Tag Archives: Racism

The difference between being required to believe and respecting belief

I’m very happy to respect people’s right to hold cultural beliefs, to behave in a manner that is courteous and respectful, to adopt the behaviour of my hosts when I am at someone else’s place.

However I am not happy to be told that I must engage in particular cultural behaviours for my own safety.

The former asks me as a decent human being to behave in a respectful manner in the presence of someone else’s holy objects, or in their special place; the latter attempts to enforce a particular set of beliefs.

When Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand, issued an invitation for regional museum staff to visit and see some of the work being done behind the scenes, it did the latter. Subsequently, it modified its stance to the former. I think the former is acceptable, and more than acceptable: it is desirable. It is something that gives people the space to choose their own way of life, their own set of values, their own beliefs. The latter is dangerous, all the more so when back by the power of the state.

Here’s what Te Papa said in the first instance when inviting regional museum managers and workers to its behind the scenes tour.

Wahine who are either hapü (pregnant) or mate wähine (menstruating) are welcome to visit at another time that is convenient for them.

There was no indication that this was an ‘advisory': it was a straightforward instruction that women who were pregnant or menstruating were not welcome. To read it any other way is an egregious refusal to consider the ordinary use of language, and the history of such phrases. Try these sentences for size:

Black people are welcome to sit at the back of the bus.

Aboriginal people are welcome to come to the back door of the shop to get an icecream.

Women are welcome to purchase a drink in the lounge bar.

Catholics are welcome to apply for jobs elsewhere.

In other words, black people are not allowed on the front of the bus, Aboriginal people are not allowed to enter the icecream parlour, women aren’t allowed to go into the main bar, and Catholics are not allowed to apply for jobs here.

These are not just random things I have made up: each of these sentences resonates with particular episodes of discrimination.

When Te Papa says that women who are pregnant or menstruating are welcome to come back at another time, it looks very much as though it is engaging in discrimination.

Te Papa quickly issued an explanation. It wasn’t discrimination based on gender. All they were trying to do was to keep women safe.

Wellington’s Te Papa says it is advising pregnant or menstruating women against attending one of its tours, which includes sacred Maori objects, “for their own safety.”

She said there was a belief that each taonga had its own wairua, or spirit, inside it.

“Pregnant women are sacred and the policy is in place to protect women from these objects.”

In order for this policy to work, and remember, this is a policy for a national museum that is open to everyone, you have to believe that taonga have a spirit which can affect pregnant and menstruating women. Women are asked to stay away, not out of respect for the culture, but because the spirits really do exist.

At that point, the state institution has moved from asking people to respect a particular culture’s beliefs, to actually believing them. At that point, through Te Papa’s policy, the state is imposing a particular religious belief on people.

Now before I, or anyone else, starts shrieking, “Taliban! Taliban!” it’s worth remembering that there are absolutely no consequences to refusing to take on the belief about spirits in taonga, and very few consequences for failing to act in accordance with the belief. Requiring people to believe in the spirits is a long way removed from the way in which the Taliban has attempted to impose its beliefs on people. To be sure, it is a difference of degree, not kind, but it is a difference of degree so great that for most purposes, it is a difference of kind.

Nevertheless, Te Papa explained their instruction to pregnant and menstruating women not to come on the grounds that the women might be harmed by the spirits of the taonga. That explanation is the beginnings of the state imposing beliefs on its citizens.

There has been a long, long struggle in Western nations and other nations around the world to separate church and state. And there’s good reason for this: the history of Western nations and other nations is rife with the horrors caused by people trying to impose their beliefs on others. These days, we tend to think that the state has no role in imposing belief. Instead, it should try to create the conditions where each person, each group of people, can practise their own beliefs, without interference from others, and without fear that they will be discriminated against because of their beliefs. State institutions should not discriminate against people because of their beliefs, and they should not try to impose beliefs on other people.

