Friday 22 March 2013

hoping for the best

so, where to start on this susan devoy thing?

i guess the place to start is that this a difficult thing for me to talk about.  because i'm dependent on the person who will be race relations commissioner in so many ways.  i need to depend on her being the voice standing up for people of colour.  i need to count her being willing to step in and stand up and fight when i can't fight or when my voice isn't loud enough or strong enough to be heard.

because her voice is strong enough to cut through - it carries the full weight of her office and the institution that stands behinds her.  it opens doors that aren't accessible to me, in that she is much more likely to be granted entrance into organisations or given interviews with people than i am.  she has access to funding and support structures that i don't have access to, at least not in the same way.  in fact, sometimes she gets to be a gatekeeper in regards to my ability to access that support.

if she fails to act or to speak, she won't suffer the consequences: i will, or some other marginalised person and/or community of colour will.  if she fails to do her job properly, i will find it harder to fight the discrimination i face in my day to day life.

i've written plenty of times about the support either myself or my community have received support from the previous race relations commissioner.  when the danish cartoons were published, he stepped in immediately to organise a meeting with leaders of various faith communities and the editor of the dom.  that allowed a crucial piece of dialogue to happen and affected how the issue played out in the media over the coming days.

when greg o'connor, head of the police association, decided to go public with his criticism of a new police policy in relation to burqa-wearing drivers, the race relations commissioner organised a meeting between myself and mr o'oconnor. at this meeting, myself and a friend were able to explain to mr o'connor the impact of his words on the lives of women in our community, and it was an incredibly powerful meeting.

when i decided to take on an op-ed in the waikato times, he offered me not only his sound advice, but also the supporting cases and the institutional support i needed to achieve a successful outcome.

there are plenty of other examples i could give, but i think this is enough to give you an idea of just how important this role is to me personally, in my activism and advocacy, and in my ability to feel like i could possibly make a difference to the world i live in.  and because i am dependent on the person in that role doing not just a good, but an excellent, job - well, that makes me afraid to criticise the new appointee.  to criticise the appointment risks me getting offside with a person who i desperately and crucially need on my side.

so in a way, i'm silenced by my need, by the very marginalisation that the position is supposed to fight against.  and yet i'm very afraid that a person who finds burqa's "disconcerting" is not going to be able to advocate effectively for burqa-wearing women when, for example, they are refused entry on public transport for no good reason.  i'm afraid that someone who complains about discord on waitangi day and is so unaware of the experiences of people of colour on australia invasion day that she actually holds it up as an example for us to follow - is such a person going to be able to advocate effectively for maori?

and yes, it is great to have a woman in the role.  but it would have been better to have a woman in the role who had had some experience of marginalisation based on race, nationality and colour.  because experiences of marginalisation aren't transferrable.  just because you know what it's like to be marginalised as a woman doesn't mean that you understand the issues or the experiences of people who suffer a difference form of marginalisation.

if that was the case, then there would be no tension between feminists and the trans* community.  but we on this blog have first-hand experience of that tension, and i'll be the first to acknowledge that we didn't handle it particularly well.  and there would be no tension between white feminists and women of colour.  but there is a huge amount of such tension, and there have been screeds of words written about that by women of colour around the world and a whole thing called intersectionality.

so when judith collins makes the statement:

"Frankly she's the 10th person in the job, the first woman, and that speaks volumes about the way in which women, particularly ethnic women... have been kept out of the race relations debate."

it makes me pretty angry.  because our new appointee is not an ethnic woman, so this appointment will not change the fact that ethnic women are being "left out of the race relations debate" - if in fact we are. for ms collins to say so means that she is ignoring the work and the words of wonderful ethnic women activists across the country, just to make a rather spurious point in support of her appointment.

i don't know how ms devoy will do in this role, and i don't want to undermine her from the start because, as i said, i desperately need her to do well.  in her interview with radio nz this morning (morning report, 7:39am), she expressed a willingness to listen and learn, so i will hope for the best.  what else is there to do?


Facts said...

It's funny, you say that it would be best to have someone who's a minority, but you also speak very highly of Joris De Bres, who was a white heterosexual man. In other words, if you were writing this in 2002 you'd be criticising De Bres for the same reasons as Devoy. Except that De Bres isn't a woman, so he has even less experience being marginalised.

Rebecca said...

Joris was a migrant to Aotearoa as a child, and spent his entire life working on race relations as one of his passions. He made it his business to understand and open the door for advocacy from minority positions.

Also, irritatingly, one of the people Judith Collins is forgetting when she says women have been kept out of the race relations debate is the work of Dame Te Atairangikaahu. Just saying.

Stargazer, thanks for your blog, a good reminder to me that it is easy for me to get angry and rail against the appointment when so many of my friends have to make it work.

LudditeJourno said...

Yes, agreed, beautiful post about the complexity of working within the systems we have when those systems are fundamentally flawed, thank you stargazer. I've been thinking about that too, and also about the inevitable backlash to the critique from people with little understanding of racism/deliberate investment in maintaining white privilege.

stargazer said...

