The Politics of Language

Last week a Year 9 Māori student asked me:

Why are Indians all so rich?

What do you mean?

Why do they all own businesses, and dairies and petrol stations and shit?

I don’t think that was the question.  I think it was more like: how come they’re brown and generally better off than me and my people?  How come I’m buying gum off them, and they’re not buying gum off me?

The first answer, I know, is the one about “not all Indians”.  We covered that.  But she lost interest in that answer and by the time I was trying to answer the second, unsaid question, she was arguing about something else with her friends.  Anyway, she had given up.  She was used to hearing the great white non-answer which is something like “not all white people” or “don’t make everything about race”.

Teachers don’t like to hear that the education system is racist.  You can get away with talking about the “issue” of Māori and Pasifika underachievement only if you use words like bias, but I think bias is a weak word.  It suggests to me an underlying fairness distorted slightly by a preference for one thing over another.  The education system (and all the other systems we stitch together to run a society) is not biased: it is racist.  That is to say: those systems are based entirely in the cultural beliefs of one race to the deliberate exclusion of another.  Giving the dominant system Māori subtitles does not change the system.

bell hooks suggests we frame this debate not by saying racist but by saying white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.  I agree.  Except you could add hetero-normative in there too.  She is right to say that a term like that captures the complexity of identity, but also the way racist ideas have infiltrated communities of colour.  It is not really correct to say that a black person wishing they had lighter skin is racist, rather that they have taken on the ideology of white supremacy.  So I agree except that – and I apologise for being so simple – it’s a term that is too long and, as a result, I use the words race and racist, even though her term is what I actually mean.

One thing you learn when you start to read, write and think about the politics of race is that language is never neutral, but that it is used as if it is.  That even language that is about things like equality is actually part of a political framework built on a culture’s particular ideology and not a word free of political power and connotations.

If education is primarily the way a society passes knowledge from one generation to the next then the Māori had an education system, and their own types of knowledge, and their own ways of delivering it.  If you are Māori and attend a “regular” state school then none of these ways exist.  This is not to say that the traditional Māori system is something I agree with in its entirety – it is not a debate about that – it is simply to say that Māori are participating in the ideological project of the Pākehā when they attend school.  Equality, equity, being inclusive – all these words are part of that white ideological project.  They mean equality with the Pākehā, or being as successful as Pākehā against the matrices established by that group.

I have a friend who came to Aotearoa when she was two.  She is about 19 now.  She writes poetry and it is often about race.  Her family is from Somalia.  I remember talking to her once after a poetry event and she was upset.  One of her good friends had said something like: “It was good, but why does it always have to be about race?”  Watching I Am Not Your Negro there is a similar scene.  James Baldwin talks on a chat show about race in America and then the final guest comes out – an old, white professor – and he says, essentially, “why do you have to make everything about race?”  It is a question that is both understandable and embarrassing.  It feels like the person who started the fire asking the flames why they are so hot.  You cut the man and then ask them why they bleed?  Is the person holding the spent match or the bloody knife so blind?

To which many Pākehā can say: “Slow down, man.  I never did anything racist in my life.”  Yes, you did.  You used words, and participated in systems ignorantly, and when someone used the language of race you denied it and them their voice and their experiences.  I know.  I have been doing it my whole life.

I don’t know that you, the white you, needs to do much.  Maybe if the white we would just start with acknowledging that the society we have here is a creation of the Pākehā mind and – as such – may not benefit everyone.  That would be a start.  After that we could stop saying “we’re all Kiwis” which is not solidarity but assimilation because it is used to reject terms like Māori, and Pākehā, and African and Samoan.

After that things get hard.  After that the Pākehā would need to accept alternative definitions for words, or ways of doing and being.  They would need to accept that supposedly fundamental things like “freedom of speech” are often just code for “the right to perpetuate speech that maintains hegemony”, or that “tough on crime” means “tough on brown people and the poor”, or that “one law for all” is something that has never existed between countries or even between people inside countries.  One law for all means what if we disagree about what a family looks like, or how property can be held?

Everything is about race until it isn’t.  Until we do something new: find a way to genuinely live in a country of many peoples with a genuinely new and blended way of organising its systems.  A bi-cultural people in other words who can therefore welcome and live multi-culturally.  This, if it is even possible, is a long way off.  The white world – who created race as an idea to divide the world, and oppress and exploit, does not now get to talk about how we are all the same, and race doesn’t matter, without making those statements true in fact.  Discriminating against someone for 100 years because of their race and culture, and then chastising them for always talking about race must be a bitter pill to be asked to swallow.  Where was this brother and sisterhood at Parihaka, cracker?

Am I not a person?

Published by


I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō