Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Where did I learn my racism?

Cross posted on In a Strange Land

Angry Black Woman has called a Carnival of Allies, in response to the astounding dust-up in the feminist blogosphere in recent weeks.

I have been thinking about it, wondering what to write, reluctant to write something just for the sake of it, when so many people across the blogosophere are writing wonderful posts. But last night and this morning, a couple of things occurred to me, that I hope will add to the discussion.

So, where did you learn your feminism? It's a common question in feminist circles, and indeed, I have answered it myself.

But we can't ask the same question about racism. "So, where did you learn your racism?" is not a question asked in polite circles, or in any circle that I know of. When I was thinking about this, I realised that we have no word for the struggle against racism. Feminism is the response to sexism and misogyny, but what is the name for the response to racism? I can't think of one.

Still, it makes for an interesting question. Where did I learn my racism?

Everywhere, of course. In the institutions of society which put white people at the top. In the way that the 'baddies' in movies are more likely to be black or brown. In the children's story books where all the characters are white. That's changing now, but when I was growing up, the only non-white person in a story book was Little Black Sambo. In the almost total lack of brown people around me. We all knew who the Maori kids at school were, because they were the unusual ones, the different, the other. In the pronunciation of Te Reo, Maori language, where it was thought to be just fine to say, "Mar-ree" with a flat "a" instead of "Ma-o-ree" with a rounded sound, and a roll on the "r". In the way that the hard physical jobs, the 'dirty' jobs, were done by Maori. The dust collectors and the wharfies and the cleaners were predominantly Maori. In the unspoken acceptance that white people were entitled to the land, because Maori didn't know how to farm properly anyway. In naming the magnificent volcano that towers over the province where I was born and where I grew up, "Egmont", the name that Captain Cook gave it, not "Taranaki", the name it had borne for hundreds of years before Cook came along. That's the world I grew up in, and it's where I learned my racism. And I learned it despite the best efforts of my parents.

I can also recall my first click moment with racism, the first time I realised that something was wrong. I went to convent schools, and for the most part, the staff there did their best, as loving followers of Christ, to be non-racist. But there was the day when my class teacher told us about the brown eyes / blue eyes experiment. She was trying to explain to us why racism was wrong, why it was unfair to treat people differently based on their skin colour. So far, so good. Simplistic of course, but at least a start, and not a bad one, back in 1977. Then she stood in front of the class and said, "I'm not racist. I treat every girl in this class the same. I couldn't even tell you who the Maori girls in this class are."

Let's leave aside whether or not she was lying - I pretty damned sure that she knew very well who the Maori girls were. I know that my reaction was to be puzzled. "But if she doesn't know who the Maori girls are, then that means she doesn't even see them. She's not understanding who they really are. She's treating them the way she wants to treat them, not the way they want to be treated."

As an eleven year old, I didn't have the capacity, or the courage, to challenge her on this. (I can recall one other occasion when I didn't have the courage to challenge her, when she asserted to the class that evolution was wrong, and really the Bible was right. That was equally puzzling to me, when my brothers and I had spent hours poring over a wonderful book on the origins of life that my parents had bought for us.) However, even back then, it was clear to me that being not-racist was not a matter of treating people with black and brown skins as though they were white people in disguise.

Women get feminism from the inside. We experience the sexism, the misogyny, the subtle and not-so-subtle putdowns, the on-going fear of violence, being weaker in a society where being stronger is privileged, and so we learn to be feminist from the inside. But I can't access any understanding of racism from the inside, because I am white. To be sure, I can feel what it is like to be different, to be stared at and marked out as a stranger, but only when I choose to travel to places where brown skins, not white skins, are the norm. And even there, my white skin is a passport to acceptance and privilege.

So when it comes to understanding racism, to fighting it, I think that like my teacher, sometimes as a white woman I just don't get it. I don't see it, I don't feel it, and I certainly don't experience it, from the inside.

But what's the practical thing to do? I can sit here and waffle on about racism all I like, but it doesn't give me a way of going ahead from here. However one thing I have been thinking about is what feminist theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza calls a "feminist hermeneutics of suspicion". She approaches all scripture with suspicion, asking always what has been left out, what is hidden by androcentric language, what unconscious biases are there.

The contributions of our early Christian foresisters to early Christian faith, community, and mission can only become historically visible when we are willing to abandon our outdated androcentric models of historical reconstruction. By highlighting the often unconscious bias of established so-called objective scholarship as well as the obfuscating functions of androcentric language of biblical sources, a hermeneutics of suspicion is able to recover glimpses of the discipleship of equals in the beginnings of Christianity as a heritage and vision for all of us.

Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, "Missionaries, Apostles, Co-workers: Romans 16 and the Reconstruction of Women's Early Christian History", in Ann Loades (ed), Feminist Theology: A Reader, SPCK: London (1990)

I have long since abandoned Christianity as a bad job, metaphysically, epistemologically, and morally. But I have long remembered this "hermeneutics of suspicion", and applied it in all sorts of situations, trying to think about what has not been said, what has been ignored, what is informed by bias and prejudice. Now I think it is time to apply that hermeneutics of suspicion to myself and in particular, to my own participation in racism. I'm not about to flagellate myself over it; I didn't create the racism that permeates our society. But I can refuse to participate further in it, and the first step to doing that will be to recognise it, even in myself.

So, where did you learn your racism?

1 comment:

The Bewildering Case of Ms Enid Tak-Entity said...

At my down-at-heel majority brown primary school, I learned that white middle class people were the enemy, especially when it came to netball, and that America was run by the Huxtables.