By Wednesday, Te Papa had changed its story. By then, it was saying that as a matter of respect for Maori culture, it would be good if this particular tapu could be observed, even by those who did not believe in it. That was when it moved from imposing belief, to asking that belief should be respected. And that is something I have no problems with whatsoever.

More than having no problems with it whatsoever, I think it is a highly desirable thing to do. It is in fact the best way for modern liberal democracies to proceed. Why? Because it reinforces the idea that individual people and groups of people are free to choose their own beliefs, and it creates space for people to respect each others’ chosen ways of life, even if you would not take on that way of life or those beliefs yourself.

I think that it is a much more secure approach. If you rely on your beliefs to be respected because the state has those beliefs too, then you are vulnerable. You are vulnerable to the state finding that it no longer holds those beliefs, so it sees no reason to allow believers to continue to follow that particular way of life. I think that something of the sort has been going on with respect to Christianity, which has for many years been the de facto state religion in New Zealand, but it’s influence is declining. Even so, Christians have no reason to worry that they will not be permitted to practise their faith. No churches have been closed down, Christians have not been banned from exercising freedom of speech, they have not been forbidden to associate with each other. Their right to be Christian has not been affected at all. Of course, Christianity no longer enjoys the power it once had, but that’s a matter of changing social mores, not discrimination by the state.

I think the distinction between requiring people to believe, and respecting people’s right to belief, is very important. It creates the space in which people may choose their own way of life, and it creates the space in which other people may respect that way of life and those beliefs, without participating in them personally. So contrary to some, I think that Te Papa’s choice of words was very important.

Finally, I think today’s editorial in the Herald is a bit bloody rich. On Monday, they contacted me, looking for an Angry White Feminist to condemn Maori customs and beliefs. When I refused to do so, and instead focused on the distinction between imposing beliefs and respecting beliefs, they went with the Angry White Feminist line anyway. But today, suddenly, they are all about respecting beliefs. Whatever.

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On a personal note, I’ve found it frustrating to be accused of being an unthinking white liberal feminist who has no idea about Maori culture and beliefs, who denigrates Maori culture, and who has no business telling Maori what to do. It has been frustrating because I have not made negative comments about Maori culture at all. I don’t even want to repeat the words that someone told me I had used to denigrate Maori culture, because not only are they words that I did not use at all, they are nasty words, and I don’t want to put them on my blog. I haven’t been telling Maori what to do: in the very first comments I made on the matter, I made it very clear that I did not think I should be involved in discussing what cultural practices Maori should engage it. I said, “It’s up to Maori to work out if and how and when cultural practices should change for Maori, within the traditional freedoms of liberal democracies.” In another place, I said that as a matter of fact I don’t like the ban on women speaking on some marae, but that what I thought about it was irrelevant, and it was a matter for Maori women and Maori men. And I made it clear that if I was on a marae, I would follow the customs of that marae. In another place, I’ve said that I’ve got some thoughts about what might be done with respect to working towards much greater respect for Maori as the first people in New Zealand, but that I didn’t want to put them out there, because it’s not my place to charge on in and tell Maori what to do.

I’m not expecting cookies for this. However it would be nice not to be criticised for things I have neither said nor done.

Mind you, I guess that this sense of frustration is all too familiar for many Maori, and probably far worse. I’m fairly confident that talk back radio and comments threads on some of the newspaper sites have been full of nastiness about Maori culture. Perhaps I should have spent some time on those threads myself, trying to knock back some of the nastiness.

Justice is only for white people

Justice is only for white people. That’s the only conclusion that can be drawn from this horrid story.

No charges in WA prison van death case

H/T: Lauredhel, on Twitter

Last year, an elderly Aboriginal man was being transported to Kalgoorlie to stand trial. The air conditioning in the van he was in was not working. The men woman and man driving the van did not stop to check on his well-being, at all. He died.

And now, neither they nor their managers are being held to account. No charges will be laid, at all. Not even manslaughter charges.

