Shifting Points of View: Race and Extremism, with Reni Eddo-Lodge, John Safran

Things are not as simple as they first seem. When you think of racism, chances are you conjure images of skinheads, not institutions at the heart of our society. When you think of the head of an extreme-right movement in Australia, you probably don’t think of someone whose parents are Italian and Aboriginal, and whose wife is Vietnamese. Two sessions at WORD Christchurch and Christchurch Arts Festival’s Shifting Points of View series, Why I am no Longer Talking to White People About Race and Depends what you mean by Extremist, explored some of the complex currents expressing themselves through racism and in extremist movements in Australia.

Reni_eddo_shiftingPOV‘Whiteness is a powerful ideology, which you can you see more clearly when it hasn’t been working for you.’ Reni Eddo-Lodge, at just 28 years of age, presented her fresh articulations of racism and white privilege in conversation with playwright Victor Rodgers, when they discussed her book Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race.

cv_why_im_no_longer_talking_to_white_people_about_RaceThe book stemmed from a blog post she had written ‘out of fatigue’ from her experiences in leftists and activist circles, where she was labelled as divisive for questioning the groups’ discomfort with addressing racism. Finding it very difficult to have conversations with people who were unwilling to acknowledge that racism still existed, and that it benefited them, she wrote a book to have the conversation in her own terms.

While the extremist edge to racism is highly visible, other parts of the dominant white ideology – ‘a political project of hundreds of years’ – have less of a profile. We don’t talk about it nearly as much; we are less critical of it. Reni is an astute diagnostician: structural racism is supported by bastions of silencing, wilful oversights and the fact that conversations about race have been led by those who haven’t been affected by it (at least not in a negative way). Reni underlined that it is critical to talk about how racism manifests and how it is justified, because otherwise we fall into complacency. She explained to Rodger that she wanted to include context, history and how race shapes power in her book to respond to this.

Applying her journalistic skills, Reni showed how racial biases are embedded into society’s structures to the benefit of white people. She used data from government resources, which clearly evidenced that black students were much less likely to get into the top schools and more likely to be marked lower at school (these same students received higher grades when marked by independent moderators who did not know them). People with Afro-Caribbean or Asian names were much less likely to be called in for an interview even if their CV showed the same the qualifications and experience.

In a great example of silencing, she talked about omitting parts of history – how UK school students were taught about US civil rights, but nothing about British civil rights or the slave trade. And an example of who was leading the discussions: the Brixton Riots were generally understood to involve two equally weighted sides, but there was ‘no understanding of the daily slights that led to this, why one community felt over policed’. The Metropolitan Police, after an inquiry into the handling of a 19-year-old case where an 18-year-old black teenager was killed, recently found that the police force displayed institutional racism, through their practices of unthinking marginalisation and stereotypes.

The way we talk about race in wider culture has been led by white racial identity. The white ideology is held up as ‘objective’. Reni spoke of writers to illustrate her point. ‘White people don’t have to think about representing other white people’, whereas a black writer, for example, is seen as speaking on behalf of the half of the community. This, Reni points out, is a silly generalisation, an assumption that black culture is something ‘homogenous, as if we went away to some black persons’ conference and decided these were the talking points’. She refuses the label of ‘a representative’, not only because she has no constituency, but also because ‘it strips away individuality’.

The goal is a meritocracy, but for white people to talk about it now (a particularly favoured trope of conservative politicians), is to assume that it exists. Comments such as ‘You don’t work hard enough’ are wilful misunderstandings because it is not a level playing field. Words such as diversity can be troublesome, because the validity of the word depends so much on who’s setting the agenda: ‘I am often on the menu but never at the table’.

It will be an incremental, long slog on the path to change, she warns, but we need to be vigilant and critical of racism, or else we will continue to unwittingly reproduce it.

Australian satirist John Safran with Te Radar
Sunday 10 September, 1pm

The complexities, layers and sub-groups in extremist movements in Australia were up for discussion on Sunday, as Te Radar spoke to satirist John Safran about his book Depends What You Mean by Extremist.

