Devoy-d of self-awareness

22/03/2013 § 2 Comments

Let’s start this by laying my cards on the table. I am racist. I apologise for that, but it’s true. It was unavoidable, growing up as I did in Virginia just a few miles from the Manassas battlefield, at a time when overt racism was socially acceptable. ‘You’ve got to be carefully taught….’

I have learned over the years to be aware of my racism, to try to see when it is operating and get in front of it. I also understand that racism is part of something larger, the privilege of being a white, able, hetero, middle-class male in societies designed by and for people just like me. I’ve done Women’s Studies courses at a liberal arts college; as a grad student, I TA’d a paper on privilege. Hey, you can write me off as indoctrinated, or PC, or a latte liberal, or a victim of liberal guilt — but I know that I have benefited from unearned privilege, and I don’t fool myself by thinking I would have made it anyway.

From that perspective — my perspective, that I am owning — the comments of Dame Susan Devoy, the new Race Relations Commissioner, are just awful. The total lack of self-awareness takes my breath away.

Let’s look at a few of the comments:

‘At the end of the day I have a really good moral compass. I don’t go to bed wondering or worrying about what others think or say about me….’

This is an odd view of a moral compass. Morality is about an ideal against which you measure yourself, and then reflection about whether your distance from the ideal is too great. Going to bed without wondering or worrying suggests absolute conviction in your own rightness. This may be fanaticism or hubris, but it isn’t morality.

As part of a regular column she … suggested Waitangi Day should be ditched as New Zealand’s national holiday.

Yesterday she described Waitangi Day as ‘extraordinarily important’ but ‘it isn’t New Zealand Day, is it?’ she said.

I’m not a native-born New Zealander, so I don’t know what my rights are in this conversation. The country’s founding bi-culturalism (British + Maori) is problematic for people from elsewhere. However, the Treaty of Waitangi is the founding document, the agreement that brought the older immigrants and newer immigrants together. The fact that the Treaty is considered as much as it is, is also part of what makes New Zealand what it is. The relationship is still contested — what are the rights and responsibilities on both sides? Demoting Waitangi Day would be an attempt to put the disputes in the background, to manufacture a unitary identity that doesn’t actually exist. It would be an act of cultural hegemony.

‘But I think in this role I have to be the voice of reason…’

This is the most disturbing comment of all, in which Devoy puts her crown on her own head. Interestingly, she positions herself as a ‘voice’, a disembodied manifestation of an abstract concept (reason), rather than an individual with physical and historical specificity. She is pure authority. Logically, all who do not agree with her are ‘unreasonable’. This framing puts those others in the position of children or hysterics, as less-than-full-people to be managed by authority. Devoy tells us here that her decisions will be made from a position of privilege.

Hmm, sounds familiar…

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