It’s hardly an isolated incident. Read the analysis at Overland of the judgement in which five white men got lighter sentences when they beat an aboriginal man to death, because they were men with white skins of good character. Top blokes, totally out of character: when five white men beat an Aboriginal man to death

And back in New Zealand, remember when a white man got a lighter sentence for killing a brown boy. I’m hearing white privilege all over this. Bruce Emery, who stabbed and killed a 15 year old brown boy, was said to be “an upstanding member of the public…”

Yet again, being white is the ultimate get out of jail free card. And that is awful.

[Edited to correct "men" to "woman and man". Thanks for letting me know, Lauredhel.]

And ignorant too!

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key made a stupid and offensive joke about Tuhoe. For non-New Zealand readers, Tuhoe are a Maori iwi, or tribe, who never signed Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Here’s what John Key said.

“The good news is that I was having dinner with Ngati Porou as opposed to their neighbouring iwi which is Tuhoe, in which case I would have been dinner, which wouldn’t have been quite so attractive,” he said.

From: PM slammed for cannibalism comment, in the New Zealand Herald

It’s racism, simple and nasty, and absolutely unacceptable from anyone, let alone the Prime Minister.

And John Key has come up with an apology.

It was just a joke and sorry if anyone was offended.

Good grief. The “apology” is not an apology at all. It’s all a mistake, and no one understands his sense of humour, and why don’t you just smile and wave a bit more, John Key, instead of leading the nation.

Not only is his “apology” inane, but it’s ignorant too. Check out what he actually said.

Ahh look, it was a light-hearted joke, a bit of self-deprecating humour, but if anyone is offended, then I deeply apologise.

Prime Minister, not only do you need to learn how to make a proper apology (hint: don’t pretend it was all a joke, and have the guts to recognise that you actually were offensive), but you need to learn what “self-deprecating” means.

Let me google that for you.

“Tending to undervalue oneself and one’s abilities.”
“conscious of your own shortcomings”
“belittling or undervaluing oneself; excessively modest.”

I don’t see anything self-deprecating about the alleged humour at all. I can’t see that John Key was undervaluing himself, or being conscious of his own shortcomings, or being excessively modest.

All he was doing was making a cheap, racist, crack. And his “apology” simply demonstrates his ignorance.

How a New Zealander was treated in the United States

A New Zealand woman was travelling back to the States to join her partner for the final six months of their stay there. She was detained at the border, and sent home. The experience was very unpleasant and distressing for her, but even more so for other women who had been detained, seemingly for the terrible crime of travelling, working, just living while Latina.

The story is on Shakesville. You should read it.

Welcome home

Something’s wrong right at The Advertiser

I’m fond of knocking our local rag, The Advertiser, ‘though its a real fish-in-barrel exercise. (See previous posts: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, and eight.) But in a change from that, today I praise The Advertiser, and in particular, a column written by Robert Lusetich, A thorny issue. His column appears in SA Weekend, the weekly magazine that comes with the Saturday edition of The ’tiser.

The black men I played basketball with stretched the gamut, from doctors and lawyers to supermarket employees, students and even a few gangstas. … It was during these years that I discovered that blacks see the world differently. At first I thought it bordered on paranoia to see racism around every corner but as I grew to know my friends I began to understand how their views of the world were shaped.

A young emergency room physician once asked me how many times I’d been pulled over by the police while driving to basketball courts. That’d be zero times. He wondered whether I thought it strange that while we both drove black BMWs, he’d been pulled over six times in the previous year alone. No reason was ever given other than he matched the description of a suspect.

The white majority never really understands the fuss, but until they’ve walked in a black person’s shoes, they never will.

The column is not pitch-perfect – I’m not so fussed about his comments about the arrest of Professor Henry Gates. But it’s a nice essay about (some aspects of ) white privilege, published in the local paper.

It will be interesting to see how it is received. The Advertiser invites comments, but so far, none have been published. Perhaps they will appear in next Saturday’s edition of SA Weekend.

The next step will be some writing about how white privilege operates in Australia. That might cut a little closer to the bone for The Advertiser’s readers.