A student and I wrote about a concept we call “everyday colonialism” a few days ago over on Aljazeera. We cannot take credit for the term entirely. It’s an adaptation from Philomena Essed’s concept of everyday racism, which encompasses the subtle but highly significant forms of normalized racism perpetrated – often times unconsciously – by majority group members against ethnic minorities on a regular basis.
The power of everyday racism lies in its repetitiveness. No one incident typically carries tremendous power. It’s the fact that everyday racism happens over and over; it wears and tears on minorities in a variety of ways that have harmful psychological and sociological consequences.
Other scholars have termed acts of everyday racism, microaggressions. Derald Sue and colleagues have conceptualized microaggressions by breaking them up into three categories: microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations. Although their work is in psychology, I find it incredibly related to sociology.
Another quick footnote, Paige Raibmon actually used the term everyday colonialism in a 2006 piece, but our approach is much more in line with Essed’s and Sue’s work.
We use the term everyday colonialism to describe the incessant ways that indigenous people are discriminated against regularly by majority group members, in particular those whose ancestry is tied to colonial powers. This is not to trivialize the seriousness of colonialism from yester-year, but rather to demonstrate how neocolonialism continues to operate today more stealthly on an everyday basis.
In Aotearoa (New Zealand), Maori are indigenous; they are tangata whenua (people of the land). Pacific people have a strong presence across Aotearoa, especially in Auckland, and have indigenous ties to neighboring countries, such as Tonga, Samoa, Niue, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu, and Tokelau. The nation-state of New Zealand has legal/colonial ties to Niue, Tokelau, the Cook Islands and Samoa.
Thus while Maori are tangata whenua, Maori and Pacific people can share a politicized pan-indigenous identity in the sense that they share similar experiences of colonization and racialization, both historically and in present time in this region of the world. Below is a particularly powerful example of everyday colonialism – a Pakeha (New Zealand European) bus driver is alleged to drive past visibly Maori pedestrians who are trying to catch the bus. A Maori passenger calls the bus driver out on his actions, making key historical and contemporary references. Watch/listen to the whole thing.
At 3:40, the passenger says, “We welcomed you here, and you deny everything for us. You broke the relationship between The Treaty (The Treaty of Waitangi, or more importantly Te Tiriti o Waitangi), and the Maori and the Pakeha!” It’s an incredibly powerful illustration of everyday colonialism and its connections to historical power imbalances.
Yesterday in Aotearoa/New Zealand it was Waitangi Day, which commemorates unification between the indigenous Māori inhabitants and the British settler population. For the nation-state of New Zealand, every 6 February is heralded as a day of celebration for all “Kiwis,” or New Zealanders, to express their collective patriotism. Well, that’s one version of it.
It was on 6 February 1840 when Te Tiriti o Waitangi was signed by 46 rangatira (Māori chieftains), and in the six months following, approximately 450 more. Te Tiriti was authored by the British and written in te reo Māori. Māori in contemporary society who believe in decolonization efforts (along with non-Māori allies) argue that Te Tiriti “cemented [Māori’s] overriding authority, while granting permission to the Crown to regulate the conduct of British nationals” (Mikaere, 2011, p. 129).
This historical document was also written in British English, and in this version, The Treaty of Waitangi mandated that the Māori population cede their sovereignty to the British Crown in return for protected property rights. Thus for the British, The Treaty of Waitangi has served as the central legal document that legitimized citizenship and continues claim to the land.
For Māori, The Treaty represents the beginning of British colonial, legal imposition into Aotearoa that was furthered substantially in the 1860s through legal maneuvering that privatized land ownership – a familiar colonial tactic employed across the Pacific.
With a national holiday celebrating The Treaty – a legal document that includes indigenous peoples – it may appear that in Aotearoa/New Zealand, the indigenous people have it comparatively good. But consider that prior to British arrival, the Māori population stood at somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000; by about 1900, their population dropped to 42,000. And today, Māori share the same types of social disparities as other indigenous peoples worldwide.
It is because of these historical concerns and ongoing disparities that not all Māori celebrate Waitangi Day. In fact, the national holiday has a history of Māori protest, which with all things considered, should hardly be surprising. Shouldn’t a place’s indigenous people have the right to protest on their own homeland?
And this brings me to this blog entry’s subject.
Yesterday’s front page of The New Zealand Herald (the country’s most prominent newspaper) made special effort to highlight a piece on Waitangi Day “protest free” with a white fist driven up.
The important thing [regarding Waitangi] is probably the continued acknowledgement of the Treaty. And, along with it, the acknowledgement by Pakeha of all injustices committed against Maori, while their ancestors blatantly ignored the Treaty. Especially since the roots of the alarming inequality in the country today go all the way back to what we like to call colonisation; I don’t see how it could be any more relevant.
The Treaty of Waitangi was breached as bro and heaps of Kiwis don’t know that. I can’t believe the Government thought they could get away with the confiscation of land, the banning of te reo AND the pepper-potting – please look it up. I’ve met too many Kiwis that think we should just forget about it and that Maori should move on, and it’s exhausting explaining why that’s a really stink way to think…
A continued dialogue around the Treaty will always be important. The birth of contemporary NZ started under colonial rule that brought with it all the (problems) of colonisation. Continued conversation, debate and dialogue keep questions of power and exploitation alive, relevant and evolving and hopefully make us as a community more aware of the respect that is owed every human being and the land we inhabit.