Thanks Rebecca.

@facts: there is also the fact that the Dutch community faced a lot of marginalisation when they first started coming here. Many were forced to anglicise their names, they weren't allowed to speak their own language, they were forbidden to meet up with each other. You should read up on their history, and you'll find that joris came from a community that has had a lot of experience with marginalisation on the basis of nationality.

Simoon said...

A friend linked this:

Facts said...

Actually Stargazer I am of partly Dutch heritage on my mother's mother's side, so I feel pretty comfortable with my understanding of the Dutch experience in NZ, so I won't be taking your advice to 'read up on their (that is, my own) history'.

Comparing the problems of Dutch NZers to those of Maori or Asian or Indian NZers seems pretty minimalising. (And yes, Stargazer, I know you're an Indian Kiwi). Similar to the 'well, I'm one-sixteenth Irish, and I don't ask for Treaty Claims, so these Maori should clam up'. Dutch people don't experience the lack of privilege that people of colour do. I'm pretty sure Joris De Bres would agree with me.

stargazer said...

"Similar to the 'well, I'm one-sixteenth Irish, and I don't ask for Treaty Claims, so these Maori should clam up"

um, what? i'm afraid i can't grasp the similarity here, or what might have to do with any point you're making.

"Dutch people don't experience the lack of privilege that people of colour do."

well no, times have moved on a bit since the 1950's and they don't face the same marginalisation that they did then. doesn't mean it didn't happen or that this heritage can't inform someone's experience of marginalisation. perhaps because you feel that you haven't gained any insights from it that no-one else possibly could. and if you have gained some insights from it, then maybe you could acknowledge that joris did as well.

but hey, thanx for telling me i'm minimalising my own lived experience. i'm sure you're much more of an expert on my life than i am.

@LJ we cross posted comments and i haven't been able to get back to this to thank you for your comment.

Facts said...

Well Stargazer, you told me to read up on my own heritage, so I guess we're even?

Here's what I'm saying. Often pakeha people of non-English backgrounds (which is most pakeha people, frankly) try to draw analogies between the discrimination Irish or Scottish or Welsh or Dutch or German or Italian people faced in NZ, and the discrimination that Maori or Indian or Asian people faced.

The analogies are pretty strained, because at every stage in NZ's history, Irish and Welsh and Dutch and other European groups have always been seen as white, so they've always had white privilege. De Bres may have faced difficulties, but he had white privilege. The job of the Race Relations Commissioner as you so adeuqately esplained is to deal with white privilege and how to prevent it or at least draw attention to it.

I mean if you think De Bres' Dutch heritage qualifies him I think you'd struggle to find a pakeha ZNer who doesn't qualify. Almost all of us have some Dutch or Welsh or Irish or Croatian ancestry somewhere, so some of our ancestors will have faced pressure to change their names and so on.

But that experience does not give us the tools to understand the oppression of people of colour, because it's a very different and more servere oppression. Which isn't to say that it's impossible for such a pakeha to understand, De Bres obviously did. But I'm rpetty sure that his understanding of Maori issues came from listening to Maori not from trying to draw some strained analogy to the problems of his Dutch ancestors*

*Who probably oppressed Maori themselves

Mikaere Curtis said...

Thanks Stargazer for your thoughtful piece. One of my friends recently told me about the theory that the Left were at an advantage over the Right because the Left have embraced Identity Politics and the right have embraced Hierarchical Authority. One is about respect, the other requires it, no points for guessing which one I support.

Dame Susan's appointment sits snugly in the authoritarian narrative, no need for capability when authoritarian anointment will suffice.

While I agree that it is long overdue for a woman to take up the role of Race Relations Conciliator, if find it "disconcerting" that Judith Collins has appointed someone who is apparently so ignorant of the discourse of Waitangi Day that she deems it necessary to elevate simple protest (increasingly outlawed in the UK) as a significator of widespread discontent, which it is not.

, they are refused entry on public transport for no good reason.

I wish to be pleasantly surprised by the innovative ways in which a privileged Pakeha woman can address the discrimination faced by women who decide to wear a burqa.

stargazer said...

"I mean if you think De Bres' Dutch heritage qualifies him"

that's not what i said, it's not even close. i said it gave him some insight - in terms of the history of marginalisation of the dutch community which happened in the past - an insight which ms devoy hasn't had, at least not that she has spoken about publicly.

i've never said that the history of marginalisation of the dutch community is equivalent to what people of colour experienced, but i'd still contend that someone whose community has had to live through policies of forced assimilation would have more insight than someone who has no experience of that at all.

i certainly haven't said that this was the only experience he brought to the role, in that this alone "qualifies him" as you put it. it was ms collins who claimed that ms devoy's experiences of marginalisation as a woman somehow qualified her for this role. it's that which i was responding to in the post, and i still disagree with her on that point, and on the contention that having a white woman in the role means that ethnic women, who were apparently invisible uptil now (at least to ms collins), will suddenly be brought into "the race relations debate".

