Mako at rest on me
I’ve just finished reading on The Spinoff Tusiata Avia’s poem, ‘Massacre”, her response to the mass murder of Muslim worshipers here in Christchurch on 15 March. Anyone who knows her work would not be surprised at the force of its attack on white racists: that is, all of us beneficiaries of historical institutional racism, through an accident of birth. As the flame thrower of her controlled anger burns me line by line, I’m reminded of the things I’ve just read in a discussion document on racism, sent to me by a close family member.
“Most white people do not talk about racism, do not recognise the existence of institutional racism, and feel personally threatened by the mention of racism”, writes Christine Sleeter. “There is no comfort zone for white people when it comes to discussing white racism. Being uncomfortable is the price we must pay”, agrees Alice McIntyre. She continues, “There is a tendency to locate racism within the individual and not think institutionally or culturally about racism”.
Living and working in London during the 1990s woke me up to racism and my own part in it, and it has made me uncomfortable ever since. But I have remained white and privileged by that whiteness, no matter what I’ve tried to do to escape from racism’s web of deceit. There always remains, however hard we work to remove it, an underlying sense that we have no race and no colour, that we are the norm, the mirror into which all non-white people must look and see that they are not us.
This may not be true in those countries, those parts of the world where whiteness is not normative (most of Africa, or China, and many other regions where whites are either visitors, tourists, or a settler minority), but for a high percentage of the world’s population – even if only mirrored against whiteness by the global white media – cultural and institutional racism is as normal as the sunshine, the rain, the wind, the air we all breathe.
My own problems, my issues then, are always seen in a context: no matter how dire, or how trivial my stresses and my struggles, it is always going to take place in the reality of my whiteness: better access to health care than many Māori and Pasifika; less likelihood to be stopped and searched by police, than are people of colour; more likely to have representation when arrested; less like to be imprisoned; better job prospects and a longer life expectancy. That’s me. You too, if you are white.
I’m not making this up; these are statistics you can go and find online, if you care to. The question is, why? How – in the context of Tusiata’s poem, which you can read here – did such a massacre occur in our midst, if “they” truly are “us”? It happened to them, not us didn’t it? Was the shooter one of us, after all that? He hid among us, no-one questioned what he was doing, he was invisible except on social media, until he struck.
I’m struggling with all this. I go to the Linwood Masjid on Fridays when I can, and pray with the believers, but it all feels too little, too late. The report in today’s Press – on the condition of Sazada Akhter, a 25-year old Bangladeshi woman still lying in hospital, shot in the chest and abdomen as she ran, lungs, liver and kidneys critically damaged, unlikely to ever walk again, who says, “I don’t know how I can go on” – puts it all in relief.
Somebody decided she was not one of us; now one of us has just been sentenced to 21 months in jail for applauding this atrocity and distributing the gunman’s video. This greeted me after a freezing winter’s morning as I forced myself to get up and resist the black dog that’s been hunting me since I left the university scene after twenty years of having an external identity and came home to be a house sparrow, one who has found it hard to concentrate on much, with all the institutional scaffolding removed.
I came home from a bicycle ride out there with my wife this morning, and left my bike at the gate while I went inside and turned off the alarm. As the cat greeted me and I stepped out the back door, the frost was melting on the roof of the verandah, streams of melted droplets patterning the deck. Suddenly, I was sixteen, back at the sawmill near Redjacks on the Coast, the valley frost on the roof turned to streams of water by a rising sun striking the roofing iron, icy fingers dripping over you, down your neck, as you ran the winch or revved the chainsaw.
As I walked down the drive to open the gates and get my bike, I thought of Proust, his aunt’s madeleine dipped into a cup of tisane, of memories loosened within by sensations. Having opened the gates, it was only when I was halfway back up the drive, I realised I’d left the bike behind. In the second year into my seventies, in a flick of reality, I can fly back from June 2019 to June 1965 and in the same breath, forget what I actually walked outside to do.
This is my brain reprogramming me; a new life with a black and white cat as companion, a black dog of sadness at my heels. But whatever it is, it all pales and evaporates, morning frost under the sun, as what has happened here in Christchurch rises up within me to dismantle the crumbling remains of my whiteness.