Are Pākehā to blame for the Christchurch attack?

Philip McKibbin
Aug 3 · 8 min read

In the wake of the white supremacist terrorist attack in Christchurch in March, most of us were appalled at the divisive language that surfaced. Some of this was directed at Muslims, and much of it at people of colour. It rang out against the outpouring of love that we showed one another.

Among all of this was the suggestion that Pākehā were to blame for the attack. This suggestion took several forms, but as an example, consider Anny Ma’s tweet, a grab of which was also widely shared on Facebook:

Aotearoa New Zealand is a deeply racist society. (I have said this before. Immediately following the attack, I wrote an opinion, ‘Ardern is wrong — the attacker is ‘us’’, and two days later I explored this further in ‘Whakautua te Kino’, the afterword to my book, Love Notes: for a Politics of Love. I will, literally, be among the first to say it.) Statements like Ma’s aim to highlight the ways in which Pākehā culture perpetuates the racism that assaults people of colour, by disrupting white privilege and calling us out on our unacknowledged complicity.

This statement, and statements like it, effectively place the blame for the attack on Pākehā. Whatever the intention behind these words, that is what they say, and that is how they are read. This is problematic, because it oversimplifies a complex issue in a way that is, in itself, racist. Not only that, the suggestion is incorrect; and it is strategically unsound.

It is worth repeating: Aotearoa New Zealand is a deeply racist society. The reasons for this are historical, cultural, and political. And racism itself is complex. It takes many forms — it can be institutional (or, systemic), interpersonal, and internalised. All of us have a responsibility to work to dismantle racism, especially those of us with white privilege; but the language of blame fails to accurately characterise the problem, and it is unlikely to provoke positive change.

The suggestion that all Pākehā are to blame for the attack is racist, because it doesn’t distinguish between Pākehā. It is similar to the claim that ‘all Muslims are to blame for 9/11’, which fails to distinguish between the terrorists and other Muslims. Some people will say that blaming Pākehā is not racism — that racism against white people is impossible, because racism describes unequal power relations, not simply discrimination based on ethnicity or skin colour. But I believe that both understandings of racism are teaching; and they intersect in tangible ways. (Surely something like this is what Martin Luther King, Jr. was referring to when he spoke of a world for his children, ‘where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.’)

Not only is the suggestion that all Pākehā are to blame racist, it is incorrect. It is premised on the assumption that all Pākehā not only benefit from, but contribute to racism. But there are many Pākehā in our society who consistently engage in anti-racist action: who do the difficult work of decolonising themselves, and who actively work to decolonise Aotearoa New Zealand. I think especially of those of my Pākehā friends who have immersed themselves in te reo and tikanga Māori, and who are using the humility, mutuality, and understanding they have gained to help move our society toward justice. When we say that all Pākehā are to blame for racist actions, we disavow the important work that these people are doing, and we deny the crucial difference that their work is making. Rather than obscuring these contributions, we should talk about them, because they can serve as positive examples for other Pākehā, and because our society needs all Pākehā to be engaging in anti-racist action. To do so is not to ‘centre whiteness’; it is to centre anti-racism.

There are those who will point out that my argument mirrors the ‘not all men’ reaction that we stereotypically make in response to women’s assertions that ‘men’ behave in certain ways. But racism, like sexism, is a complex problem, and it requires a complex response. (‘Pākehā — this IS your doing’ is not a complex response.) I believe that this comparison, rather than detracting from my argument, should lead us to use more nuanced language in all of our anti-oppressive discourse. This also means denouncing hate speech. The continuation of derogatory language online — typified by the increasing use of the term ‘yt’ (‘whitey’), a racial slur — is something we should resist.

One complexity that the language of blame obscures is that of Pākehā identity itself. I am Pākehā; I am also Māori. I whakapapa to Kāi Tahu, the largest iwi of Te Waipounamu, and historically, our whiteness and perceived wealth — that is, associations between us and Pākehā — have been used, by both Pākehā and other Māori, to deprive us of our culture and identity. Although it isn’t widely acknowledged, most Māori, and many non-Māori people of colour, are, or could identify as, Pākehā too, because they also have European ancestry. One of the learnings I gained in reclaiming my Māori identity was that the idea that we can only be one thing — Māori or Pākehā, but not both — is, in itself, a colonising idea.

