GRAHAM ADAMS: It’s open season on white men
Tusiata Avia’s provocative poem opens the door wide to more robust opinions being expressed in public — but only if you’re brown.
Poet Tusiata Avia — with the help of Stuff’s editors — and Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi have exposed the double standards of what is considered to be acceptable speech in New Zealand.
After Waititi recently posted an image of Captain James Cook being killed in Hawaii in 1779, Avia extended the celebration of his murder to killing his descendants.
Waititi wrote on his Facebook page on Valentine’s Day:
“This day 14 February 1779 our Kanaka Maoli whanaunga killed Captain James Cook with his own knife, after his attempt to kidnap Kalaniʻōpuʻu, an Ali’i nui (Arikinui) of Hawaii. They cooked him and then ate him.
“Cook opened the door for the British coloniser to infect Te Moana Nui a Kiwa.
“Valentine’s Day is a distraction to the true importance of today for all of our peoples of Te Moana Nui a Kiwa. Not today, coloniser! Today we celebrate and stand in solidarity with our Kanaka Maoli of Hawaii.”
Avia, however, appears to want to go further and visit the sins of the father on Cook’s descendants. Or, at least, the characters she has imagined in her poem “250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in New Zealand” certainly want to.
The poem is included in her 2021 compilation The Savage Coloniser Book, which is currently being adapted for the stage at the Auckland Arts Festival, which begins on March 9.
It describes “brown girls” driving around in SUVs looking for Cook’s “descendants”… “white men like you”… to kill.
Or, as the poet puts it:
Stuff’s editors apparently approved of the poem so thoroughly that on February 19 they not only published the text of the poem but also posted a video of Avia reading it, while announcing they were abandoning their usual editorial restraint: “Profanities have not been bleeped out in this video, against Stuff’s usual protocols, to allow the poet to read her work without censorship.”
In the accompanying interview with Avia, Stuff journalist Michelle Duff — who had often railed against the unpleasant insults Jacinda Ardern had received as Prime Minister before she stepped down in January — praised the poet as “fearless” and “confronting” and “unfailingly honest”.
Duff seemed completely unaware of her own contradictions. And by endorsing and promoting Avia’s work, Stuff has completely undermined its usual finger-wagging stance on what it considers to be racism, casual or otherwise.
Unfortunately, its usual rules seem to apply only if what is said or written is by a Pakeha. Imagine the uproar of condemnation if a Pakeha poet wrote something similar about knifing the descendants of a prominent figure from Māori or Samoan history. How likely is it that Stuff’s editors would offer them fawning coverage?
Unfortunately for its reputation and that of its journalists, Stuff’s double standards are on full show for everyone to see.
Stuff has also, in one fell swoop, made a mockery of Paula Penfold’s views about violent language expressed in her hour-long piece of agitprop Fire and Fury, released proudly by its investigative unit, Stuff Circuit, last August.
Penfold, a senior Stuff journalist, denounced the anti-mandate protesters in Wellington in early 2022 for messages that envisaged killing politicians.
In an allied piece, “Pushing Back Against the Monsters”, Penfold explained the motivations for making Fire and Fury:
“We started to see extreme violent language, death threats, and the normalising of language not previously used in everyday New Zealand: people talking very publicly about killing authority figures because they didn’t agree with their policies.
“We wanted to understand where that had come from and how mainstream it was going; why your auntie or neighbour was putting this stuff on their Facebook page, oblivious and unquestioning as to its origins.”
Penfold also told RNZ of her concerns about the “violent rhetoric” motivating protesters. In another Stuff column, she lamented “how ugly our civil discourse has become”.
Since Avia’s poem has been published by Stuff for a national audience in both print and online, you’d have to say “extreme violent language” and “violent rhetoric” have not only been “normalised” but have — thanks to Stuff’s promotion — gone far beyond the exclusive Arts Festival crowd to be completely mainstream.
Those thoroughly perplexed by Stuff’s suddenly relaxed attitudes to racism include the controversial UK expatriate Lee Williams. And he has every right to be confused by what appears to be a screaming double standard when a poem like Avia’s is fêted.
In 2021, Williams was condemned as a “white supremacist” and forced to leave his job as a truck driver for Synlait after he criticised He Puapua’s blueprint for a dual government shared between Maori and the Crown.
His crimes included mocking Rawiri Waititi in a video as someone who only became an MP because the Mongrel Mob turned him down on the grounds that he wasn’t bright enough to join a gang.
In his parody, Williams says that every time Waititi is confronted by someone who disagrees with him he says: “You’re racist!”
Williams’ spoof is mild stuff compared to Waititi celebrating the murder (and devouring) of a famed explorer and navigator, who brought news of the outside world and sophisticated technology to isolated groups of warring tribes, marooned far from modernity at the bottom of the Pacific. And extremely mild compared to Avia’s inflammatory verse.
Of course, people will say a poem is art and thus protected from the usual criticism. But that is clearly untenable at a time when Roald Dahl’s children’s books are being sanitized to remove words as innocuous as “mad”, “fat” and “black” (even when describing a tractor!)
Avia’s provocative stance can’t be taken entirely seriously, of course, because while her father was Samoan, her mother was Pakeha (of Scottish-English extraction). She is obviously a descendant of Pakeha men whom she appears to despise and recommends dispatching. Duff’s interview shows Avia is aware of this paradox. As she acknowledges: “I’ve got colonisers’ roots, and colonised roots.”
The war within her between coloniser and colonised seems to have had conflicting outcomes — not least that Avia was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to poetry and the arts in 2020.
Presumably her colonisers’ heritage allowed her to accept a prestigious royal honour derived from Britain while her colonised self continues to rail against the settler society that dispenses them.
Avia told Duff: “It’s a universal truth about colonisation, which is basically it was rape and pillage and massacre. You know, that’s what it is. It’s a giant massacre. So you gotta be honest about that.”
Ultimately, can anyone take seriously an armchair revolutionary with a MNZM who relishes making her Pakeha audiences “really uncomfortable”? That’s simply the stance of a cynical provocateur playing for cheap thrills.
The French have a phrase for it — “épater la bourgeoisie”, or “to shock the middle-classes”. It isn’t of course very easy to shock people in a permissive age like ours so Avia has gone for the “let’s kill a white man” schtick.
Perhaps best of all, Stuff’s promotion of Avia’s poem has thrown down the gauntlet to Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon and Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt and all those who regularly assert that racism must be stamped out wherever it is found.
The Human Rights Commission was responsible for the expensive “Give Nothing to Racism” ad campaign in 2017 — although few will be holding their breath in anticipation of Hunt’s stern condemnation of Avia’s inflammatory words, backed by Foon thundering from his bully pulpit.
Neither man is usually slow to come forward to condemn what they see as racism but it seems that racism mainly matters to our official watchdogs when Pakeha can be denounced.
Generally, the bar has been set pretty low for what qualifies as racism in New Zealand — at least if Pakeha are accused.
The “Give Nothing to Racism” website states unequivocally:
“Racism starts small. Sometimes it lives in everyday actions and comments that we laugh off, nod in agreement to, excuse, and therefore accept. But we don’t have to. We can stop casual racism from growing into something more extreme. We can give it no encouragement. No respect. No place. No power. We can give it nothing.”
Avia — with Stuff’s help — has given it heaps and opened the door wide to delivering incendiary and violent rhetoric.
But only, it seems, if you’re brown.
Graham Adams is a freelance editor, journalist and columnist. He lives on Auckland’s North Shore. This article was first published at The Platform