Scary and dangerous: white people playing the racial victim at home and abroad
On Tuesday, when the opposition party in New Zealand was questioned about their newly-appointed top 12 MPs being all white, party member Judith Collins answered, “Oh… is there something wrong with me being white?” You can see a video of Collins comments here.
On Wednesday, when Labour MP Tamati Coffey was asking a question – to another person, mind – about the lack of a Treaty partnership in a document being reviewed, Judith Collins exclaimed, “Oh Jesus Christ. Stupid questions.” When Coffey’s fellow Labour MP reflected out loud how that was a “white girl comment” likely referencing Collins’ statement the day before, she piped up. “No, no it’s actually someone who is utterly sick of being demonised for my ethnicity, thank you very much.” When Coffey tries to move back to the discussion at hand, apologising for the interruption to the speaker he was initially addressing, Collins can be heard in the background saying “Don’t apologise for me. I can apologise for myself and I have no intention of.” You can see a video of the incident here.
A member of New Zealand’s right-wing ACT Party has suggested the “white girl” comment was racist towards Mrs Collins. No. No, no, no.
Let’s start with Tuesday’s incident. In an increasingly multicultural country, and one whose government is founded on the union and cooperation between two culturally diverse groups of people, the question of a major political party being all white on the day of this announcement cannot be considered invalid. In answering the question as she did, Collins centred an important discussion entirely on herself, victimising herself and indeed all white New Zealanders with the language she chose to use. Furthermore, she made a mockery of the question with the sarcastic and uncaring tone she adopted.
As well as utterly undervaluing New Zealanders of colour in doing so, she also validated any white New Zealander in their harmful views that we shouldn’t be held accountable for our whiteness. “It’s not my fault I’m white,” is something too often heard. No, it’s not anyone’s “fault” they are the ethnicity they are, but the truth that being white in this society means we reap benefits others are deprived of us undeniable. One such benefit in 2020? Seeing oneself reflected in a major party who helps shape this country.
Regarding her comments on Wednesday, suggesting that a question around Treaty partnerships is stupid demonstrates her absolute lack of care on this important subject. And again, in using the language she did to victimise herself, she feeds into an incredibly unhelpful and frankly dangerous narrative around race and ethnicity in New Zealand. Regarding the opinion that Judith Collins being called a “white girl” by a fellow white MP is racist (towards Collins) is wrong on so many levels.
This week alone, we have seen two vile examples of racism in the United States make global headlines. Christian Cooper’s life was threatened when a hysterical and quite simply in-the-wrong white woman was filmed screaming at him she was going to call the police, saying, “I'm going to tell them there's an African American man threatening my life.” She then did this through tears, though her call did not result in the end of Christian Cooper’s life, but it could have. It does almost every day in the States. It was on Tuesday when Minneapolis man George Floyd was murdered by white police men in broad daylight, on camera.
What Amy Cooper did was despicable. She knew what she was doing. She knows the law stands on the side of the white in America, and she was using that power and that knowledge in the most deplorable way. White women actively framing themselves as victims in the face of people of colour is dangerous. It is deadly. George Floyd’s name is the latest on a list of hundreds we know about, thousands we don’t. Read about Ahmaud Arbery. Read about Breonna Taylor. Read about Atatiana Jefferson. Sandra Bland. Philando Castile. Tamir Rice. Alton Sterling. Jamar Clark. Michael Brown. Freddie Gray. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Akai Gurley.
It breaks my heart. It makes me feel defeated. It makes me feel hopeless. It makes me unspeakably angry. It makes me cry. It makes me crazy. And I’m not even on the other side of the divide. I can’t even imagine what it feels like to be African American, but I don’t have to. I just have to give a shit. America is not my county, New Zealand is. Institutional racism here doesn’t play it such a violent way, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s not playing out here at all. Acknowledging racism within our own society does not equate labelling yourself racist. It equates acknowledging a very real problem which exists because of the history that has lead us to this point. New Zealand is a country founded on the oppression of a native people. That’s not on us, but how we move forward from here is. Saying “I’m not racist” isn’t enough. To quote one of the many powerful educators I’ve learnt from online, Andréa Ranae, being anti-racist is an ongoing decision to uproot the ways white supremacy resides within the systems we navigate each day. Guess what? That means the leaders who shape our country. Giving the historically oppressed a seat at the table is vital. Intentionally omitting them is a means of silencing them; literally not giving them a voice to speak with. Silencing them is hurting them. It is racist behaviour built upon two centuries of racist history, re-framed with language like “demonised for.” Having all and only white people at the table stands in direct opposition to moving our country forward in a positive way. Shamelessly flipping this very narrative to re-frame white people as the victims of racism is disgraceful. I hope Judith Collins feels ashamed of herself, only I know she doesn’t. We need to create an environment where anyone who suggests anything resembling what she did does feel shame. Not the righteous indignation and pathetic “it’s not my fault” sentiment she demonstrated this week. Nothing’s going to change if we don’t speak up. All New Zealanders but most especially white New Zealanders need to use our voices, especially when we live in a society that still actively denies a voice to some.
Not giving an ethnic group a seat at the table is racist. When that ethnic group is the native people of New Zealand who are central to the country’s history and culture are left out, it’s even worse. When you leave out every single other ethnic group and allow space only for those the same as you, it’s about as bad as it gets. Not only is she and the National Party undervaluing any person of colour in this country, she is undermining white New Zealanders who don’t think like her, and I can only hope that’s most of us – a hope fed by our current Labour leadership.
Refusing to acknowledge valid concern posed as a thoughtful question is racist. Turning the conversation and reframing yourself from perpetrator to victim is not only racist but dangerous. It feeds into the kind of sentiment which shapes countries, which has shaped America into a place where people of colour are legally and violently murdered on the streets in broad daylight. It’s the woman at the park screaming hysterically to a calm and justified man, calling the police and crying about “an African American man threatening her life.” She knew what she was doing with that move. Judith Collins knew what she’s doing with hers. She just doesn’t care. I do.
If the answer is yes, call out racist language when you hear it. Seek out and support oppressed voices when they’re absent from conversations being had - the news we watch, the books we read, the film makers, the commentators, the law makers, the educators, the government. Engage people in conversations when they’re saying things that aren’t right… even when it’s difficult, even when it’s family, even when it takes time and energy. What could be more worth our time and energy than creating a better version of our country, and helping build a better world?