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A collective narcissism

White people's naïve assumptions about police, power and privilege are being shattered. It could be the watershed moment of a generation, writes Aaron Smale

During the Springbok tour of 1981 New Zealanders from all races took to the streets to protest against racism in another country. And the New Zealand police took to the streets to beat the crap out of them.

It was a salutary lesson for Pakeha protesters – they learned the hard way that the state is not necessarily as benign and fair as they had once assumed. It can be violent and unjust. Maori had known that for a lot longer.

That could end up being one of the major changes in people’s awareness that comes out of the latest global protests against racism – cops aren’t always the good guys. Black and brown people have always been sceptical about that white assumption and that scepticism is built on decades, if not hundreds of years, of brutal experience. But with white people joining protests and, thanks to the ubiquity of mobile phone cameras, witnessing the random and unjustified violence of police, suddenly their naïve assumptions have been shattered. It could be the watershed moment of a generation.

But this isn’t just about cops beating people up and abusing their power. That power is bestowed on them by a system that is built on the foundation of white supremacy.

The toppling and planned toppling of numerous monuments to imperial and racist figures has caused a reflexive response from those in power. When statues of Lenin or Saddam Hussein were pulled down it was celebrated in the West as a victory over tyranny that was to be celebrated as a turning point in history.

Somehow though, when figures that represent the tyranny of white supremacy are ripped from their pedestals it’s an act of wanton vandalism. The most risible response is that people who commit such vandalism are erasing history. Which history is not clear. Because these monuments are not about a full historical account of what those figures did in their lifetimes. Quite the opposite. What they celebrate is a very thin sliver of history that is then elevated and distorted. The celebration of white supremacists blanks out whole screeds of history that white people would rather not even know about, let alone remember. The toppling of statues of racist figures is important symbolically, but it doesn’t fill the vacuum of historical amnesia that they represented. Watch as publishers of history and university history departments scramble to catch up.

The slave-trader Edward Colston, whose likeness occupied a public square in Bristol for more than a century, was sanitised then celebrated for his philanthropy. But what the statue didn’t tell you, and what those who revered him want to avoid, is that his generosity was only possible because of the wealth he made from the brutal trade in enslaved human beings. Major cities throughout Britain and the United States and the rest of the Anglo world were created and made wealthy because of such dispossession. And they’ve regularly honoured those who were responsible.

They may not realise it but when public “leaders” like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump object to the spontaneous removal of such statues, they are essentially reacting to the possibility that the ideology of white supremacy might be toppled. White supremacy is so deeply ingrained in their view of the world that they can’t imagine it being questioned, let alone overthrown.

They’re not alone in their dithering denial. It’s both infuriating and slightly hilarious watching corporations and powerful public figures trying to catch up with the zeitgeist while not fully comprehending what it’s about. I don’t know what the modern equivalent of a bandwagon is, but it’s obvious that a lot of people are trying to jump on this one.

Vogue editor Anna Wintour apologised for not supporting black designers and other creatives in the past. But that past is long and she has had plenty of opportunity to take steps in that direction, opportunities she has repeatedly missed. She’s been at the helm of the most powerful publication in the fashion industry for 30-plus years and that industry has repeatedly made howling racist gaffs during that time. Where was Anna Wintour then? Fashion is an industry that promotes itself as breaking new ground. But so-called leaders like Wintour are usually content with the status quo, because they have a vested interest in its maintenance. Giving creative control to someone who might have a completely different sense of the world is to lose a measure of control by letting others into the conversation. Can’t have that.

The head of the NFL, a sport dominated by African American players, belatedly decided to support the Black Lives Matter movement. But this was four years after the whole organisation threw Colin Kaepernick under the bus for exercising his constitutional right to free speech. While a large number of the players are black, the audience is predominantly white. Obviously, at the time, the NFL thought it was more important commercially not to offend that demographic than it was to stand up for the communities their players came from.

But that kind of racist calculation has been going on in all sectors of society for a long time, from sport and fashion to politics and media. The two current leaders of two of the most powerful nations on earth, Britain and the United States, built their campaigns on racist scaremongering. And they managed to get elected because there is a market for that. Fox News is completely dependent on that market. Money and greed often overrides any qualms about justice.

But like any market, it’s a fickle one. An ABS poll found that in 2014, 43 percent of Americans believed that the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown at the hands of police reflected a racial injustice problem. In the wake of George Floyd’s death that percentage has jumped to 74 percent.

Politicians throughout the world are scrambling to respond. Only a couple of months ago, National was promoting a Raptor squad of armed police descending on communities while a version of that was being trialed under Labour. Now they’re both furiously back-pedalling.

Judith Collins whining about being demonised for her ethnicity was preposterous at the time, particularly after she seemed to relish police overreach when she held the police portfolio. Now National is trying to find its bearings in an environment where violent, racist policing has been exposed for what it is. Our national habit of following the Americans in everything has taken an ironic turn.

It underlines the fact political slogans and supposed policies are, much of the time, nothing more than a branding exercise. That branding is aimed at selling itself to a very limited demographic. It is not based on any kind of robust analysis or reality, certainly not the reality of people and communities who rarely get a hearing. The manufactured reality of Trump and his ilk is slowly crumbling before the reality faced by Americans that he often vilifies or ignores.

Racism is a collective narcissism. Narcissism in individuals is characterised by self-centredness, arrogance, seeing others as objects rather than equals, perceiving themselves as unique or special, with a sense of entitlement. When that pathology grips a whole group of people and the institutions they have run for hundreds of years, it isn’t going to die overnight.

But even the most self-centred narcissist has their limits. George Floyd died a slow, painful death under the knee of Derek Chauvin with his full weight bearing down on his Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while he wore an expression of indifference. In the past, Chauvin might have got away with it because he wore a police uniform and had the backing of institutions that would believe the word of a white man over a black man. But the recording of that deadly encounter on a mobile phone has drastically shifted the debate by verifying what black and brown people have been saying all along. That verification has made a lot of white people squeamish.

What happens from this point on is anyone’s guess. Power never gives up power without a fight, and often that fight is a nasty, dirty one. But what is certain is that there’s no turning back from this moment.

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