If a white man shrugs in the media does anyone resign?
Caucus is a RNZ show. I listened to it because it was about the Greens and Metiria. During it Lisa Owen referred to the fact that some people have criticised the media for not reporting the Bill English scandal of 2009 where he claimed an accommodation allowance he wasn’t entitled to as fiercely as they did the Metiria story. To this she said:
“if you Google, and I did this as an exercise, “Bill English” and “double dipping”, you will be swamped in a tidal wave of stories, like in the hundreds of thousands…”
So I went and typed the search into Google.
Which only slightly tallies with what Lisa Owen said, but not really, and completely fails to note the key factor that really differentiates the story of Metiria and the story of Bill:
the white man shrug.*
People – white people – like to think Aotearoa isn’t racist. In fact, Pākehā don’t like the word race at all. At best you might be allowed to use the word bias. “The system is biased”, you might hear a liberal say that. It’s not biased. It’s racist.
1.showing or feeling discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or believing that a particular race is superior to another.
You don’t need to think “bloody Māori” when you look at Metiria to be racist. Let’s be clear about that. It’s not about overt racism. Those displays of overt racism are easy to spot, and easy to tut-tut and police. No, it’s about what happens when a media storm breaks. All those white men can deploy the shrug. It doesn’t have to be a literal shrug, it can be a “I’m comfortable with that”, or a “it’s a bad look”, but its meaning is: “I am a white man in a suit and you have been conditioned to accept authority from white men in suits and you will therefore accept it when I say something along the lines of ‘oh well’ and just trot gaily along with my life because if I say ‘oh well’ it must be ok.” It’s a subliminal mind trick along the lines of what a hypnotist might deploy.
The crime of Bill English was far worse on every front than Metiria’s. It’s almost like he was trying to write a dictionary example for the phrase “white privilege”.
white privilege – a system of advantage based on race
e.g. being a really, really rich white guy and still thinking you should knowingly claim heaps of money you don’t need or deserve and aren’t entitled to and then trying to defend it when you are found out then giving it back (because you can because you’re really fucking rich) but not saying it was wrong just that it was a “bad look” and then carrying on with your life as if nothing happened and getting a promotion.
No one else has access to the white man shrug. Judith Collins tried to use it but it wasn’t ultimately successful because she didn’t have a penis. In fact, when you look down the list of MPs and scandals and political consequences it’s quite clear that if you can’t use the white man shrug then you’re in trouble. Metiria Turei committed electoral “fraud” in her twenties to vote for a joke political party. Some people find this appalling. John Key was entering parliament and enrolled in an electorate where he had a house he never lived in. You’ve gotta feel sorry for the rich sometimes: all those houses and having to remember which electorate to enroll in.
Bill and John got legal advice in both cases that advised them what they were doing could be defended. Poor people don’t get legal advice. Legal advice in this situation, anyway, just means that white men are used to the idea that the law can work for them. Brown people know that’s not true for them.
Which leads us into a complicated area for the white media. They might say: “What should we do? Apply a different standard to Metiria? That’s not fair!” Which would be true if they didn’t already participate in a system of different standards that they are perpetuating and that is unfair. Not consciously, of course, but I expect these very bright people to be a bit reflective, and a bit meta sometimes. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t really appropriate to start digging around in the life of Metiria’s daughter, and ex-partner, and grandparents.
The coverage, for those clinging to the idea of a non-racial Aoteraoa, splits down racial lines. Not entirely of course. That would be weird. But the general trends are racial. If you look at Mihirangi Forbes interviewing people in Manurewa, or Māori and Pasifika women talking about Metiria on RNZ, or Māori TV coverage you get quite a different tone from the chortling on Caucus about Metiria being politically naive. What that means, when you think about it, is horrible. Politically naive means, in that case, not conforming to acceptable power tropes.
And so democracy falls down. It becomes a mirror chamber where the media reflects what the majority in society believe about systems they construct and maintain daily to their own benefit. When outsiders point this out they are pilloried, and any suggestion of broadening what is acceptable is met with cries of a double standard from people who live on the benefits of centuries of double standards in their own favour.
Read what Metiria said on 16 July, 2017:
I have talked to you before about my time on the DPB. I was a single mum, raising my beautiful girl Piupiu while doing my law degree, and I was on the benefit.
I had a great case worker at what we now call WINZ, who treated me with respect.
I had the training incentive allowance as a grant to help me pay my fees and childcare. I had great support from my family and my baby’s dad, and his family too.
Like most people who receive a benefit, I was so careful about managing my money.
I’d go to the bank every fortnight on dole day. I’d withdraw all my money, in cash, then split it up into small amounts, wrapped up in rubber bands with little notes about what it was for.
I knew exactly how much I had for our bills, our rent, our food. But whatever way I split it, I still didn’t have enough to get by at the end of the week.
What I have never told you before is the lie I had to tell to keep my financial life under control.
I was one of those women, who you hear people complain about on talkback radio.
Because despite all the help I was getting, I could not afford to live, study and keep my baby well without keeping a secret from WINZ.
Like many families who rely on a benefit, Piu and I moved around a lot when she was little.
We lived in five different flats with various people.
In three of those flats, I had extra flatmates, who paid rent, but I didn’t tell WINZ. I didn’t dare.
I knew that if I told the truth about how many people were living in the house my benefit would be cut.
And I knew that my baby and I could not get by on what was left.
This is what being on the benefit did to me – it made me poor and it made me lie.
It was a stressful, terrifying experience.
At any moment, WINZ could have caught me and cut off my benefit.
They could have charged me with fraud and made me a criminal as well.
I got through it, of course, as you can see.
Not everyone does.
That is what she said. It’s interesting to go back and read it because it is honest, and direct, and sounds very real. It also acknowledges that her situation was not as bad as it could have been, and gives respect to her WINZ case worker, and her family. That this speech is what has ended her career disgusts me. Disgusts me.
When the white man shrugs no one will resign.
When the white man points the finger? You better watch out.
*white man shrug means white straight man. It doesn’t apply to gay white men.