of oppression, including those based on race and class, is important for the powerful as well as the powerless.

While this is an interesting discussion there is a major omission.

Dismantling colonisation, capitalism and systems of oppression are a big deal.

But Harris makes no attempt to explain how this dismantling would happen, who would decide what is dismantled and how, nor what would take their place.

Many things in our world and our country are imperfect, but dismantling your house, or dismantling your country, must be retrograde steps unless you have somewhere else you can live.

It’s all very well to pile on ‘white people’ guilt, and to condemn colonisation and capitalism, but without any attempt at viable alternatives it seems to be a half cocked argument.

Like our form of democracy both colonisation and capitalism have some crap aspects, but they remain worse than everything but all the alternatives – unless perhaps Harris can suggest something better.