It has not escaped my attention that Ma’s tweet reached me through two other non-Māori New Zealanders of colour. I find it surprising that these people are not more sensitive to the reality of multiple identities, and the complexities arising from these. It is disappointing to see non-Māori New Zealanders of colour engaging in discourse that blames Pākehā in general, while simultaneously obscuring the fact that people of colour can also internalise and perpetuate racist ideology. In making these statements, they are allowing themselves an oppositional position to racism, but denying one to Pākehā. Surely they recognise that their relationship to colonial violence here in Aotearoa New Zealand is different, in many respects, to that of Māori. It is important to affirm that, if non-Māori New Zealanders of colour can relate positively to Māori, then Pākehā can, too — and, by extension, to non-Māori people of colour, such as many of our Muslim whānau, as well. We must ensure that the language we use expresses this expectation.

The suggestion that all Pākehā are to blame for the Christchurch attack is also strategically unsound. It is necessary to think about our aim, here, which is to dismantle racism — and, yes, a large part of that will involve getting those Pākehā who don’t to recognise their role in upholding white supremacy, and to begin to engage in anti-racist action. Is this what statements like Ma’s are actually likely to achieve, though? One has only to read responses to these posts to see that they provoke defensiveness rather than dialogue. (Ma doesn’t seem very interested in dialogue, either: ‘white men replying to this tweet throw yourself in the bin challenge’.)

As well as not promoting constructive dialogue, statements like this, which degrade positive identities like Pākehā, risk pushing people, white men especially, further away from constructive dialogue about identity, and toward the likes of Jordan Peterson, and those who rail against identity politics, like Martyn Bradbury. It is also dangerous: it plays into the hands of those who would start a ‘race war’ — that is, of those who propagate the idea that white people are under attack.

Interrogating one’s own privilege is uncomfortable. I absolutely agree that this discomfort is necessary: I have felt, and continue to feel, deep discomfort as I decolonise myself and those aspects of society my actions bear on. But shame and guilt aren’t what allow me to do this — aroha is.

I anticipate that I will be accused of ‘tone policing’ with this article. But used indiscriminately, that strategy is, finally, a way of shutting down discussion. It is to claim that certain people can say whatever they want, however wrong/hateful/divisive it is, without criticism, while allowing them the critical tools they would deny others. It is important that we do discuss strategy, and this is something we should all feel invested in. The hierarchical logic that underwrites racism also enables other forms of oppression, maintaining that some of us (male people, white people, wealthy people, heterosexual people, cisgender people, able-bodied people, people) are more important than others. The liberation of each of us depends on the liberation of us all.

The divisions that we are experiencing are not only problems for us here in Aotearoa New Zealand. They relate to ‘Trumpism’ (for want of a better world) in the United States and Brexit in the United Kingdom, to offer just two examples. I believe that the Politics of Love can help us to overcome the fear and distrust that exacerbates these divisions. One thing this vision emphasises is loving dialogue. In their article ‘Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable’, Ngọc Loan Trần discusses ‘calling in’, a strategy for addressing problematic behaviour that can be used alongside ‘calling out’, or holding people publicly accountable. In response to what they call ‘a politic of disposability’, they write:

I picture ‘calling in’ as a practice of pulling folks back in who have strayed from us. It means extending to ourselves the reality that we will and do fuck up, we stray and there will always be a chance for us to return. Calling in as a practice of loving each other enough to allow each other to make mistakes; a practice of loving ourselves enough to know that what we’re trying to do here is a radical unlearning of everything we have been configured to believe is normal.

While I agree with Loan Trần that we must find more loving ways of communicating, I believe that we must simultaneously reject those forms of exchange that are violent, that apportion blame, and that seek to punish people. Much of our language is violent: it harms others, adding to the many harms that prevent us from coming together. It is vitally important that our discourse does not replicate that which we are trying to dismantle. The ways in which we struggle should anticipate the world we are struggling for. I believe we also need to reconceive our ‘we’: as all of us, not only those belonging to a particular group or groups. And we should remember that the realisation of justice will manifest in genuine togetherness.

Finally, we must be willing to work together. While it is true that Pākehā, especially, must work hard to divest ourselves and our society of racism, this responsibility is all of ours. African American feminist theorist bell hooks, who has written at length about love, as well as racism in the United States, makes a similar point in her essay ‘Overcoming White Supremacy: A Comment’:

For the racially oppressed to demand of white people, of black people, of all people that we eradicate white supremacy, that those who benefit materially by exercising white supremacist power, either actively or passively, willingly give up that privilege in response to that demand, and then refuse to show the way, is to undermine our own cause. We must show the way. There must exist a paradigm, a practical model for social change that includes an understanding of ways to transform consciousness that are linked to efforts to transform structures.

Fundamentally, it is our collective responsibility as radical black people and people of color, and as white people, to construct models for social change. To abdicate that responsibility, to suggest that change is just something an individual can do on his or her own in isolation with other racist white people is utterly misleading.

The language of blame is not only unloving, it isn’t going to work for us. We need constructive dialogue.

Philip McKibbin

Written by

I am a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand.

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