It all began at a far-right protest that Safran turned up at in Melbourne. Expecting skinheads, he was surprised to find the protest to be quite a multicultural example of ‘anti-multicultural protest’. John spotted a Sri Lankan evangelical priest up on a ute with a white nationalist, addressing the crowds. These strange bed-fellows were ‘providing each other moral cover’ in their shared anti-Islam sentiment: one could claim his evangelical messages were not so ‘out there’ as they were being received at this rally; the other could claim he wasn’t racist. These complexities and ironies instantly piqued John’s creative instinct.

pp_john_safran

Photo by Donna Robertson, Chch City Libraries

He started an investigation into the world of extremists and fringe elements in Australia: the far right, ISIS supporters and the hard left. He started writing about them in the eighteen months pre-Trump and pre-Brexit, and he found that over the course of that time ‘the world started to meet up with fringe groups’.

cv_depends_what_you_mean_by_extremistHe had entered a complex world, which he compared to gum stuck in the carpet, gathering fluff, hair and dust – impossible to pick apart. There were many layers to the extremist groups and a bizarre, incongruous mix of messages and agendas to suit purposes. The far right appropriated feminist arguments to promote their anti-Islam agenda; the hard-left leveraged anti-bullying of Muslim messages to bring traction to their own agenda, which was ‘to pull the rug out from society’. There was the Muslim fundamentalist who was also a Monty Python and MAD fan. And then there was an unsettling movement of ideas. Claims from the far-right that atheism was the true Islamophobia eventually turned up and were repeated in leftist circles.

The extreme ideologies held by these groups were bleeding into public discourse and being repackaged into the mainstream, under waving Ausssie flags and calls for the right to freedom of speech: ‘Aren’t you sick of political correctness?’ These groups have successfully paved the way for what John calls Pauline Hanson’s second coming. He had the chance to talk her a few weeks ago, and the conversation aptly illustrated the absurdity of these strange times in which we find ourselves. You couldn’t write it.

John questioned her about being aligned with Asian groups against Islam, in what was a complete about face. When she denied this (in spite of extensive television coverage of her anti-Asian immigration views), Safran asked her how the public could be sure she wouldn’t do another turn around. She replied ‘You will never see me in a burka’. A promise, Safran drily noted, one would have thought would have been easy to keep.

Attended and Reviewed on behalf of Booksellers NZ by Emma Johnson

Why I am no longer talking to white people about race
by Reni Eddo-Lodge
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408870556

Depends what you mean by extremist
by John Safran
Published by Hamish Hamilton Ltd
ISBN 9781926428772

 

 

 

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Shifting Points of View: Things that Matter, and Fight Like a Girl

Emma Johnson attended these sessions at WORD Christchurch’s Shifting Points of View season on behalf of Booksellers NZ. All books mentioned are listed at the bottom of the page, and available from booksellers nationwide.

To the victor, history. To the dominant culture, the narrative. Under the dense coverage of those tales, others remain hidden. In the Shifting Points of View series, which WORD Christchurch is presenting as part of the Christchurch Arts Festival, other perspectives are brought to the fore for us to consider. The centre of the story moves – a centrifugal force of discussion spins us around to look outwards, to see things differently, to consider others, to empathise. Or even to act.

Set within the context of this age of efficiencies and disconnection, two very different sessions called for us to move beyond the insular to more connection – in the Galler session, as a means to change our modern healthcare system and in the Ford session, to counter both the furious eddies of misogyny online and perhaps the more pernicious ‘everyday’ sexism.

Things that Matter: Dave Galler and Glenn Colquhoun in discussion
GallerColqhoun-photoFine words, ‘nuggets’ of experience, and two medicine men came together on Saturday 2 September in an eloquent affirmation of humanity at the sold-out ‘Things That Matter’ session. Dave Galler, an intensive care specialist at Middlemore Hospital, wrote the book after which the session took its name, which sets out to demystify healthcare and encourage patients to play a greater role in decision-making. Here in conversation with Glen Colquhoun, a poet and GP, he called for a rethink of the modern healthcare system by widening the frame of reference.

Asked to consider how his growing up in Jewish culture in New Zealand informed his medicine, Dave was cautious in seeking cause for effect. His mother, an Auschwitz survivor, married his father in Israel, and they immigrated in the 1950s – leaving behind something that they wanted to forget, which pushed their children into assimilation; the celebration of Jewish culture was to come later. He traces his belief in medicine’s need for kindness to his parents’ profound warmth, in spite of their experiences. The Jewish traditions of scholarship, healthy debate and the expectation that your view will be challenged are apparent in his role as a natural advocate for change.

Recognising the interconnectedness of social systems and myriad factors that come together to express themselves in illness in Aotearoa, both Glen and Dave advocated for a holistic perspective and a need to look beyond the nexus of doctor and patient – both as a means to better identify the health system’s failings and to ensure its improvement. Glen put the questions on the table: ‘Is it the role of doctors to be political? Where does the duty of care extend to?’ As a GP, he sees the social causes of disease every day. Dave pointed to North American first nations people, and to Māori, as having the broader perspective that could vastly improve modern health care – one that is inclusive of spiritual wellbeing, of whanau, and of community. And having a purpose.

