I remember very clearly, when I was a kid, hearing the N word used as an insult. Before hearing it as an insult, I’d heard it as a dog’s name, I’d heard some whanau use it for a nickname. It didn’t have a meaning at that point to me, any more than the name “Rover” or “Bill”. But once I heard it levelled as an insult, it clicked that it must have some kind of meaning to it – so I went to my mum and asked “Mum what does [n*****] mean?”
She was in the kitchen at the time, she stopped what she was doing and turned and asked me where I’d heard it. I don’t recall if it was myself or a friend who had been called it – but the very next thing Mum said to me, in a very careful, deliberate manner was “You must never, ever say that word, do you understand me?”
She went on to explain why. In an age-appropriate fashion, she told me of the history of the Ku Klux Klan, and of slavery, and the slave trade. She told me, at that point, that when we use that word, we call up that history, and it’s not our history to call up.
To this day, I have a hard time letting the word move past my lips, and in spite of hearing it used here in Aotearoa over the years, I am glad my mouth has never gotten used to it. I have, however, heard it many times – it worked its way into our lexicon (both English and Maori) very early on. Since that discussion with my mum all those years ago, I’ve learnt a lot about its use both here and across Te Moananui a Kiwa. I’ve read about its use here, as an insult, nickname and even place name, since the arrival of the colonizer.
And this past week, I have seen it levelled, in an insulting and demeaning fashion, by our own, against a Black American man here in Aotearoa, and the ensuing fallout exposed numerous loci of pain for both our Black community here in Aotearoa, Maori Kiritea, and Maori/Pasifika in general. It was just the latest in many instances where a black person I know, has been called that word within a very short timeframe of their arrival to Aotearoa. In quite a few instances, it is their first experience of being called that word.
Yes, they had to come to Aotearoa to be called the N-word.
Now, allow me to be clear on my positionality (as we all should when entering into conversations about power and bias). I carry Maori lineage alongside Czech, Scottish and Cornish. So I am Maori, and I am Pakeha, with neither cancelling out the other. That is my lineage.
How I present is another thing entirely. I am Maori Kiritea. My skin can move from being very brown in the summer, to being very light in the winter. Between my partner, myself, and my two children our household skin spectrum ranges from dark brown to alabaster. While my moko influence my own experience of the world, I chose them, and before I chose them, much of my pathway was shaped by my own whiteness and proximity to whiteness (ie people believing I was white, or at least, “white enough”).
Why is ‘how I present’ another thing altogether? Because skin colour is a building block of race, and has been since the concept of race was created. Skin colour influences how you move through, and experience the world. Race is different to ethnicity in important ways, in that it can be applied to you without any knowledge of your culture. Where ethnicity is something we often claim ourselves, and can communicate our cultural, religious and national identities – race zeroes in on how you present, visually. (Read that paragraph again, if you like – it’s an important one, and one that we will return back to again, before this is through.)
Race critical theorists often pinpoint the early stages of racism as being around the 14th century, with the advent of the Doctrine of Discovery, the creation of the “Black” race for the purpose of enslavement, and the creation of the “Native” race for the purpose of dispossession, with both being subordinated to the “European” race – hence the rise of white supremacy. I’ve written many times about how this hierarchy of power was embedded into our global power systems, shaping our modern economy, international relations, legal frameworks, media, and power systems. From the very earliest stage of this story, as the children of Africa were ripped from her breast, and traded around the world, their story has become intertwined in deeply complex ways with the Indigenous peoples of the lands they were taken to – and the common oppressive experience of white supremacy. Just as we need to understand that this embedded white supremacy everywhere, we also have to understand it embedded anti-blackness into power dynamics everywhere, even into the conversations you have with people here, today.
Here, in Aotearoa, colonizers applied the N word liberally to anyone who was not white and without the full context of what the N word meant, or the relationships or experience to appreciate its inference, it was often seen as a mere descriptor and absorbed into our lexicon. Back then, before the ease of international travel, cross-cultural education, the civil rights movement, decolonial theory and the internet, there were a lot more excuses for centering ourselves in our understanding of that word. Now, not so much. It’s so, so important that we consider what was said and done in the past, with what we now know in order to consider whether we will continue to weave it into our identity. It is dangerous, very dangerous, to consider something intractable simply because it has managed to stick around for a long time.
After all, racism has managed to stick around for over 500 years.
All of this is a very long preamble to acknowledge the context of cultural appropriation of blackness, antiblackness and the use of the N-word in Aotearoa. Yes it has history specific to here… and yet none of that should be used to erase the history that came before its arrival, and the power dynamics that stem from that history. I need us to understand this very important fact: While anyone can “say” the N-word, it is impossible to say the N-word and limit what we invoke to our own shores, and our own history. When we say the N-word, as non-black people, there is simply no escaping the fact that we also invoke a history that we do not carry in our bodies, that we do not carry in our movement through this world, and that cannot be weaponised against us to the same effect.
Understanding this requires us to reach beyond the context of the n-word, and into understanding anti-blackness as the context which allows for it to be taken, claimed and used to repeatedly.
I’m not going to define anti-blackness because that’s not for me to do, even in Aotearoa. That is for black people to do – and we have a wealth of Maori-African, Maori-Black-American, and Black Tangata-Tiriti who can, and have provided that definition. Here, here, and here are links to their voices and I implore you to listen to them. When it comes to defining it, I defer to them.
