We’ve all been reading about the celebrity New Zealand businessman the Mad Butcher (Peter Leitch) and his so-called ‘friendly banter’. While drinking wine at a vineyard on Waiheke Island he told local Māori woman Lara Wharepapa-Bridger that she was on ‘a white man’s island’. She later uploaded a Facebook post complaining about the racist remarks. Many people came to the Mad Butcher’s defence. As one fairly typical comment on Facebook put it, “to(sic) many snowflakes around!! They take anything and make it about racism!! Silly fools”. Many of the other responses Lara Wharepapa-Bridger received were much scarier and more threatening.
The use of the world ‘snowflake’ here – a favourite insult of the so-called American alt-right – speaks of a wider global trend. It reflects an increasingly vocal push back against anti racist movements globally. In the US, Trump’s victory revealed that many of those who voted for him resented deeply being classified as bigoted, ignorant and racist; as lacking in empathy. The vast majority did not see themselves that way. As one Trump voter explained, democrats “have taken the word ‘racist’ and made it meaningless. They’ve turned something important into a political hammer they can hurt people with.” And so with the Mad Butcher row, his supporters, including our Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy who labelled him ‘the least racist person I know’, argued that he was just engaging in some ‘light-hearted banter’ and was ‘misinterpreted’.
These public outcries make me reflect upon how anthropologists talk about racism. In my classes I focus upon the often-subtle effects of everyday, casual racism, how subconscious race-based perceptions affect all domains of our society. Racism is evident in how job, tenancy or bank loan applicants are assessed, in how public spaces alienate or exclude particular groups, in how the criminal justice system, the police, the medical sphere, and public housing treat Māori and Pacific peoples in discriminatory ways. One of our students, Tarapuhi Bryers Brown, wrote a powerful thesis about this. Racism percolates beneath the surface of our seemingly polite society.
This reality is challenging for many New Zealanders to think about. For even if we are committed to the ideals of social inclusion and equality, we are part of these systems, and they are part of us. The point here is that these types of racism aren’t confined to one end of the political spectrum or to Neo-Nazi ‘deplorables’ who brazenly commit hate crimes. They are built into our most liberal, progressive and compassionate institutions. It is hard to live outside of them, and to not be implicated in them as we go about our daily lives. This is what it means to live in the long shadow of colonisation.
This type of analysis suggests that in understanding and naming racism, individual conscious intentions are less relevant. What are important are structures and effects. This turns the volume down on the voices of those who are implicated in performing discriminatory acts, and what they say and think about their actions, and challenges our ideas of personal autonomy. Racism is not simply an internal cognitive ‘thing’ that shapes personal action and emerges from human will, but is built into our social and cultural worlds, our daily rituals, even our language. Most of the time, it is done unthinkingly.
I can see how such an analysis makes many white people feel uncomfortable. Calling out everyday forms of racism doesn’t always pay attention to their sense of their own motivations. It prioritises and legitimises the voices, perceptions and experiences of the people we interact with, even fleetingly, over our own. It doesn’t let any of us off the hook, or allow any of us to claim a safe moral ground. The world can’t be divided up neatly into racist and not-racist populations. Such an analysis also suggests, radically perhaps, that the everyday acts of subtle racism that we engage in are, cumulatively, potentially just as corrosive to the lives of minorities as are violent racists attacks.
The rejection of this structural racism viewpoint is evident in the Mad Butcher’s proclamation of innocent intentions, and in references to his good deeds towards Māori and Pacific communities in Auckland. Equally, it’s evident in Trump supporters’ calls to be judged for their self-identified moral compass, their actions towards neighbours and their daily acts of kindness, not on their vote and what it will mean for people of colour.
How should anthropologists respond? Our methods do after all require us to cultivate empathy for many different groups, to stand in their shoes, seeking out their points of view. Have our racism discourses foreclosed deeper understanding of racism by conflating diverse types and disregarding people’s own explanations and motivations? Is this making our critique less effective by alienating whole swaths of the population? Should we shift how we define racism to accommodate other viewpoints?
I suggest this is not the time to back away from our explanatory frameworks, even if they make people uncomfortable. A critical stance towards addressing racism is needed here more than ever. This is because empathy is not simply a mode of human nature, but a political project. Morality and empathy are complex and contradictory, and this is precisely what makes structural racism so hard to address. And this is the key: casual racism is not incompatible with generous kind-heartedness towards others. Yes, the Mad Butcher has done much for Māori and Pacific communities in Auckland. But as my own research on charity and empathy reveals, charitable compassion and benevolence toward minorities commonly relies upon not destabilising, or even building up, the giver’s own advantageous position in society, and it often involves the recipients having to act as the right type of good, quiet, grateful bearer of that benevolence (the blogger Leilani Tamu recounts this dynamic in her own interactions with the Mad Butcher).
When I say empathy is political I mean that it has always been unequally distributed. Minority communities’ oppression has always historically been premised upon being dehumanised, as being undeserving of compassion, empathy and understanding. And this is still the case in New Zealand. In the Mad Butcher row we see this same story playing out once again. The Mad Butcher must be given the benefit of the doubt, must have people come to his aid, must have many voices speak for him, but a young Māori woman who dares to complain on social media should, we are told, learn to shut up and keep quiet. But listening to her is not giving in to the ‘snowflake’ PC brigade. It’s a reflective, humble stance we all need to cultivate in thinking about our involvement in casual racism, and it offers us an opportunity to collectively think harder about everyday racism in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Catherine Trundle is Senior Lecturer and Programme Director of Anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington. Her research interests include medical anthropology; charity and humanitarianism; militarism; the ethics of responsibility, compassion, care and detachment; contested illness and environmental health; and political anthropology.