Self-described ‘recovering racist’ Greg Dawes wants to avoid the term ‘racism’ in the debate over the He Puapua report. He explains why. 

COMMENT: Before Judith Collins and David Seymour brought it into the public eye, few of us had heard of the He Puapua report and its vision for a bicultural New Zealand. But we’ve certainly heard of it now. Remarkably, both those who support it and those who oppose it have been accused of racism. Those who support it have been accused of an allegedly racist form of ‘separatism’. Those who oppose it have been accused of a racist neglect of Māori rights. So who are the real racists here?

That, I think, is the wrong question to ask. Both sides are at fault for using the terms ‘racist’ and ‘racism’. As it happens, I am among the supporters of He Puapua and its vision. But I believe that neither side should resort to talk of racism. It is both unfair and unhelpful.

My views on this matter have been shaped by both my study of racism and my own recent experience. I began learning the Māori language several years ago with Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, and I continue to learn, seizing what opportunities I can. The high point of this journey was a recent four-day Kura Reo. Each night we spent in a beautifully decorated whare whakairo. Each day we practised the language and learned about tikanga, taking part in practices such as karakia and whaikōrero. This was a privilege for which I am immensely grateful.

During these experiences I have known nothing but manaakitanga, an unconditionally warm welcome, from my teachers and fellow students. (Ngā mihi ki a koutou, e hoa mā.) But having some contact with the Māori world has also been a sobering experience, for I have discovered unconscious biases in myself: the unfavourable stereotypes I have inherited as a Pākehā New Zealander. So I have sometimes borrowed the phrase used by the former New Plymouth mayor Andrew Judd and described myself as a ‘recovering racist’.

It is one thing, however, to use the term ‘recovering racist’ of oneself; it is quite another to use the term ‘racist’ of others. ‘Racist’ is a highly charged word, for good reason. Not only have racist attitudes been responsible for much suffering among colonised peoples, but a particularly virulent form of racism, namely Nazi anti-semitism, was responsible for the deaths of six million European Jews. So the terms ‘racist’ and ‘racism’ come with a lot of baggage and should not be used lightly.

If the critics of He Puapua took the trouble to learn something of the Māori world, they might discover unconsciously racist attitudes within themselves. But it is not a matter that other people can judge.

When it was first coined in the early 20th century, the term ‘racism’ referred to a very particular belief. It was the belief that certain groups have inherited characteristics that make them inferior to others in matters such as intelligence, temperament, or character. This was an especially dangerous idea, for it implied that such people were condemned to a state of inferiority because of their ancestry. It was a racism of this kind with which German Jews were confronted. No matter how culturally similar they were to their neighbours, no matter what they did to prove their loyalty to their nation, they were regarded as a people who could not be trusted because of their Jewish ‘blood’.

In recent decades, the term ‘racism’ has been used more broadly, to refer to what we might call ‘cultural racism’. This is the belief that one’s own culture is superior to that of others. Many of the early European writers who studied the Māori world had racist attitudes in this sense. They regarded Māori culture as inferior to their own. But they did not believe that Māori were innately inferior. On the contrary, they thought them capable of embracing what was thought to be the superior culture of their colonisers. It was this belief that lay behind the assimilation policies of successive New Zealand governments, which had tragic consequences for the survival of te reo me ōna tikanga (the language and its associated practices).

Both forms of racism are deeply mistaken, but the point I want to make is this. The questions we are currently debating are about how to respect the obligations incurred by our history. They are not about the relative superiority or inferiority of peoples or their cultures. Contrary to what the Leader of the Opposition appears to be saying, it is not racist to believe that Māori have a right to run their own affairs. This belief is based on a particular interpretation of our history, including the Treaty’s guarantee of ‘tino rangatiratanga’. But contrary to what some of her critics seem to think, it is not (necessarily) racist to reject this idea.

The He Puapua report does assume that Māori have a right to self-governance, within the (modified) framework of our parliamentary democracy. Critics have a variety of reasons for rejecting this view. Some reject the idea that the Treaty should shape our current political arrangements. Others accept the continued relevance of the Treaty, but deny that we are bound by the Māori language version. Still, others think Māori self-governance is inconsistent with the idea that all citizens ought to be treated equally. Such views are (in my view) mistaken. But one is not a racist simply because one holds them.

One might argue that those who hold such views are motivated by the kind of unconscious racism I discovered in myself. Perhaps they are, but we cannot assume this. In the words of a whakataukī, ‘he ao rere ka kitea, he huatau e kore e kitea’ (the passing clouds can be seen, but not a person’s thoughts). If the critics of He Puapua took the trouble to learn something of the Māori world, they might discover unconsciously racist attitudes within themselves. But it is not a matter that other people can judge.

So whatever side of the debate we’re on, let’s back off the use of the term ‘racist’. I am not denying there are occasions when it is warranted. But on the whole, this is not one of them. The questions surrounding the Treaty and Māori self-governance are important questions, which is why they arouse so much controversy. But they are matters on which reasonable people can disagree. So let’s focus on the issues and avoid accusations of racism.

Greg Dawes holds the position of professor in both the Philosophy and Religion programmes at the University of Otago.

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