THE RACISM experienced by Australian writer Louisa Lim raises questions about the persistence of racism in Aotearoa-New Zealand. An invited speaker at the Auckland Writers’ Festival, Lim had to endure an anti-Asian rant when she visited a local noodle bar. When challenged by Lim, the person spewing the racist abuse redirected it at her. Lim shared this distressing experience with her festival audience, many of whom later expressed their anger and embarrassment at the emotional pain she had been forced to endure.

Incidents of this sort are difficult to categorise. Obviously, they are expressions of racism, but to what extent do they represent ingrained prejudices widely shared across the New Zealand population?

The stereotypical Kiwi racist is white, old and male. People like to talk about that embarrassing uncle that every family possesses, the one who feels no shame in vouchsafing racist opinions to his horrified kith and kin. Younger New Zealanders, we are confidently reassured, are much more relaxed about ethnic diversity. The unspoken assumption being that racism – along with the racists who spout it – will eventually die out. A more tolerant and welcoming Aotearoa is on the way. All we have to do is wait.

That is a comforting idea – but is it true?

To answer that question, it is necessary to ask another: What causes racism?

For racism to flourish, two things are necessary: 1) exploitation on the basis of ethnicity must be profitable; and 2) there must be a well-established ethnic hierarchy which explains and justifies the exploitation. Racism is incidental to the imposition of exploitation, but also to resisting it, because to overcome their exploitation those at the bottom of the ethnic hierarchy cannot avoid challenging and infuriating those above them. Racism flourishes because the exploiter has no choice but to kick down, and the exploited has no choice but to kick up.

Nothing intensifies racism more dramatically than the exploiters discovering racism is no longer profitable. At that point, the utility of the existing ethnic hierarchy is fundamentally compromised. It isn’t just a matter of those on the bottom getting out from under, it’s the disruptive impact their upward social mobility has on those positioned above them. The prospect of having to treat as equals persons whose condition of permanent subordination has constituted a defining element of one’s personal and civil identity is unlikely to be well received.

Those nearest the top of the hierarchy will experience the liberation of subordinate ethnicities with considerably more equanimity than those occupying the rungs immediately above them. The phenomenon of white, working-class racism is readily understood when one realises that the super-exploited, receiving less of everything that matters in the capitalist system – money, status, respect – are toiling away just one rung below. Equality feels good – but only when you’re moving up the ladder.

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Is it at all reasonable to suppose that a colonial society in which whites traditionally occupied all the upper rungs of the ethnic hierarchy, and where the colonised were relegated to the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, will respond positively to a concerted indigenous push from below, or, to an extraordinary influx of non-white immigrants? Moreover, if both challenges are being presented to the white majority simultaneously – making it difficult for them to order the rapidly changing ethnic hierarchy with any degree of confidence – what then? Subject any society to these sorts of pressures, and something is going to break.

Crucial to the integrity of New Zealand’s social infrastructure is the strength of its defining social narratives. If the pressures being brought to bear on New Zealand society are primarily ethnic in nature, then, at the heart of the story we tell ourselves about ourselves must be an abiding aversion to racism.

New Zealanders must be encouraged to regard racial prejudice as the worst of all sins. No accusation should be more hurtful to the ordinary New Zealander than the charge of racism. To that end, overt racism must always be condemned publicly – and in the strongest possible terms. It should be widely understood that a proven charge of racism is a career-killer. The desired outcome? A population willing to do just about anything to avoid the accusation – “Racist!”

That this outcome has largely been achieved is remarkable. Those responsible for instilling and policing Kiwi “anti-racism” should take a bow. The fear of being called a racist has kept most of the population dutifully silent as Māori nationalism has acquired a seemingly unstoppable momentum, and as the structure of the New Zealand population has been radically re-shaped by decades of mass immigration.

Certainly, the embarrassing old uncles continue to shock their friends, families and neighbours, but the political and cultural evolution of New Zealand has not been deranged by politicians vigorously condemned as racists (Winston Peters, Don Brash) taking control of the state – as happened elsewhere.

Most New Zealanders simply do not appreciate just how close their country came to full-scale ethnic confrontation in 2005. The narrowness of the Don Brash-led National Party’s electoral defeat suggested strongly that the forces behind Kiwi anti-racism were nowhere near as powerful as its promoters had hoped. Labour’s victory obviated ideological introspection, however, and allowed the drive towards Māori sovereignty and multiculturalism to continue and gather strength.

National’s 2008 election victory did very little to hinder the anti-racist cause. Daunted, perhaps, by thoughts of what might have happened had Brash won, his successor, John Key, wooed and won the Māori Party as a supporter of his government. Key was also seized by the importance of New Zealand’s growing economic relationship with China. Key’s National Government encouraged the growth of multiculturalism every bit as assiduously as it enabled Māori nationalism. Accordingly, the anti-racist message, amplified now by large sections of the political class, academia and the news media, underwent a significant increase in volume.

The election of Jacinda Ardern’s Labour-led Government encouraged the anti-racist message to be broadcast even louder. The questions posed by its extraordinary salience, however, were difficult to answer. Were the increasingly jarring manifestations of Māori nationalist and multicultural assertiveness evidence of New Zealand society’s growing acceptance of diversity, or, proof of its opposite? Was ethnic tolerance expanding, or contracting?

The mass demonstrations of solidarity with the Muslim community following the 2019 Christchurch Mosque Massacres strongly suggest tolerance is growing. The unabashed racism visible on social media, however, hints that, deep down, not much had changed since Brash’s near-victory in 2005.

That the promotion of the anti-racist message is now accompanied by openly expressed concerns regarding the dangers of “hate speech” and unregulated freedom of expression, testifies to the fragility of the anti-racist consensus. The political and cultural elites, to whom the prosecution of the anti-racist cause has been entrusted, are becoming increasingly defensive. Is it any longer sensible to be tolerant of intolerance?

The experience of Louisa Lim makes us wonder. Has racism really been driven into the furthest reaches of rural and provincial New Zealand? Are its promoters, safely corralled among the over-65s, really dying off? Or does it lurk, still, in the shadows of White New Zealand’s gothic psyche? Huge and silent, does it wait for a political leader to do what Don Brash came so close to doing eighteen years ago – give it a voice, and set it free?

Were the racists Lim encountered in that down-town Auckland noodle-bar over sixty-five – or under thirty?

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