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  • Sat, 30, May, 2020 - 5:00:AM

Privilege and demonisation

When you were young, did anyone ever tell you that they loved you? That’s a question court cultural report writer Associate Professor Khylee Quince asks her clients. The answer should be yes, of course, right? Only for most of her clients, predominantly young Māori men, the answer is no.

So-called “race politics” have been in the spotlight this week. First, the National Party’s abysmal lack of diversity on their front bench made the headlines (sensationally, as Deputy Leader Nikki Kaye claimed Paul Goldsmith was Ngāti Porou, only to be contradicted by Goldsmith on national television. Wince…), then Judith Collins told the media that she was sick of being “demonised” for being white.

There’s a lot to unpack there, and instead of going into the usual arguments, I’m going to reflect upon a panel discussion I took part in this week with my colleague and tuakana Khylee. During the panel, we spoke about topics varying from mentoring to unconscious bias, but the subject that really stood out to me was a discussion on privilege.

Privilege is a confrontational word for some. One of those red-rag-to-a-bull terms. I remember feeling indignant when my grandfather first told me that I was privileged (I think the word he used was “fortunate”) when I was a young child. As a seven-or-eight-year-old I felt like the term was a slight. I reasoned that it wasn’t my fault that I had been born into a family that was more comfortable than many. Such an immature reaction is perhaps forgivable from a child, but as I grew older, I began to see his point. And as an adult, I came to see that my privilege – as a Pākehā-passing Māori woman (a so-called “white Māori”) born into a reasonably well-off, loving whānau, with a tertiary education and a platform – is my social contract. I have been fortunate, and it’s my social duty to use my privilege for good.

Not everyone is introduced to the concept of privilege at the age of seven. As conversations about diversity and inclusion become an important part of corporate life, however, more and more people are having to confront their own advantages when they’ve never considered them before.

Privilege isn’t just a case of skin colour. Privilege is being born into a whānau that loves you, tells you they love you, and nurtures you as you grow. It is eating three square meals a day. It is having your own bed as a child. It is being supported to do your homework. Being able to afford to go to camp, or play a sport, or learn an instrument. Being able to afford to go to university. That’s on top of not being judged when you walk into a shop. Not having to change your name on a job application just to get a interview. Not having to hide your relationship to fit in at your workplace or place of worship. Not having to endure conversations in which people of your race are the butt of the joke.

Of course, if you’re lucky enough to not experience disadvantage, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It does, however, mean that you have a responsibility to acknowledge the ways in which you have benefitted from your inherent advantages. Being encouraged to acknowledge inequality or unfairness isn’t demonisation. It’s far from it. Demonisation is what happened to George Floyd. Demonisation is being more likely than a person of another race to be charged rather than cautioned. Demonisation is struggling to find secure accommodation because of your skin colour. Demonisation is watching people march to oppose your human rights. 

In our panel discussion, we dove deep into the sensitivities around the idea of advantage and privilege. The fear, reactivity and concern around the idea of recognising privilege is likely due to the idea that if we treat everyone equitably; if we control for disadvantage and level the playing field so that someone who spent periods of their childhood in foster care, who went to low decile schools and was often hungry, and who had to work two part-time jobs in order to survive at university can compete with someone who was born into a loving home, who had three meals a day, the opportunity to learn to play the piano and easy access to a tertiary education, then there’s a chance that the person who had the easier path may not win against the other, less-privileged candidate. When you’re used to a system that normally advantages you, competing on an unusually level playing field is undoubtedly going to be unnerving. 

But 2020 is a time to be brave. It’s a time to reset and recreate a better way of doing things. Every time “race demonisation” enters the narrative, I think we should remember those young defendants. How many people will generalise the fact that they weren’t told they were loved to be because they were Māori? 

If those lost boys were Pākehā, and they weren’t told that they were loved, no one would dream of generalising that fact to suggest that “Pākehā don’t love their children”. 

That is privilege.


  • Privilege /
  • Demonisation /
  • Judith Collins /
  • Politics /
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