Many Kiwis think we need to move on, but for me there is still so much work to do around the Treaty and race relations that it’s way too early to start celebrating. I want NZ to be a country that is world-renowned for its equality. Where it is a priority, not just a soundbite or media tag, but written into our constitution so any and all governments can be held to this one core value: equality.
Definitely some critical viewpoints.
Still, because The Herald has framed these interviewees’ contributions within a dominant “protest-free” discourse and included the excerpts within a story that “celebrates” Waitangi Day, any radical critique of The Treaty is negated. Critique can only come through moderated reflections of “moving on” in reconciliatory ways that don’t attack the status quo, that don’t address land rights, that don’t address substantive changes in mainstream culture.
And this is how mainstream, neocolonial media makes itself appear progressive while actually supporting the state to minimize indigenous/human rights.
Like other sectors of society, sport serves as a site where constructions of race are developed and contested on a regular basis. Many would like to believe that these racialized patterns are restricted to the competitive arena. But the reality is, throughout history, sport has always responded to broader race politics, while simultaneously firing back at the racialized patterns seen off the field.
We see it less now than in decades past. Gone are the Muhammad Ali’s, Jackie Robinson’s, John Carlos’s, and Tommie Smith’s, who through their athletic prime stood consciously as symbols for African American communities prior to and during the Civil Rights Movement. Before them, even the less politically spirited Jesse Owens functioned as a key figure in in the push for racial equality.
Today’s celebrity athletes are more constricted by corporate-driven politics and a less active push for social justice. Now in the twenty-first century, much of society likes to feel we have reached a place where perceptions of race and behavioral racism no longer matter, or only emerge among fringe, extremist groups outside the mainstream.
Public response to talented black men
But as we saw nearly two weeks ago just after the Seattle Seahawks defeated the San Francisco 49ers to advance to the NFL’s Super Bowl, racism continues to interact with sport very systemically, though now, in less obvious form. In that contest’s final play, Seattle cornerback, Richard Sherman deflected a pass intended for San Francisco wide-receiver Michael Crabtree, with whom Sherman had developed a mild rivalry. Both Sherman and Crabtree are African American.
Sherman’s athletic feat preserved Seattle’s win, leading to an on-field post-game interview in which an animated Sherman asserted his status as the League’s top cornerback, while verbally deriding Crabtree, and doing so while staring angrily into the camera.
No doubt Sherman provided a feisty and different kind of interview, but considering some of the outrageous, often times discriminatory things athletes and sports managers have said very publicly over the years, Sherman’s words and method of expressing them were perhaps atypical, definitely emotional, but hardly threatening.
Still, the interview generated extensive media attention, and a significant backlash from individuals through social media where Sherman was repeatedly labeled in deleterious ways. It is here where we see how racism has shifted in contemporary society and where we can reflect upon Sherman’s experience as an athlete beyond sport.
Again, the bulk of American sports fans, and Americans in general, like to think that racism is no longer a significant social problem. Moreover, most members of society like to present themselves as supportive of a color-blind, postracial culture that no longer needs to consider race in in everyday interactions, let alone in public policy.
Unfortunately a significant portion of society is still resistant to talented, confident, intelligent, outspoken, and as Kevin Beckford and Greg Howard say, multidimensional black men. In turn those societal members who harbor racist attitudes must find ways to express their discriminatory thoughts in a manner that protects them from being called a racist.
Coded Racism in Contemporary Society
Enter the label, or code word, “thug.” Code words are words that at their base have nothing to do with perceptions of race, but within a particular social context hold strong racial undertones and reify racist stereotypes.
In describing African Americans, code words that too often enter the lexicon of mainstream media include, “inner city,” “welfare queen,” and especially for males, “thug.” It is hardly surprising then, that the day after Seattle’s victory and Sherman’s rant, “people said thug on TV more often than on any other day in the past three years,” and that Sherman was an overt target across social media, repeatedly called a thug, along with overt racial slurs.
This is a far too common way that racism operates in contemporary society – hidden within seemingly objective vernacular that in reality carries distinct racial bias. A highly intellectual individual who graduated from Stanford University and is pursuing a postgraduate degree, Sherman asserts, thug “is the accepted way of calling somebody the N-word nowadays.” More from Sherman:
“The backlash surprised me, because I think the support came after the backlash. I was a little surprised, because we’re talking about football here. A lot of people took it further than football. And I guess some people showed how far we’ve really come in this day and age. And it was kind of profound, what happened. Because I was on a football field showing passion. Maybe it was misdirected, maybe it was immature, maybe things could have been worded better. But this was on a football field — I wasn’t committing any crimes or doing anything illegal; I was showing passion after a football game.” [emphasis added]
Sherman is spot on in his analysis. To this end, the way that Sherman has been attacked is not a phenomenon unique to the sporting world or the United States.
In Auckland, New Zealand where I work, many of the Maori and Pacific students with whom I conduct research have referred to this kind of discrimination as “soft,” “indirect,” and “civilized” racism, noting that racist peers refrain from using explicit racial epithets to demean them.
Instead racism is enacted – among other ways – by negating Maori and Pacific hard work and talent, and relegating their academic achievements to preferential treatment. Hence, the racialized insults cast upon ethnic minority students are coded within a kind of discourse that protects the racist perpetrator.
In other words, code words enable majority group members to call Maori students, “dumb Maori’s,” and perpetuate racism without actually using those inflammatory words.
Worldwide, ethnic minorities are keenly aware of the code words and nuanced ways that everyday racism keeps us pushed to the periphery. It should not take the unfair treatment of a celebrity athlete of color to uncover the cloaked nature of contemporary racism.