Speaking Truth to Racism

Last Friday I received an email in my private email from someone called John Langford with the subject line ‘Attached Image Sir Robert Jones’. The email as below also stated ‘Please acknowledge receipt’. Even though the email signature noted a law firm this kind of subject line always raises issues in terms of the  potential for viruses spread by attachments from unknown and untrusted email accounts. So I left it for some time and then decided to do an online search to see who John Langford is before opening the attachment.

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Once I confirmed that Langford Law actually exists I opened the attachment. I have decided to share the attachment for reasons I will discuss below. So here is the letter from John Langford, a lawyer representing Bob Jones.

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It is noted in both the email and the letter that I need to acknowledge receipt. I am guessing this is some legal habit  as I do not know John Langford, I never asked him to contact me – so why exactly is there some expectation that I would respond? Seems strange to me. I actually get many such emails, some naïve, some entitled, some rude, some racist, some misogynist, some homophobic, some abusive, nearly all by white men and nearly all demand that I must respond. Then there is the general view within the letter that the “matter” is in my hands. That I somehow must take responsibility for resolving the issues that have been created by the statements made by Bob Jones. Interesting, the sense of entitlement that exists within such underpinning assumptions.

So, having reflected on this email for the past few days, and discussing options with friends and whānau I began to read papers and discussions related to what is known internationally as SLAPP: Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. SLAPP is not new,  it is a process by which wealthy individuals, corporations or organisations use the threat of litigation to silence opposition. The Public Participation Project define SLAPP as follows:

SLAPP = Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation

SLAPPs are Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.  These damaging suits chill free speech and healthy debate by targeting those who communicate with their government or speak out on issues of public interest.

SLAPPs are used to silence and harass critics by forcing them to spend money to defend these baseless suits.  SLAPP filers don’t go to court to seek justice.  Rather, SLAPPS are intended to intimidate those who disagree with them or their activities by draining the target’s financial resources.

SLAPPs are effective because even a meritless lawsuit can take years and many thousands of dollars to defend.  To end or prevent a SLAPP, those who speak out on issues of public interest frequently agree to muzzle themselves, apologize, or “correct” statements.

Sourcewatch provide an overview of some such cases in Aotearoa on their site.

What we are seeing in Aotearoa is clearly a use of legal threat and actions to silence the calling out of racism, with ‘defamation’ as the legal strategy being used as justification. The key focus in this email is that the term ‘racist’ used as a descriptor for Bob Jones as a result of his long history of racist comments about Māori is defamatory. It seems that for something to be defamatory it must be untrue.  That is clearly not my view. I use the term only when I believe it to be my honest and truthful opinion. A key part of that aligns to the definitions of racism that inform my understandings, for example:

Racism is promulgated on a number of fronts. Definitions of racism include “a mix of prejudice, power, ideology, stereotypes, domination, dis- parities and/or unequal treatment” (Berman & Paradies, 2010, p. 228). Fundamental to racism is an ideology of inferiority, promoted by social norms and institutions. These features constitute what Galtung (1969) has referred to as “structural violence” and provide a substrate upon which relational forms are perpetrated and experienced. Paradies and Williams (2008) suggest that racism operates at overlapping levels that can usefully be delineated as societal, institutional, interpersonal and internalised. Societal racism is constituted in the cultural ambience produced by the entrenched social orders and includes the values, epistemologies, norms and sensibilities that attach to hegemonic power.

Moewaka Barnes, A., Taiapa, K. Borell, B., 
 McCreanor, T, (2013) Māori Experiences And Responses To Racism In Aotearoa New Zealand, MAI Journal, 2(2), 63–77. (http://www.journal.mai.ac.nz/sites/default/files/MAI%20Journal%20Vol.2_2%20pages%2063-77%20Moewaka%20Barnes%20et%20al..pdf)

Racism is a complex system, based on an ideology of inferiority and superiority, that drives the categorization of people by race/ethnicity and structures opportunity according to those categorizations, resulting in the inequitable distribution of power, goods and resources in society (Ahmed, Mohammed, & Williams, 2007; Jones, 2002; Paradies, 2006b). Racism is enacted via discriminatory institutional and individual practices (racial discrimination) and varies in form and type (Krieger, 2000). Its manifestations are embedded in particular social, political and historical contexts. In New Zealand, this context includes colonization, and related processes of dispossession and marginalization for indigenous peoples, which are reflected in entrenched unequal power relations in contemporary New Zealand society (Robson & Harris, 2007).

