6.11.12

in the middle of a thought // the internalisation of being white

There are some things about who I am that I hold dear to my heart. They are sources of joy as well as sources of pain, and in the last few months I have been learning to come to terms with what it means to live in this skin. I thought that once my teen years were through, I would have developed at least some foundation of who I am, but it turns out that identity knows no deadline.

We live within structures. Simon Blackburn put forth the idea that "phenomena of human life are not intelligible except through their interrelations. These relations constitute a structure, and behind local variations in the surface phenomena there are constant laws of abstract culture." Thus from the moment we are born our paths are determined to be influenced by the structures and conflict that exist within humanity.

I am a woman.

I am white.

These are two characteristics of my person that anyone will know as soon as they look at me. Interestingly, these are also two characteristics that influence my path in life the most. Because I am white, living in a colonised country where white skin is 'normal' and Euro-centric culture determines our democracy, I am automatically handed power. The educational, legal, political and cultural system that I partake in are systems that have been inherited from my British origins and thus are designed to benefit someone of my culture. I am set up for success, whereas someone from a different culture is expected to 'play the game.' Furthermore, because I am a woman living in a society that continues to suffer the hangover of patriarchy, I struggle to be seen as equal to a man, or worth more than my sex appeal. A little bit of power is taken away (if you disagree with me, then please tell me why the hell GQ magazines men of the year were featured in a tux whereas the woman of the year was photographed naked). But I still earn on average more than a woman with brown skin, so the conflicting societal structures overlap. Tricky...
[An interesting point to note is that there is little sexual dimorphism in humans. That is, there are few observable, outward differences between males and females other than reproductive organs. The ways through which we tell men and women apart are largely due to culture, e.g. long or short hair, makeup, clothing, adornment, gender roles, gendered expectations, etc. Another blog topic for another day huh!]

My point it, we all desire to know who we are and what our purpose is. A lot of the time, that desire is followed by a desire to make a difference in the world somehow. A desire to address social injustices, to raise awareness about particular issues, to lobby for reform in some way. For a significant number of people, these issues are often based upon gender and race inequalities. Yet so often we fail to internalise our own gender and racial prejudice because we are terrified of admitting our own brokenness and we are reluctant to hand over the power that we are so used to. It is easy to intellectualise issues of gender inequality, or to remove ourselves from having to face the racial divides that run deep in this little country at the bottom of the Pacific. But in order to make a real change, we need to be aware of the structures in which we function, and we need to ask ourselves; are we functioning within a system of oppression, or are we resisting a system of oppression?

This internalisation of racism first hit me a few months ago, when I read a statistic that Maori men have a life expectancy of 70.3 years, whereas non-Maori men have a life expectancy of 79 years. Similarly  Maori women have a life expectancy of 75.1 years, and non-Maori women have a life expectancy of 83 years. These differences are due to the fact that Maori are over-represented in poverty statistics throughout New Zealand and thus more likely to lead a lifestyle that is not conducive to longer life expectancy. Now it is all well and good to quote statistics. But it wasn't the statistics that hurt me. It was the fact that when I read them I wanted to cry, because these statistics tell me that the man I love  is expected to die 13 years before me. Somebody just try and justify that to me. Please, I'd love to hear you try.

This led me down a road of awareness. I encourage anyone who is interested in the power dynamics between white and non-white people and racial awareness to watch these two videos (part one and part two). I am in no way at the end of my journey...I will always be white, and I need to learn to accept that. I also need to learn to let go of the defence mechanisms that cause my to deny my white privilege. I am passionate about Maori and anyone who knows me can tell you that. But I am unable to give anything of myself to this community if I refuse to hand over my power. Jane Elliot said that she would not stop educating people about racism until racism was no longer an issue. And then, as her lip trembled and her eyes shone, she said "I have a job set up for me until I die."

Let's not be half-hearted.