Subject to Garner’s Gaze: racial determinism out here on the edge

Duncan Garner got a rough run of it on Twitter over the weekend after the publication of his 7 October column about a visit to Kmart that prompted some thoughts about immigration. Accusations of racism have led him to quit Twitter, to highlight some of the nastiness on his Facebook page, and to angrily refute the accusers, including an extraordinary post about Dame Susan Devoy and the Human Rights Commission for having the temerity to posit an opinion.

Duncan’s column needs discussion because he both reflects opinion and forms opinion in our society in his role as a host on The AM Show. His column is not interesting because it is an outlier; it is interesting because it reflects the thinking of many, many New Zealanders. Despite the Twitter storm, overall he has been roundly supported in comments online and his column has been a popular read.

There are parts of his column that are racist: for example, his comment that “Indians, Pakistani, Sri Lankans, Syrians and many others” are somehow a reflection of “anywhere in South East Asia” was cringe worthy and geographically inaccurate. However, Duncan’s opinion piece and some of his rebuttal since are a public example of the struggle that many Pākehā have with overcoming an inherent racism. Nevertheless, whoever suggested he was a white supremacist was being ridiculous and should take a breath.

Pākehā and in this instance Duncan often don’t understand from whence they derive the power to observe other people, to name difference and to judge the contribution and integration of others into our society.  Observation is power. This is called the Gaze. The Gaze is a form of racism because the observer assumes the power to describe, to hypothesize and finally to judge people who are not like you, known as the Other.

Not everyone can be an observer. The Gaze belongs to those with power that is historically, militarily and institutionally derived. So you won’t find a column in a New Zealand newspaper from a refugee, from a Māori or from a Pasifika commentator providing observations, in which they turn the Gaze on the habits and customs of Pākehā. Pākehā are not subject to the Gaze because they are the heirs of empire, the dominant group in our nation state by virtue of their colonisation of Aotearoa New Zealand. Only the defeated, the oppressed and the minority are subject to the Gaze.

The Gaze reflects the domination and oppression of western empires. That domination is founded in the empirical observation that was part of the scientific study of humanity. As with other branches of science, humanity was measured and categorised into a structure and a hierarchy. As people outside of Europe were encountered, there was not an expansion and renegotiation of the knowledge and science of Europe, but a reduction of the Other to fit with the culturally derived sciences of empire; a hierarchy of things and of people. This is not ancient history; World War II had this Hegelian thinking at its heart.

We have substantially moved on from that academic fallacy as a society. However, the remnants still affect us and are there in our thinking today: the warrior gene ascribed to Māori; the idea of a percentage of Māori blood; the assumption that Pacific Island players will be great athletes but not great thinkers on the field; the fear of the black phallus; Japanese students are good at maths; Japanese women are docile.

Or how about this: immigrants from South Asia are going to change our country because they bring religious fanaticism, don’t believe in human rights, mistreat women and act as a group against Western civilisation. Now one of Duncan’s objections is that it is wrong to say he was targeting immigrant groups from particular areas and ethnicities. But Duncan was not talking about British, South African or Australian immigration at his “crossroads”. They are included in his overall immigration figures, but they weren’t mentioned. He might not of thought about it; and that’s the point of the Gaze.

His column deserves some analysis. In the first half of Duncan’s column he is the centre of his observation: “I say”; “I started”; “I saw”; “I wondered”; “I looked”; “I wasn’t shocked”; “I saw”. In using the Gaze the observed have no identity, authority, role or history until it is named by the observer.

Who does he ultimately name and provide a role to? He names “Indians, Pakistani, Sri Lankans, Syrians and many others” and locates them from “anywhere in South East Asia.” In his column they play a role, as “stressed faces” in “the changing face of New Zealand at the crossroads.” Despite his protestations when criticised, the image he chooses to represent them is the snake: “snake”; “snaked”; “snaked”; “snaked”; “snake”; “snake”.

The snake has a long history as a symbol in western civilisations that is derived from Judeo-Christianity. The snake is a symbol of the Enemy, of two-sided, untrustworthy wisdom, of cunning, of poison, of temptation, of dangerous passion. The connection with our historical characterization of black and brown peoples is compelling. I’m assured that Duncan did not intend to use the word ‘snake’ as a racist reference, but it fascinates me that the image that came to mind when he was writing was a ‘snake.’ A reflection of who we are and what we fear, more than who Duncan is.

Then he shifts to talk directly to his audience, his people: ” do we have any idea what we’re doing here”; “we will have”; “how big we should be”; “we will have no one to blame”; “we forgot to plan”; “we should be able to”; “we are falling”; “we need to pause”; “we go about life”; “where we need them”; “we do”; “we must ask”; “we must pause.” Who is the ‘we’ he is exhorting? It is not “Indians, Pakistani, Sri Lankans, Syrians and many others” from “anywhere in South East Asia;” he did not see himself in that Kmart queue. No, he is talking to ‘New Zealanders.’ They are not New Zealanders.

Duncan absolutely includes Māori, Pacific peoples and Pākehā in ‘we’. In one sense, that’s an encouraging development if you are, as I am, Māori. But to accept that I am part of the ‘we’ whom Duncan is addressing is to accept that I am not the brother or sister of immigrants and refugees and that they constitute a threat to our way of life.

In the end, that is my objection to Duncan’s column. His assertions that “we’ve had the world gate-crash our party” and “we are the last paradise” are merely our own racial determinism out here on the edge, the same Gaze relocated to the Antipodes. I’ll not be ruled by fear of the Other, because for most of my life, I have been the Other. Our waharoa at our marae is open to all who would respond to the karanga; like Dave Dobbyn’s song, I stand behind our kuia as the call “Welcome Home” rings out to these New Zealanders.

4 thoughts on “Subject to Garner’s Gaze: racial determinism out here on the edge

  1. An excellent post. You’ve taken my amorphous thoughts about this whole thing and articulated them perfectly. I hadn’t thought about it in this context but The Gaze is absolutely what is being engaged and utilised in this example. You have given me a lot of thoughts to take back to my students. Thank you.

    1. Kia ora Clementine. As an aside, I got a very useful DM about exploring gender and the Gaze more. I haven’t put thought into that, so more reading for me!

  2. Thanks for the article Graham . I am reminded of this recent quote “In a shame culture he (Trump) seems to have figured out that if you refuse to be shamed, it gives you enormous power.” from this article
    The problem to my mind of some of the responses to Duncan’s article (not yours!) are that they serve to polarise and shame. To what end? Will these responses bring about changed thought and/or behaviour or will they simply serve to entrench existing biases?
    To me it is important to deal with the kaupapa not the person but I do feel rather like a dinosaur these days! Generally frightened to take the classic liberal position of disagreeing with what is said but defending the right to say it. I usually just keep my mouth shut!

    1. I have to agree; I find Twitter in particular a difficult place to support someone’s right to speak objectionable thoughts, but that is being the norm. As you indicate, shaming changed no-one’s mind; that’s what debate is for.

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