Margaret Mutu has stirred the pot with comments about restricting white immigration. But the true bite comes in her claim that she can't be racist, a claim that no longer holds water

Immigration has long been dry tinder throughout the western world, easily ignited by fiery words. We've seen it in New Zealand, from the poll tax and Chinese:cargo ratio imposed by government in 1881, through the dawn raids of the 1970s, to Winston Peter's anti-Asian rhetoric of the 1990s. Enter, Professor Margaret Mutu.

Commenting on a labour department report about Maori reactions to immigration, Mutu, according to media reports, suggested many white migrants bring racist attitudes with them to this country and the number of white immigrants should be restricted. She followed that up by saying that Maori should get to decide who comes to this country as they are the only hosts; everyone who came after remains a guest in this land.

Michael King, where art thou o brother? It was King who stood between Maori and Pakeha worlds and so eloquently expressed that, after a couple of centuries, pakeha too have become indigenous to this land.

Mutu is nobody's fool. I've only met her once or twice, but she was warm and engaging in person. I just don't think she accepts or understands the idea that pakeha have developed an indigenous culture in this land.

There are numerous arguments against Mutu's call – not least the practicality of vetting racists from non-racists. Do we also try to gauge a migrant's attitude to women, the elderly, gays, and animal rights? Do we set IQ tests?

There is also some wisdom in what Mutu said – about the changing demographics of this country and about the need to never ignore racism. And I have no problem with her expressing an opinion, even though I would say it smacks of ignorance of other cultures.

Mutu spoke more positively of Asian migrants, as if racism is the curse only of white cultures. That, sadly, just isn't true. Indeed, don't Mutu's own views – and those of Maori quoted in the report, saying they feel threatened by migrants – reveal a hint of racism in themselves?

And this is where it gets interesting. Mutu says she wasn't being racist – in fact, she couldn't be racist – because only those in power can be racist.

''Racism is definitely associated with power and using power to deprive another group... Maori are not in a position of power in this country and therefore cannot deprive Pakeha.''

This is the definition of racism I learnt at university in the late 1980s – racism requires power to be truly oppressive. The older I get, the less convinced I am that it's that simple.

Minorities may not be able to oppress, but one-on-one condemnation of another on the basis of his or her ethnicity can be brutal. What if the person from a minority culture is an employer? Or a teacher? Could they not oppress? And who is a minority all the time? Cannot a minority group be an oppressive majority when they have the dominant numbers in a village or neighbourhood?

But that argument's really a red herring. My main point is that, even accepting Mutu's academic definition of racism, her claim to be immune no longer holds water.

We are in a time of transition in this country, times are changing. Perhaps, a generation or two ago, Mutu could still make her argument of powerlessness. But to say that Maori – and she in particular – lack power is to ignore the dramatic changes in this country in my lifetime.

She's looking at individual drops of water falling on her face and can't see the rain.

Margaret Mutu is a professor; a woman of expertise in a prestigious position. She is the head of the Maori Studies department at our most highly rated university. Her professional success gives her power.

The fact that she was quoted in the original story and then invited to appear on primetime television shows that she has the power to make her voice heard.

But perhaps most significantly, as Chair of Te Rūnanga-ā-Iwi o Ngāti Kahu she is a member of the Iwi Leadership Forum. That forum ranks as one of the most powerful lobby groups in the country. She has access to political leaders and a political leverage that outstrips all but a few in this country. She has more direct power than most Pakeha.

Add to that the wider power that Maori now have in Aotearoa, namely economic strength. The Maori economy was recently reported to be worth $37 billion. Yep, billion. That's almost doubled in the past five years.

Ngai Tahu is worth $653 million, but have been overtaken this year in the richest iwi stakes by Tainui, with $658 million. Ngai Tahu's influence in Christchurch is only set to grow as it plays a leading role in the rebuild.

Even the Bank of New Zealand has twigged onto the rising power of Maori business, creating a 'head of Maori business' to help them win accounts.

This is what long-time PR man and lobbyist Chris Wikaira told the Herald at the start of the month:

"You can conceivably see out in provincial New Zealand the biggest game in town, apart from maybe forestry or Fonterra, is likely to be an iwi asset holding company and it's all money that's invested in New Zealand."

So Margaret Mutu can claim powerless as much as she likes – it no longer washes. Maori have been far too successful to warrant her cries of woe.

Mutu's comments suggest that she is missing one of the great stories of our time – the increased sharing of the power and wealth in this country.

Yes, Maori en masse have some terrible social statistics to overcome – and that will take decades. Yes, there are still historical wrongs to put right. But we are well down that path, and she only has to look at her own iwi to see that the delays in those settlements are not merely down to pakeha. And yes, Maori is still the minority culture in this country.

But powerless? No. And no. Maori success has changed those old definitions and that's something Mutu should celebrate. And own.

Comments (7)

by DeepRed on September 14, 2011

Not all racists are in a position of power, as neo-Nazi skinheads go to show. They often appear in groups, but out of cowardice, not strength.

by Tim Watkin on September 14, 2011
Tim Watkin

I guess, DeepRed, that they group together and act with violence to appear powerful, rather than scared. And you're right – even with small numbers they can oppress.

by Chris de Lisle on September 14, 2011
Chris de Lisle

Immigrants also tend not to have an awful lot of power; they usually find themselves on the outside, at least initially (Even if they are British, which not all Europeans are). Therefore, by her argument, immigrants ought not to be capable of racism either.

by attrendycat on September 14, 2011

Does anyone know why racism is defined to include power? It seems unnecessary, when most people think of it as prejudice alone.

by Tim Watkin on September 14, 2011
Tim Watkin

Chris, that's a good point! Even if they were racist oppressors in their old country, all migrants become a minority when they shift.

Ben, I think it's simply that racism implies some sort of oppression, and that requires the racist to wield some power. Certainly, the worst and largest abuses of racism have stemmed from the powerful.

by Peter Calder on September 19, 2011
Peter Calder

Is there a difference between Hone Harawira's calling me a white motherf***er and my calling him a nigger? Just asking. They feel different to me ...

by Tim Watkin on September 20, 2011
Tim Watkin

Hi Peter. That's a good point and I think you're right. Being of the dominant culture, you could argue, does make it easier for you to racist - especially if you're just a run of the mill fella like you and me.

But on the other hand, isn't it more abusive for a member of parliament to swear at you than a writer (however talented) to swear at an MP?

And as power changes hands, those old rules change don't they?

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