Our focus on technology and the body leads us to overlook other elements that are fundamental to our wellbeing. And this can be critical. ‘Those that recover in intensive care – whether they recover is determined by many things, but is heavily weighted in who they are.’ He also illuminated the broader costs of a healthcare system with a singular focus – those of lost opportunity and potential for many in deprivation, ‘the environmental equivalent would be our rivers’. He gave an example of a 19-year-old patient who had contracted pneumonia early on in life due to bad housing, who arrived at the ICU with an illness that would have given most people nothing more than a runny nose. Here he was on death’s door (thankfully he recovered). He was on oxygen at home – his life restricted, because of a bad start in life.

So, what do we need to do? Glen and Dave were in agreement. Start by moving beyond the ‘efficiencies’ of 35-patient rounds at the hospital and ten-minute doctor visits. Start rewarding kindness and empathy, because fundamentally medicine is about people. Create a system that rewards these values, that allows doctors to build up a body of knowledge and a broader awareness of community and family situations – these could save time later on. At the very least we need an honest sizing up of the need, and an acknowledgment that we do not have the resources to meet this.

Dave also called for a sense of purpose, because it gives you a way ‘to marshal your resources’, and then align policies across seemingly competing interests – ‘so that they do not cancel each other out’. His call to action was unequivocal: ‘We’ve got to demand this. If you wait for the government to solve your problems, you’ll be waiting a long time.’

In health, it is ‘values, empathy and kindness’ that we need more of. Connecting the parts to make a better functioning whole; shining the light on the bigger picture.

Clementine Ford: Fight Like a Girl

clem-photobook.pngBut sometimes shining the light on the smaller parts of a system is just as important. The formidable and funny Clementine Ford, journalist and feminist writer, called for this as a means to make visible seemingly innocuous systemic sexism, and as a means to undermine it.

Her book Fight Like A Girl looks to address the imbalance of power between the sexes, by taking power, because asking nicely won’t affect the system. And as in any power dynamic, the imbalance is benefiting one group – so men need to give up some of theirs. Her critiques, arguments and journalism have been dismissed (to put it kindly) by ‘men’s rights activists’ as ‘degrading to men’.

But this is exactly the crux of her point – this preoccupation with how men feel about feminism needs to go; they have been hogging the light for too long. In her second sold-out session at SPOV, she used ‘Hate Male’ – the deluge of abusive messages she has received over the years –  to ground her talk on the need to place women firmly at the centre of the feminist story. Unapologetic and unwavering, Clementine calls for us all to stop relating the discourse to men: there is no need to reward them for engaging in the dialogue, as it should not be about them.

The Hate Male collection aptly illustrated her point that women’s increasing agency is being met with a wave of vitriol in some places, most often by men who feel their worldview is threatened. Hardened, reactive stances emanate from behind the safety of their screens. The messages Clementine has received reveal that the current of misogyny runs thick and that there is a profound disconnect in this online world; but it also gives an opportunity to galvanize, for feminists to connect and to respond to these men with humour ‘by taking the rug out from under them’ in a very public forum. Clementine used humour extensively and extremely effectively to turn the tables on the abuse, draining it of its power.

cleminactionMany of these ‘men’s rights activists’ abuse her for getting upset about words – the old ‘Can’t you take a joke?’ is often lobbied in her direction. Yet, as she astutely points out, their words come in response to her words, ‘So who is really the oversensitive one?’

What is in a word then? The use of certain words aligns those who use them with a power structure and a rape culture, and other words empower others to stand up and call it out. Clementine calls for society to stop excusing behaviour and insults – the minimising tactics were seen here with the ‘boys will be boys’ approach to the Roast Busters. When the narrative makes such instances seem small or insignificant, it forms part of the cultural scaffolding that has made this okay, in service to patriarchy and rape culture (where those of privilege are not punished when it could impact their future potential).

It all starts on the small scale, an incremental chipping away at the power structure. Clementine furnished the audience with tips to combat this subtle, systemic sexism, which can be much harder to challenge than the ‘big ticket items’. When faced with a sexist joke, ask someone to repeat it several times or to explain why it’s funny. This shifts the spotlight onto them, and the onus to justify it.

Both sessions opened up new perspectives and possibilities to act. Both called for us to look beyond ourselves. Too often there is a tendency to place the self at the centre in the insular modern experience. But people like Clementine Ford, Dave Galler and Glen Colquhoun breathe life into the promise of empathy.

Attended and Reviewed by Emma Johnson on behalf of Booksellers NZ.

Things That Matter
by David Galler
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781877505645

Late Love: A BWB Text
by Glenn Colquhoun
Published by BWB
ISBN 9780947492892

Fight Like a Girl
by Clementine Ford
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760292362