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Atakohu Middleton | The whakapapa of racism: A tale of fake news and pseudo-science
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The whakapapa of racism: A tale of fake news and pseudo-science
By Atakohu Middleton
Kaiako (Lecturer), Te Wānanga Aronui o Tāmaki Makau Rau (Auckland University of Technology)

Te kaikiri " racism " has been in the news a lot lately. In the United States, protests erupted after the death of African American man George Floyd while in police custody; the University of Waikato launched a taskforce following allegations of discrimination; and new research revealed wide ethnic pay gaps in Aotearoa’s public service.

We know that racist conduct can be overt or hidden. Our Human Rights Commission defines it as “behaviour that is racist, hurtful or offensive and is either repeated or serious enough to have a harmful effect on you - many people experience unfair treatment and racism because of how they look or where they come from. Racial discrimination can also be subtle, creating systemic barriers that lock people out of social and economic opportunities.”

But how many of us know the history of racism - that is, te whakapapa o te kaikiri? What I mean is: Do you know how racism came to be? I ahu mai te kaikiri i whea?

This year, I am part of a team that teaches intercultural communication to university students, and among the first topics we address is how race was constructed by colonial powers. For many tauira, this insight comes as a shock.

Koinei te akoranga - this is what they learn. Human groups have always judged others unlike them; it is, sadly, human nature. When the word ‘race’ appeared in English in the late 1500s, it simply meant people of a kinship or tribal group.

Then came the 1600s and the beginning of a change in European thinking often dubbed the Enlightenment. Philosophers traded faith-based arguments to explain natural phenomena for secular reasoning, rationality, and what they perceived as scientific study.

At the same time, European colonial powers such as the English, Dutch, French, German and Spanish were invading other countries and imposing their values. It suited the colonising powers’ political, economic and social purposes to propagate the idea that the peoples they had conquered were morally and mentally inferior  - barely human, in fact.

As this excellent BBC documentary points out, “The British don’t become slave traders and slavers because they are racist. They become racist because they use slaves for great profit in the Americas, and devise a set of attitudes towards black people that justifies what they’ve done.”

Thinkers of the time classified people into different races according to perceived intelligence, ability and ‘civilisation’. The false notion developed that people with lighter skin were inherently more intelligent than others.

The pseudoscience used to ‘prove’ and reinforce indigenous inferiority looks utterly astonishing now. Here is a typical example from an 1859 book by Arthur Thomson, a doctor with the British army in Aotearoa:

“It was ascertained, by weighing the quantity of millet seed skulls contained and by measurements with tapes and compasses, that New Zealanders’ heads are smaller than the heads of Englishmen, consequently the New Zealanders are inferior to the English in mental capacity. This comparative smallness of the brain is produced by neglecting to exercise the higher faculties of the mind, for as muscles shrink from want of use, it is only natural that generations of mental indolence should lessen the size of brains.”

Auē taukuri e! Yes, you did read that correctly. He got skulls of our tūpuna from who knows where and poured seeds into them to ‘prove’ Māori intellectual inferiority. Measuring the dimensions of noses and skulls were among the methods Nazi Germany used 80 years later to determine Jews’ so-called inferiority. We now call this sort of mahi scientific racism.

Thanks to the relatively recent science of genetics, we now know that humans share 99.9% of their DNA; differences in physical features such as skin and eye colour rest in the other .1%. Race, then, is ideological - fake news. It is a social construct that was devised to suppress others; its tools are the attitudes and behaviours that we call racism.

When the British came to Aotearoa, they imported their attitudes with them, and these were reinforced and normalised over time. Even in the most progressive societies, the prejudice of centuries is still, often unconsciously, built into social structures and personal interactions.

Unpicking the ways in which we might be contributing to that is hard work - he mahi uaua. It requires people to recognise that they could be unwittingly perpetuating bias and make a commitment to unlearn what has been, for them, “normal”, unconscious thinking.

In terms of my students, I like to think that every one of them who does this class leaves with he kai mā te hinengaro  - some food for thought. They probably feel a bit uneasy, too.

Copyright © 2020, UMA Broadcasting Ltd:


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