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Allies or Traitors? Waitangi Weekend Reflection


See the day’s “word in texts” or scripture readings below

On the night that felt like betrayal—but wasn’t it just over-enthusiastic “we know what’s best” actions by well-meaning allies?—Jesus gathered with his friends.

It was a closed group, confidants he could share ideas and be his true self with. His friends. Who loved him, admired him, who wore his t-shirt and marched under his banner—but who in the end, didn’t honour the covenant relationship between them.

And yet, he understood them. He washed their feet, and blessed them. He served the bread himself, and poured the wine, saying, “This is a new treaty between us. Share the bread and wine; share my words, and my lifeblood, and my blessing. Share my bruises and victimisation, too; share the contempt of people who’ve never met me. Because when you do, you’ll remember the promise: of tino rangatiratanga, the kingdom of heaven here; of bullying and oppression ended, of racism eradicated and the hungry fed. Share this life; walk in my shoes. Even if it’s in your imagination, live my life.”

“Wash all of me,” cries Peter. “Not just my feet, but my hands and head and all of me. Of course, we’ll never betray you.”

“But have you really listened?” asks Jesus. “When I talk about the treaty and how to fulfil it, do you believe me? Or do you still want to do it your way, and feel hurt when you hear, ‘That’s not what we really needed’?”

And then an argument broke out, over who’d been the best allies. They betrayed the Covenant between friends, because even if they heard him, they didn’t listen.

Sure, they agreed things weren’t fair and needed to change. But when it came to action, they wore the button, they had special t-shirts printed, they marched. But if there was serious trouble, if people were going to get hurt, or there was looting or rioting instead nice, peaceful palm-waving, they were out of there. If he chose to get among those sort of people, and suffer, even risk getting killed, well, it wasn’t really their fight, was it?

They’d signed online petitions and written letters and shared posts, but when someone muttered, “Nothing good ever came from Nazareth—or Mangere, or Porirua,” they edged away. And if the curious or confrontational said, “What’s he really like? You know him, don’t you?”, they were like, “Not me. I agree with some of what he says, but he goes too far. Excuse me…” and off they slip, into the quieter crowds, away from the tired and disillusioned and angry ones.
Say her name. Black Lives Matter. I can’t breathe. Queer black lives matter. Don’t shoot me. Say their names.

Black Lives Matter. It’s a vibrant, grassroots movement in the United States that grew out of the unspeakable killings of black men, women, children, genderqueer folk, by state and government sanctioned police officers. Black people—and people of colour—gathering to say, “Enough! Don’t kill us. We matter too.”

And of course, the backlash. The people in authority’s excuses. She should have done as she was told. He shouldn’t have pulled a toy gun. She shouldn’t have been answered back. He shouldn’t have run. She wasn’t innocent, that one. He was known to us. He looked like a trouble-maker. Why was he wearing a hoodie? Why was she out so late at night? What was he doing driving a fancy car?

The backlash, the bullets, the brutality of power.

And then the crown of thorns. The “just sayin’” comments of the privileged. The ignorance. But we didn’t know. We weren’t taught it in school. I’ve never heard of Jim Crow. I’d never heard of Parihaka. No-one told me. Or, how come you’ve got this fancy job? Bet you got a race-based scholarship. Always wanting special treatment. