discourse, power and racism … in the classroom

June 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

We have a paper in our programme called Language, Discourse and Power, and I teach the unit on the language of racism for that paper. I always begin by saying something like “There’s a lot of it about,” because ever since I began preparing to teach it, I have noticed it is an issue that arises often, and inevitably, where it is very blatant, raises a storm. The Andy Haden incident is no exception.

Another thing that I do as part of that lecture is present a very simple diagram representing the cycle linking racist discourse and racist practice. That is racist discourse produces racist actions and racist actions likewise produce racist discourse.

This allows us to discuss the relationship between racism as discourse and the heinous practices that have been associated with racism in history including extreme violence but also social and other kinds of deprivation. It is the relationship between practices and discourses that I have found most interesting in this episode.

When I first heard a replay of what Andy Haden had said, it seemed to me that it was an account of shameful practice which needed careful investigation. I assumed that his use of the word ‘darkies’ was in invisible quotation marks, that he was indicating this as the language of the organisation he was describing, and I expected the outrage to be at the practice he described (I was perhaps naïve in this, since he has not claimed that as his purpose in using the word since).
However, it seems that it is the use of that word that has been the focus of attention in what has ensued, and this attention has therefore fallen on Haden rather than on the organisation he was accusing of practices that would appal the readers of Bling, I am sure.

In fact, Murray McCully, in demanding an apology from him, expressly stated that while it was his concern to limit the damage from the use of the term in question so as not to threaten the World Cup, as far as the wider debate about selection policy was concerned that was not the sphere of the Minister of Sport: “Do we really want to go down that path?” he said, because all around the country people discuss selection policy and they didn’t need his intervention . My own thought, as a New Zealander who is old enough to remember the days when Māori and Pasifika New Zealanders were allowed to South Africa only as “honorary whites”, would have to be that if those discussions result in actions along the lines suggested then I do think it is a path the Minister of Sport should follow!

Clearly, though, the main focus has stayed on the use of the derogatory term (and as linguists, we always like people to be aware of language and its effects). And that has clearly unleashed a whole discourse which is very interesting in terms of the diagram above. For a start, reports suggest that the use of the word in the context of selection policies gave apparent legitimacy to the expression of extraordinarily stereotyping claims about Pasifika players on talkback radio, and such a sense of legitimacy obviously has the potential to lead to actions based on those stereotypes. The literature about the language of racism indicates that there is far higher tolerance of racism in private spheres than public, and obviously this usage allowed a leakage into the public sphere (which is why I never imagined that Haden was using it in his own right when I heard it first, because he might have guessed the effect).

The current discourse also draws on existing discourses in our national memory: Murray McCully used a process of measuring it against Paul Holmes’ use of the word in reference to Kofi Annan to justify not asking Haden as Rugby Ambassador. A howl of counter discourse has also arisen, as could be predicted. In the diagram above you will notice a gap to the left of the words, and a click of the PowerPoint button on my slide adds ‘Anti’ in both those gaps. Mainstream media is obviously highly concerned to be part of that process, with John Campbell’s interview with Graham Henry a prime example (http://www.3news.co.nz/Graham-Henry-talks-about-the-Haden-controversy/tabid/367/articleID/158502/Default.aspx). It deals with the question from a very wide lens: “New Zealand is a wonderful country,” begins Henry. A public dent in our perception of New Zealand fairness and impeccable racial relations is not to be countenanced.

However, for a last word on the topic of the term ‘darkie’ and its potential effect, I would refer you to a poem by Karlo Mila, a New Zealander of Pasifika and Pakeha heritage, from her collection Dream fish floating (2005), “Eating Dark Chocolate and watching Paul Holmes’ Apology” in which she recalls how ‘darkie’ has been a painful part of her past, including self-mocking uses by Pasifika friends, and looks to the future:
“I don’t want my kids to have stanzas of darkie memories”


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