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"White supremacy is an experience of ignorance"

May 27th, 2019
topics:Humans
by:Neelo Aysha Scholz
located in:New Zealand
tags:Christchurch, new zealand, Rachel Jane Liebert, racism, white supremacy

FairPlanet recently spoke with New Zealand academic, Rachel Jane Liebert, whose letter to her home country a day after the Christchurch attacks caught our attention. In it, she pleads with New Zealand to take this opportunity to wake up to their colonial DNA. Liebert uncoils the cord between colonialism and white supremacy.

“Explanations for white supremacist attacks typically direct attention toward an unreasonable, paranoid state of mind and away from the neocolonial security state that made them”. She says in her book Psycurity, Colonialsm, Paranoia, and the war on Imagination. Soft spoken with a distinctly New Zealand lilt, she tells me that through her work, she has learnt not to be nice when talking about this subject.

FairPlanet: You see the Christchurch attacks not an attack by an individual white supremacist but rather, a product of a neocolonial state.

Rachel Jane Liebert: I think it was definitely my training and experiences in trying to decolonise psychology that makes me really tuned into the limited focus on the individual… as though we operate separately from the world. I’m interested in how we are shaped by history, politics and society.

Tell us a little about your professional background.

I was at CUNY for 8 years, and did my PhD in what’s called Critical Psychology there. The program had an explicit social justice orientation to it. Most of us were heavily involved in activism and community work whilst there, and I feel like that’s where I got an important schooling in whiteness and anti-racism work.

I also taught Disciplinary studies, Sociology, Gender Studies, Interdisciplinary studies. I am a lecturer of Psychology at University of East London now.

How would you define white supremacy?

Many people think white supremacy means that as a white person you consciously think that you are superior to non-white people. But that’s not true. It is actually the social structure that we are all socialised by, which passes white people into this superior position.

In New Zealand we didn’t learn about colonisation in school. We have a history of colonisation, which is still so present today, yet there’s a complete denial about it. There’s kind of a nationalism and exceptionalism in New Zealand. You often hear people talking about how everything in New Zealand is so perfect. I just think that kind of mainstream discourse is really problematic and that is what this attack has really shaken.

It’s exciting that this crack has opened up and is providing a really potent opportunity for us. I worry that instead, the way the country has responded is re-inscribing the exceptionalism… as in, look how perfectly we are mourning, and look at our perfect, white female Prime Minister.

Instead, we really need to take a hard look at our history. The very fact that I am Pāhekā means that I come from colonialism and white supremacy is built on colonialism.

You open the letter to your home country with, “I am complicit, because I am Pāhekā”. What would you say to the ordinary white person in Australia and New Zealand, who is mourning with the Muslims, bears no hatred and doesn’t see their connection. What would you ask them to do?

Whiteness or white supremacy is an experience of ignorance, not being able to see how it actually works. Therefore, we have to do the work ourselves, educate ourselves. When I started to realise how ignorant I was, I sought out as many things as possible, written by people of colour, on the subject. It’s a structure that gets in the way of (non-white) people’s movement in the world.

I talk to white people about how whiteness is an experience of being covered in lube, so they move more easily through the world, just slipping through the social structures. Actually the lube kind of gets in their eyes and stops them seeing, and makes them ignorant. And ignorance itself is a very well documented tactic of colonisation. The Guardian even published an article on the discovery of 9,000 documents on the subject. And what was alarming was the response to this discovery was almost non-existent.

If you can make white people see that we don’t know, and this unknowing wasn’t our fault until now, but it is now our responsibility to learn…guilt becomes a driving force if we allow ourselves to feel these uncomfortable feelings. My process is to step into this explicitly uncomfortable place of constantly engaging my own complicity.

What are some of the tools you find effective in helping your students connect with a topic that can be so personal?

Three tactics came out of writing my book. One was ritual; I feel that it’s a way to physically connect us with metaphysical things. It also connects us to ourselves, our history. I feel like it’s a connecting force. Pausing was another; making breathing space, slowing down, trying not to be judgmental, thinking about how this radical, de-colonising potential is in everything. This other world is with us now… it’s about trying to listen, following the clues and looking for the seeds. The third was mystery; seeing social problems as mystery stops us feeling like we need to know everything. Everything is inherently insoluble, it’s always changing, so taking a position of being humble and asking questions, rather than taking the mode that we know everything, because that I feel is dangerous mode, it’s actually a very colonial mode.

Let’s talk about privilege. Aren’t we essentially asking white folk to give up privilege they have enjoyed for so long? What is the argument for that?

Part of it about reorienting people’s ideas about power. It’s a zero-sum game, where if one person has more, another has less. White people often say things to me like, hierarchy is natural… that competition is inevitable. These ideas come out of Darwinism, these debunked evolutionary theories that people have climbed onto because it helps justify this unequal, unjust world. I love that the recurring theme to social movements is there’s no justice for anyone unless there’s justice for all, no peace for anyone unless there’s peace for all.

When I think about giving up privileges, I’ve realised that to me this has felt more like refusing to participate in a violent system, and when I think of it that way I can actually think of a number of concrete examples from my own life (such as boycotting default white-only spaces, including saying no to going out for drinks with powerful white colleagues). I think one of the reasons I struggle to see this as giving something up, is because my life has opened up in so many incredible ways since I started to actively try and not participate or do whiteness differently. While I still firmly believe that I’m not and actually never can be fully 'woke', I feel like I have a much better sense of how white supremacy, history and power work these days, not to mention that I’ve now got friendships with people from a much wider range of backgrounds/lives, which has just made my life and thinking so much more interesting and rich! I feel like I have way more opportunities to get stretched and creative now, rather than just following a kind of lubed path.

You end your letter by asking NZ to do the work that brown, black and migrant communities have done for centuries. What did you mean by that?

Just acknowledging that there has been a very strong resistance to colonialism, white supremacy and racism…that the expertise lies with non-white people. We have to do the work, not expect non-white people to do all the labour (to change things)… that we have to take a position to be open, humble and nimble.

Article written by:
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Neelo Aysha Scholz
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Current Map: Our coverage
Embed from Getty Images
“Explanations for white supremacist attacks typically direct attention toward an unreasonable, paranoid state of mind and away from the neocolonial security state that made them”.
Embed from Getty Images
Many people think white supremacy means that as a white person you consciously think that you are superior to non-white people. But that’s not true.
Embed from Getty Images
It is actually the social structure that we are all socialised by, which passes white people into this superior position.

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