Harris, R., Cormack, D., Tobias, M. Yeh, L. Talamaivao, N., Minister, J.,Timutimu, R., (2012) The pervasive effects of racism: Experiences of racial discrimination in New Zealand over time and associations with multiple health domains Social Science & Medicine 74 Issue 3. (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.11.004)

Racism has many faces. Some of them may be veiled others frankly overt- unmasked. These faces may be grouped into three main forms-personal racism, cultural racism and institutional racism.Personal racism affects individuals or groups. It occurs when people of one group are seen as inferior to another because of skin colour or ethnic origin. It belongs to those situations in which an individual is directly diminished or discriminated against on grounds of race. In our country as in others, it may be manifested in jokes, disparaging comment and prejudiced attitudes. It may occur in rental housing, unequal distribution of opportunity and in our classrooms. Personal racism is the form that cuts most keenly at individual people. It is the variety that diminishes a person in their own eyes. It attacks the fount of personal identity and destroys a sense of self worth, as well as denying the indigenous person access to resources and opportunities in the larger society.Cultural racism is less obvious than the more open areas of prejudice between individuals. It is entrenched philosophy and beliefs. Its most obvious form in New Zealand is in the assumption that Pakeha culture, lifestyle and values are superior to those of other New Zealand cultures, notably those of Maori and Polynesian people.

It is rooted in the 19th century heritage of unshakeable belief in the cultural superiority of Europeans. It is a direct inheritance of colonialism and imperialism, and embodied in the ethos of the dominant group and thence the mind of the individual within the group. Without challenge and change this is transmitted to successive generations in the pre-school stage of development and becomes a recurrent theme in subsequent socialisation. Despite the fact that tenets of Pakeha culture become fractured, eroded or obsolete (for example the nature of family, the role of marriage and the position of women) the assumptions of cultural superiority persist.

One of the most pervasive forms of cultural racism is the assumption that Pakeha values, beliefs and systems are “normal”. This places Maori values, beliefs and systems in the category of “exotic”. Provision for Maori cultural preference thus become an “extra”. That which sees provision for Maoritanga as anything other than a normal ingredient of our national culture is essentially culturally racist. However, the most damaging aspect of cultural racism is the underlying notion of superiority. It is seldom overtly stated in modern New Zealand, but it is constantly implied in advertising, in education and in the marketplace. One of the ways in which this parcel of attitudes impacts on Maori culture is that the power culture, because it has the authority of “superiority”, takes to itself the right to select those aspects of Maoritanga it wants to use or include in general New Zealand culture.

New Zealand. Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Maori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare, & Rangihau, John Te Rangi-Aniwaniwa. (2001). Puao-te-ata-tu Day break : The report of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Maori perspective for the Department of Social Welfare. Wellington: Govt. Print. (https://www.msd.govt.nz/documents/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/archive/1988-puaoteatatu.pdf)

Racism describes both ideological beliefs and practices arising from the assumed superiority and inferiority of particular races. It can take many different forms, but the most common are individual and institutional racism. The first refers to the manifestation of negative stereotypes about characteristics of particular races by an individual (Rizvi 1993). Institutional racism brings together prejudice and power, describing a situation where a powerful group enforces beliefs about particular racial characteristics through privileged control over social institutions. These beliefs, in turn, serve to underpin the power of the group in control…

Racism as ideology becomes hegemonic when it supports social relations based on domination and exploitation, enabling people to make sense of their everyday experiences and cultural practices as if they were natural.

Lee, J. ( 2007) Jade Taniwha: Māori-Chinese Identity and Schooling. Auckland: Rautaki, pp29-30).

Within Aotearoa, racism informs and frames those discourses which actively demean, undermine and stereotype Māori and those that articulate views that Māori are socially, physically, culturally, and biologically inferior to Pākehā based on notions of Pākeha cultural, social, physical, and biological superiority. These assertions are, in my opinion, evident within the views of Bob Jones, and the racist demeaning comments made in relation to Māori cultural practices, Māori language, Māori people.  These belief systems and oppressive ideologies also manifest in the institutional, systemic racism that denies our rangatiratanga, marginalises the place of te reo and tikanga Māori in Aotearoa, reproduces inequities in education, creates disparities in access to health care, informs systemic racism in the police and courts which see the over-incarceration of Māori people. The list goes on.

What is clear is that the threat of lawsuits is a tool being used as a means of silencing responses that challenge his views of our people. What is clear is that no matter how many suits he threatens or he files against those who stand up against the vitriolic attacks on our people, we will not stop calling him out, not now not ever. There will always be people who will speak truth back to racism.










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