We have had some discussion in recent years about the use of the N-word, and probably there is an increasing number who get it now. But still, in this past week, even those who could see the anti-blackness in the use of that word, did not stand up to decry it, and did not see the anti-blackness in that. Others still, only stood up to decry it when it was a part of “correcting” the victim’s response, and did not see the anti-blackness in that. Some other non-black people started to “explain” to black people what anti-blackness actually means, and of course, did not see the anti-blackness in that. Within an hour of witnessing a black man being called the N-word, we had managed to make it about non-black people’s feelings – and we still could not see the antiblackness in that. Black people then consistently had words placed in their mouths and were called anti-Maori, divisive, ignorant and made to feel, again, like outsiders and the antiblackness of THAT was not seen. Black people were told, again, that now was not the time for raising the issue of anti-blackness, or not to speak in such angry ways, and definitely to not point out the white skin of those they were responding to – and the antiblackness of THAT was never acknowledged.
It extended to a pakeha (who claimed his entitlement to the conversation because he has brown children and is, farcically, making a documentary about the N-word in Aotearoa) calling the police on the black man who was called the N-word, and falsely accusing them of violence. It has been embarrassing, disheartening, and at times gut-wrenching.
How have we come to miss the rampant anti-blackness right in front of us? Well, one thing I can say is that in the many spaces I’ve worked that seek to explicitly deal with racism at a local and national level, very, very few include black people, and consequently a lack of informed analysis about anti-blackness permeates our discussions on race. Over the years I have seen anti-blackness raised in Aotearoa, I have seen it derailed time and time again as Maori (often Maori kiritea) insisted that colourism be understood in light of themselves and their experiences of being light-skinned Maori. Whiteness as a RACE is consistently confused and conflated with ethnicity and whakapapa, and at the slightest mention of someone’s whiteness as it influences their experience of this world and the power dynamics of that conversation, this suggestion is called insensitive, un-nuanced, and even ignorant to the cultural context of Aotearoa. We rarely go a few months without a new think-piece about how difficult it is to be a Maori kiritea and the judgement that comes with it from our own. In that sense, we have repeatedly held each other to account over our anti-whiteness.
We cannot, however, seem to bring the same energy for anti-blackness.
I have watched black people in Aotearoa exercise incredible grace and restraint over the years as they sought to progress the korero but have been continuously derailed or shut down by our own. I have watched them back away from the discussion, at times out of respect for tangata whenua. Sometimes it was to protect their own wellbeing. Sometimes it was just sheer exhaustion. Being kiritea myself, I’ve not wanted to force a discussion that would draw further fire their way – but I can see, now, that our ineptness in this space has contributed to a context where black people are now routinely exposed to harm on our whenua, under our watch, and we cannot allow that to continue.
Further, as a nation that has in recent years seen extremist racist violence, are staring down the immediate reality of more extremist racist violence, and are desperately trying to eliminate racism, we CANNOT continue to avoid or limit our discussions of anti-blackness. There simply is no anti-racist future without addressing it, and you WILL NOT address it in the absence of black voices.
I can see a few factors getting in the way of this discussion, and I’m going to name them here, along with a few things I think we can do *as a start* to dealing with it.
- Our people do not like being called white by other people
It was very, very weird to see people who call themselves white in their profiles (apparently to take ownership of what privilege that brings), take exception to being called white by black people. We have been defined by others for so long, and even mis-defined by our own, that it is instinctively egregious to have someone else “label” us. When people who understand the difference between race and ethnicity call us white, it is a challenge to accept all that comes with it, and to understand the limits of where we can go, and where we cannot go in our discussions. To those who do not understand that difference, it feels like a denial of our whakapapa and a re-defining of who we are.
What is needed: Deep learning about the difference between race and ethnicity.
- Being denied access to a discussion triggers our mamae
Leading on from point 1 – when you are Maori, and have had everything taken from you, being denied access is a deep-seated mamae. It triggers experiences of being denied access to our land. It triggers experiences of being denied access to our culture and language. For Maori Kiritea it triggers hurtful experiences of being denied access to our identity. When we hear “this isn’t your place” it raises all of the pain of being shut out by colonizers, and our own. Similarly, when we are told of the privilege of being white in a white supremacist world, we feel the difficulty of being white-presenting in Te Ao Maori is being negated. While we do experience the intergenerational legacy of racism, Maori kiritea do not have a reference point for being pulled over, or incarcerated, or denied a job, or denied justice, or denied service, because of being black.
What is needed: De-centering of our own mamae and a reciprocity of the grace shown us by many black New Zealanders who have decentered their own pain for us, repeatedly. Deep understanding of, and respect for the distinctiveness of black history. In short, manaakitanga.
- We place intrinsic negativity on being white
While being white provides an opportunity for privilege abuse, and the fact we live in a white supremacist society means that the abuse of that privilege happens regularly, having white skin is not innately bad. The domination of white privilege abuse in the stories of colonization means many of us struggle with the idea of being called white (even though we say it easily enough). We fear that, in accepting the whiteness of our presentation, this must necessarily make us white supremacists.
What is needed: An understanding that white supremacy is a system, and exists in acts, words, and policy, not in genes or skin colour. Deep wananga on what it is to carry whiteness responsibly.
As difficult as this has been, the discussions on antiblackness of the past week have probably surged us closer to racial justice than Aotearoa has been in a long time. I’m just sorry that, as is so often the case in this global system of anti-blackness, black people again had to pay the price for that.