finally, i'm really not appreciating you lecturing me on white privilege & experiences of people of colour, as if i know nothing about it, as if i don't live it everyday. and no, it doesn't even out anything - this isn't some tit-for-tat kind of game. it's my life, which will be directly impacted by this particular appointment.

stargazer said...

thanx mikaere. there is also the fact that identity politics has somehow become a pejorative, not only with the right i might add, but also with some on the left. it plays out on the left as being a distraction from the issues that "matter", as if our the negativity we face as a result of our identity is somehow less destructive that economic marginalisation, when actually it is often our identity that leads directly to that marginalisation ie it can be and often is a major factor in being shut out of jobs. luckily this view wasn't dominant in the last labour government, so we had some excellent appointments and great work done by the human rights commission.

on the right, it's all about bootstraps and overcoming, because nothing should ever change the hierarchical structures of privilege that are already in place. there's no room for structural or institutional change, hence no need for advocacy, and hence it really doesn't matter who takes up the position of race relations commissioner because we don't need such a position anyway.

Facts said...

Stargazer, I'm sorry you don't like my tone. Could you give me some advice on how to disageree with you without lecturing you?

I'll withhold from talking about your specific thoughts because I want to make sure I get the tone right first.

stargazer said...

@facts it would help if you didn't stretch what I said and if you assumed that I know exactly how white privilege works.

For example, when I say that a person from a community that has had experience of their language being banned will have an understanding of another community that had the exact same experience, I'm not ignoring white privilege nor am I saying it's the only thing that's qualifies them for the job. It means they are likely to have a better insight than someone who doesn't have such an experience in their heritage.

Facts said...

OK, but going by the same token, wouldn't somebody who has experience of being paid less for the same work (e.g. a woman) have understanding of another community who had the same experience (e.g. a maori?)

I mean if you think De Bres was qualified for the position because his being Dutch gave him an ability to empathise, wouldn't Devoy being a woman give her a similar ability?

Facts said...

As for my stretching your words, may I please direct you to the comments of one of my favourite feminist writers on this subject:

"and the whole point of communication is to get your message across. how it is perceived is much more important that what you thought you meant to say. for the writer to say "it's all your fault, reader, for not getting what i meant to say" is a pretty useless position to take if you're trying to get a message across."

Rebecca said...

So, Facts, it would be great if Devoy's experience as a woman has given her an understanding of marginalisation. It doesn't appear to have, unfortunately, as her comments about maternity leave legislation being 'grossly unfair' and the reason 'an employer will not hire a woman of child-bearing age', show her perspective still sits firmly on the side of privilege.

However, the need for her to have an understanding of marginalisation is only part of what stargazer is addressing in her blog. As well as that understanding of what it might be like for minority or marginalised groups in Aotearoa, it would be useful for the Race Relations Commissioner to have a thorough understanding of race relations - theory, practice and international perspectives. That is what Joris brought to the role and that is what I hope Devoy can pick up in a short time, because that, essentially, is what make the commissioner useful to us.

It also occurs to me that one of the things Joris did that was so useful, and perhaps helped him understand other perspectives, was the use of a question when he didn't understand a point that was made, rather than an extrapolation and argument.

stargazer said...

I mean if you think De Bres was qualified for the position because his being Dutch gave him an ability to empathise, wouldn't Devoy being a woman give her a similar ability?

i believe i addressed the latter point in the post - she hasn't faced similar situations. and as rebecca says, with examples in my original post, ms devoy has shown those experiences haven't helped her to empathise.

and the fact that joris clearly has the ability to empathise is shown by these activities, way prior to his appointment:

As a matter of fact, Joris was active in the anti-apartheid movement, and heavily involved in the Coalition for Racial Equality and Halt All Racist Tours in the 70s (spelling out the acronyms here in full for those with short memories). He was in fact the secretary and vice-president of CARE.

now you might say his heritage had absolutely nothing to do with his heritage, i say it is likely to have played a part. but in the end, what is clear is that ms devoy's experiences of marginalisation haven't helped in her thinking about issues that will be important to the office of race relations commissioner, so it was quite pointless of ms collins to make that statement.

as to your quoting me, fine, but please tell me where i said that it was joris' heritage, and that alone, which qualified him for the position. because i can't find it, so i don't understand why you state that i've said it, quite regularly. this is what i'm struggling with.

Destina said...

I believe Ms Devoy has alluded to having "ethnic" ancestry. Are you aware if this is so? Or are we assuming she doesn't because she doesn't look ethnic? If she does have such ancestry, what percentage would be necessary to meet the innate empathy qualification to be an acceptable nominee for this role?

stargazer said...

@destina: enough that you actually face marginalisation on the basis of your race, nationality or ethnicity. the kind of marginalisation that keeps you out of jobs, that has landlords turning you away because you're the wrong sort, the kind that keeps you out of networks and has people yelling at you in the street to go back to wherever, the kind where people think you don't belong in this country and can never belong.

does that answer your question?

Destina said...


Yes, it does.

I need not have asked.