One Switch At a Time (1/2)

This might be hard to read but I think I need to say it: if you are white and live in Aotearoa you are very, very likely to have white supremacist ideas.  In fact, it is normal to have these ideas.

I do.

In this post I will ask you to consider three points.

  1. That extremism implies a continuum but we disguise this by only talking about the extreme
  2. That white supremacy hides in plain sight in “normal” or “neutral” terms, and
  3. That white supremacy can even just be indifference to others

In the next post I will show how to recognise white supremacy in yourself and then what to do about it.


If you think about it, extremism implies a continuum but we disguise this by only talk about the extreme

Like most Pākehā, I would reject in the strongest possible terms that I subscribe to white supremacist views.  White supremacist extremism is about things like crackpot racist conspiracy theory “true” histories of a Jewish-Muslim cabal.  That is an extreme position. But it is crucial to understand that an extreme can only exist on a continuum and that while the other end of that continuum is more palatable it is still on the continuum.  In fact the extreme end is dependent on the moderate middle for its existence.

The more moderate version of the crackpot cabal theory is the idea that immigrants are not welcome here unless they add value to our country and will adopt “kiwi values”.  

What are “kiwi values”?  Make a list and then take it down to the homeless shelter for some feedback.

The mildest form – but still on that continuum – is indifference.  That being indifferent to a group of people is in some way connected to extremist behaviour is hard to understand.  In the same way that it can be hard to understand that what race you are yourself doesn’t matter when it comes to this ideology.

Last year I read bell hooks.  She has a lot of useful things to say about white supremacy as an ideology. One particularly telling point hooks makes in her writing is that even the people who are harmed by the ideology of white supremacy can take it into their own mental world (Kendrick Lamar calls this “vandalising my perceptions”).  Those people can straighten their hair, and whiten their skin, and tell their kids not to bother learning Māori because “what’s the point?”. You don’t even need to be white to be a white supremacist. It is an ideology.

You can see it, for example, in the film Crazy Rich Asians.  Widely celebrated for its all Asian cast it is a great example of white supremacy and how it infects and destroys other cultures from within.

White supremacy hides in plain sight in “normal” or “neutral” terms

Every culture has an explanation for why its values are correct so it might seem unfair to give the European version of this common trait the title “white supremacy”.  I think it’s right though because it is an ideology that colonialism has spread far and wide across the entire globe, and that is – in many ways – supreme. Not best, but dominant.  

Due to this dominance white supremacy exists in our language in “neutral” terms and concepts that we’re all supposed to accept as true.  These are disguised as “universal values”, but this term actually means: “things that western cultures think are important and have spread around the globe due to colonialism and globalisation, you’re welcome”.  It means that these values look more true because they are wider spread, and indigenous values look less true because they are less widespread.

Free speech is a good example.  It’s something the West is a big fan of.  I like it too. However, the very obviously bad idea that all speech should be free is often used to let people who are building the foundation for extremists to spread their views.  People say things like: “I don’t agree with you but I will die defending your right to say it.” Firstly, no you wouldn’t.  Secondly, some things should not be said if we want an actually civil society. Finally, this free-for-all free speech system favours those with the loudest voice, saying what the majority want to hear, on platforms very few have access to.  Which does not sound fair, and does not sound like free speech, but just a kind of narrowly distributed mob rule. 

So we need to be wary of people demanding free speech and ask “what kind of speech is it that this group wants to be free, and who does it give cover to?”

Another word continually upheld as universally good by the cultural group of the west is democracy.  One person one vote. That’s fair, right?

Not necessarily and not here.  Not here where there was an entirely different way of existing in Aotearoa created by the Māori who agreed (well, some of them did) to share the place with the Pākehā as long as they got to carry on running their own affairs, on their own land.  Yet, we have kind of thing all the time:

New Zealand First has scuppered Labour’s bid to give Ngāi Tahu permanent seats on the Canterbury Regional Council, saying its special treatment for Māori.  (Link)

Consider the fact that by living in the current system Pākehā are already receiving special treatment, and that when someone uses the phrase “special treatment” about a minority they might really just be upholding oppression and keeping the current unfair and unjust system in place.  

If someone talks about giving Māori permanent seats on the local council and it makes you angry think about your arguments closely.  Are they something like these: “that’s not fair”, “that’s special treatment”, “that’s racist because you’re giving someone something based on their race”, “that’s not democratic”? Ok, but now respond to these two statements and a question:

  • Māori once had complete authority over their own affairs and they did not agree to give that up.
  • Now Māori are asking for small, permanent representation on governing bodies that make decisions that directly affect them but rarely consider them and their needs as a distinct and indigenous group.
  • What is not just about that?

Most people understand that it is not morally just for men to make all the laws about women’s reproductive rights.  Is it just for non-Māori to make all the decisions about how Māori can be in this world?

We put limits and rules around democracy all the time.  We have electoral boundaries so that people can elect someone to represent their specific community. We have age restrictions. STV in some places.  First past the post in some systems. MMP. 

I’m a fan of E.M Forster’s phrase: “two cheers for democracy”.  Democracy is pretty good, but let’s not get carried away, and let’s remember that its strength and flaw is that the majority rules.  Which you can even argue is still fair for migrant communities who have come here, but not when the minority you are talking about is indigenous and did not agree to become a minority.

I also need to add that white supremacist extremists don’t actually want free speech or democracy, but they understand that those principles can allow them to exist.  They can cynically use the principles of the societies they live in to survive and grow but should they actually come to power they would be quick to control speech and power.  Given this fact it is a very, very good idea to silence and de-platform them. They are not showing up to debates in good faith, and the outcome of their agenda is censorship and dictatorship.

White supremacy can even just be indifference

Consider this phrase: “I’m not Māori so I don’t care about that.”  Being able to say that is a luxury. If you are Māori you can’t say this about Pākehā.  You have to engage with Pākehā culture, beliefs and language.  You can try not to I suppose, but it’s like trying not to use Google: possible but massively inconvenient.  And if you want to do something official, or you need paperwork? Forget it. You are back in the Pākehā world.

Claiming either a complete lack of interest in things Māori, or avoiding Māori as a people or a culture is on the same continuum as the extremist.  It is at the opposite end from the extremist but it is on that continuum, and – in case it’s not clear – this is not a continuum that runs from bad to good, being on this particular continuum is just shades of bad.   Even being at the opposite end from the extremist supports the extremist by creating an environment where they can exist and access the materials they need to fuel their hate without being challenged.



Underlying all of this you might see two basic assumptions: (1) that it is possible for society to have two seemingly contradictory ideas about its principles and by doing so function more fairly, and (2) that we should therefore always be wary of truths to which no exceptions are permitted.  For example: free speech is good but it needs to have limits, and democracy is good but it needs to account for injustices.  These are examples of contradictory points.  If you think free speech is gospel then any un-free speech is an anathema.  But as we have seen these absolutist views – that all speech should be free, and that one vote per person is totally fair – lead to, or perpetuate, injustice.

It’s not a hard thing to understand, that some ideas need to be qualified, but it is an easy thing to attack by oversimplifying it.  There’s not much that can be done about this except to be prepared for the obvious statements about freedom and fairness and treating everyone the same; ideas we have been conditioned to respond to in our society as unconditionally good.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō