Doing Justice: 6 Racism Myths That Really Need Debunking

This originally started as a group of tweets, which I wrote in a bit of a frustrated state after having to go back through my internal playlist of responses to someone who didn’t quite get racism but really, really felt they did. And that’s the thing with racism – it’s so prevalent that there is a widespread belief that we all understand it very well, and yet, it’s our lack of understanding about it that keeps it so prevalent. Anyhow – the tweets grew very popular and I had a number of requests to write about them so here we are! There are enough misconceptions about race and racism that you could probably write a book about them, but we are going to settle on a handful for today. I’m also going to publish them as flashcards, feel free to download and share them.

One of the greatest barriers to addressing racism is that it’s not identified well, which allows it to hide in plain sight. There is a persisting belief that you are only experiencing racism when someone insults you with a racial slur, or physically attacks you because of the colour of your skin. These are of course racist events, but it’s important to understand that racist acts exist within RACIST SYSTEMS. They are permitted because there are policies that enable them… and because of a lack of policies that disable them. This is SYSTEMIC, or STRUCTURAL racism. It can only be addressed through ANTI-RACIST policy. There is no “not-racist” because global colonialism has ensured that the default state of society is a racist one. As activist-scholar Angela Davis says: “In a racist society, it’s not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist”.

In fact arguably “Non-racist” does not actually exist. Claiming to be “non-racist” denies the default presence of racism, allowing it to remain. Claiming to be non-racist, is thus itself a racist statement. If you’re reading this and thinking “does that mean my organisation is racist?” Well if you don’t have anti-racist policies, then yes, it probably is.

Following on from Myth 1 is the myth that racism can only present as extreme acts. This is commonly what allows for people to continue to say racist things and do racist things because they will always compare it to a greater extremity. The only thing that you need in place to qualify as racism – is for it to uphold the system of racial inequity. That’s it. That might take place in a joke (which is one of the most insidious vessels of racism), it might take place on a sign, in a song lyric, in a cartoon, or it might take place in a costume or in a policy, JUST AS EASILY as it can take place in race-based assaults. In fact, physical assaults and hate crimes are only a tiny percentage of racist acts that occur every day. It’s the idea that racism must look like extreme, brutal acts that stands in the way of us exploring our own racism. For as long as we continue to view racism as an unshakeable and shameful personal characteristic rather than a social illness that can influence all of us – we will fail to unpick it within ourselves and the systems we influence every day.

I often hear this from our own – racism was imported by white people, it was invented by white people, why do we even have to do anything? This is their mess to clean up, right? Well, just like a whole lot of other not-great things that arrived on the boat with Cook – we acquired racism too, and there is simply no escaping that we have become active agents in racist systems. I also often hear “we can’t be racist because we have no power in racialised systems”. The system is a hierarchy, not a binary, and we can wield relative power within that hierarchy, and throughout history, non-white people have enabled racism (both consciously and unconsciously) in order to hold on to that relative power. So what does this look like, well if we are talking about lateral racism, that looks like Maori using the “N” word, or promoting policies that target black and brown migrant communities, or making racist jokes about other ethnic communities in Aotearoa.

If we are talking about internalised racism, well that looks like Māori creating policies that oppress other Māori (as numerous Maori MPs have done)… it might also look like a Maori police officer who has been indoctrinated to believe that his own people are likely criminals, it might present as an apathy towards ones own cultural traditions, or an obsession with colonial (often materialistic) values. One of the most common manifestations that I see of internalised racism is the preoccupation with being a “good Maori” – that is, a clear aversion to being disagreeable to pakeha, not wanting to rock the boat, and a tendency to be compliant in order to progress through white systems and claim relative privilege and comfort. Of all forms of racism, internalised racism is probably the saddest, because it indicates that within your native heart, a part of your resistance, your love for tipuna, and belief in yourself has died.

The idea that only white people can be racist is a trap that stops us from dismantling racial hierarchies. It is very, very easy when learning about the history and injustice of racism, to fall into the trap of anti-whiteness. Perversely, this leads to spaces where people deny themselves the freedom and acceptance to be native, and white, at the same time. The reviling of whiteness inhibits our ability to really understand how we interact with concepts like white proximity… and ultimately will stand in the way of the true goal of dismantling racial hierarchies – which will always ultimately harm non-white people the most. As race-critical theorist Ibram X Kendi says: In the end, hating white people becomes hating black people.

I also often come across white people who believe their anti-racism work to be some kind of charity work. I’ll try to explain this as succinctly as possible:

The system of entitled extraction from non-white lands and non-white bodies that forms the basis of racism, is exactly the system that will soon make this planet uninhabitable for every single person on this Earth.

Racist economic policies across Te Moananui a Kiwa allow for it to be used as a weapons, chemical and plastics dumping ground, crippling the second lung of the planet. The maintenance of racist systems is also what stands in the way of social justice solutions to those same problems. Racist ideas about conservation inhibits the development of Indigenous climate solutions EVEN though it’s already been demonstrated that Indigenous forest management outperforms all others in carbon sequestration. The absurd notion that environmental harm doesn’t matter when it’s someone else’s territory is exactly the kind of disconnected racist logic that is leading modern society off the cliff, while also blocking any guidance away from the cliff.

But quite separate to this, is the fact that racist imperialism also disadvantages 90% of white people. At the apex of the racist imperial superstructure sits a small group of extremely wealthy, white, abled, slim, cis-het men who insist, through their racist ideals grown out of the racist science of the racist enlightenment period, that material wealth, whiteness, able-ness, slim-ness, and toxic masculinity are all markers of supremacy, and they abuse the system from the apex-down, to reinforce those ideas, in order to keep themselves at the top.

Dismantling that system will undoubtedly benefit all of humanity – it is not a favour to anyone, any more than it is a favour to yourself, people in your own family, and your future generations.

I can’t even count the amount of times I have come across people who think learning about other cultures will solve racism. Inherent in this idea is a key flaw in addressing racism – the confusion between race and ethnicity.

Quick 101 – race is rooted in the idea that biological markers, (colour of skin, bone structure, eye shape, hair type) are genetically associated with intelligence, ability, criminality, promiscuity, and so on. The fact that these biological markers are so often equated with ethnicity is what often causes confusion. Here, here and here are some handy articles to start to get your head around this. Yes slavery has existed since forever – yes ethnic discrimination and warfare has existed since forever – but it is the constructed idea that you are only *worthy* of enslavement because of the colour of your skin, or *worthy* of ridicule because of the shape of your eyes, or that you are *destined* for prison based upon a combination of these factors, that developed out of the racist imaginations of European scribes and clerics of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Ethnicity is state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition. It may include language, religion, and sometimes nationality as well. You can claim many different ethnicities and many different nationalities, but race is more often something that is applied to you, by society, by the racial hierarchy, by systems and the individuals within them, regardless of the ethnicities you claim. Some aspects of ethnicity can become racialised, an example of this is Islamophobia, which is not actually rooted in a deep understanding of Islam, but rather a racist othering of a Non-white, non-European religion. For this reason you will often see Non-Islamic groups like Sikh, or indeed Arab Christians, be subjected to Islamophobic abuse.

So when we say that celebrating cultural traditions will cure racism, it comes from a flawed understanding that confuses race with ethnicity. What we need to learn about is the construction of race, and racial hierarchies, and racial injustice, in order to dismantle systemic racism – and what will naturally flow from that process is a celebration of all cultures. As Arundhati Roy says about confronting empire: we must strip it down, make it drop its mask and force it out into the open on the world’s stage – too ugly to behold its own reflection, too ugly to even rally its own people.

The world has heard a lot about the Dunning-Kruger effect thanks to covid and misinformation. The idea of “instant expertise” has gone hand in hand with the growth of the internet and when that is combined with an experience as universal, powerful and emotional as racism, it can lead us into some very murky waters of superficial understanding, false certitude and blindspots. Racism is a discipline as well as a cause. Thought leaders and activists have had their lives taken while fighting it and exposing it. It has multiple contexts around the world that intersect, and interconnect and we become richer as we respectfully learn about them. As we embark on a journey as a nation to dismantle racist systems, we owe it to those who have dedicated their lives to racial justice, to immerse ourselves in their teachings, to honour the discipline they have grown, layer upon layer of deep reflection upon where we have come from and where we need to go, in order to do justice to it.

That’s it – it’s a small list but it is the most common misconceptions that I come across and the reflections I often have around them. I’ve only been studying this for a few years and I have so much more to learn – about racism in general and about the racism in me, and how to dismantle it all. I hope that at least some of this might help some of you in your journey too.

Mauri ora.

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