(This piece was written the day following the attack, by a kiwi expat far away from home)
As our country mourns the lives of 50 people and our sense of safety from such abhorrent acts of hate and violence, there is an echoing question: how could this happen here? New Zealand is peaceful, accepting, diverse, and stands up for what’s right, right? We stand for equity and inclusion, right? We have a history of fighting for equality. We fought against the Springbok Tour, with tenacity and we signed the Treaty of Waitangi. But, maybe things are a bit more complicated than that. Perhaps, we need to challenge our everyday reality in order to truly reflect our national ideology of equality and peace for all.
Our next echoing question may be, how can we stop this from happening again? Well, I would answer first by saying ‘call it what it is’ and accept (despite all of the facebook posts stating otherwise) that ‘this is us’. This terrorist attack, the first to occur in our nation, was not only an act of terrible, tragic, and repugnant violence, but it was also an act of white supremacy. We, the people of New Zealand, proudly label ourselves as multicultural, open-minded, and safe for all. But can we truly cling to this label after the loss of 50 people based on their ethnicity and religion? You may answer with ‘Brenton Tarrant is a self-professed Australian, he’s not ours, this wasn’t ‘us’’, and by saying this you would be denying our history of white supremacy, subsequently denying us the chance to move forward as a society. Ask yourself, why is it we needed the Treaty of Waitangi in the first place, why are so many people of Maori descent in prison with harsher sentences, why do we not acknowledge the 1970’s Dawn Raids, why does Paul Henry have a career as a public voice after his disgraceful display in regards to ‘Sheila Dikshit’, and why, during our Springbok Protests, did we hear the cries of Maori leaders calling for us to care about inequalities felt by Maori too? In order to truly move forward, and improve the quality of life for others, we must acknowledge our collective role in this act of white supremacy, and we must acknowledge this nation’s colonial history and how that affects the present.
When we think of white supremacy we may think of the United States, of the civil rights movement, of the deplorable images of African Americans being beaten by police, the Ku Klux Klan, people in MAGA hats, evil people, bad people, people on the opposite side of spectrum of morality than us, and Donald Trump. But white supremacy takes many forms and may be more familiar and closer to home than imagined. The Institute of Inequality has provided a successive list of the forms of white supremacy. As I relay this list, in order of severity and escalation, I will also provide real-life examples that I have witnessed as a white woman in New Zealand. I mention my ethnicity and gender as I believe this affects peoples’ comfortability in saying some of the things I am about to list. Now here goes. The first form is ‘indifference’, for example, opting to ‘stay out of it’ or ‘I don’t get into politics’. This allows racist behaviour to go unchecked and subsequently protects dangerous ideologies. Next, we have ‘minimization’, you may hear ‘but we are a multicultural country’, ‘Tarrant was from Australia, not here’, ‘not all white people hold these views’, or ‘we are of a post-colonial country’. These comments act as denial, particularly a denial of the experience of people of colour in New Zealand and the denial of white privilege. Thirdly, ‘veiled racism’. This particular example was a couple of years ago, my friend’s ex-boyfriend threw a Halloween party in which 20 or so male students dressed as ‘terrorists’ and yelled ‘Allahu akbar’. Another example occurred during my time as a barista in the mall. A customer complained about a lack of assimilation by Muslim immigrants in Germany. This same customer had no comment when told about a Muslim girl who worked in another mall store that had her hijab ripped off by a customer. Veiled racism may also come in the form of a white feminist condemning Muslim women for wearing a headdress, assuming that the Muslim woman has no choice or will of her own. Fourth on the list is ‘discrimination’, an example being a conversation with a university lecturer who stated that he would refuse to lecture anyone with a burka/headdress. This lecturer, someone who is responsible for educating future leaders, would put his comfort before the education of someone due to their religious headdress. The fifth form is the ‘call for violence’. An example of this could be made of last year’s facebook event which saw plans for a neo-nazi meeting organized to be held at Dunedin’s oval. Tarrant’s slaying of 50 innocent lives are examples of the sixth and seventh form, ‘violence’, and ‘mass murder/genocide’. These acts of white supremacy chip away at the humanity of others, it makes them an ‘other’, excluded, and not protected by acceptance. Although not literally pulling the trigger, these people and these sentiments contribute to the overall harm endured. We have a responsibility to examine our own white supremacy without defensiveness and with an open heart. New Zealand is a peaceful and beautiful place that holds a diverse crowd of people but Tarrant’s mass murder was part of something that has been bubbling below the surface of our neo-colonial nation, something that can only be prevented if we acknowledge that this is us.
Our responsibility, as individuals and as a collective, is to prevent another terrorist attack from happening and to maintain a safe environment for all who wish to exist in our peaceful country. For many, it will be uncomfortable to imagine ourselves as possessing racism or white supremacy, but it is a potentially life-saving necessity. We must call it what it is and recognise it in order to fix the problem. We need to stare it in the eye, even if it is in the mirror, our child, our friend, our parent, or colleague. New Zealand cannot, and will not become one of those countries where things like this become normal. I fear that time will pass, the fear will subdue, and people will feel at ease and comfortable with the racial disparity in our nation once again. We must expand our world view and perspectives rather than protect a self-image that may inadvertently harm others through apathy. We must expand in order to fit people of different experiences into the safety of our empathy and understanding.
Reach out to those around you, befriend someone who is different from you and discover your similarities in humanity. Mourn for those who lost their lives, offer your condolences. Then, learn. Read about racial disparity (start with Robin Diangelo’s book “White Fragility”), orientalism (read Edward Said’s ‘Culture and Imperialism’), Islamophobia (check out Greenberg and Gottschalk’s Islamophobia: Making Muslims the enemy). Grow. Then stand up, call someone out. If you witness racism/white supremacist rhetoric or sentiment, vocalize your disgust, tell them to pull their finger out, and deny it’s place in our society. It could save a life, or 50.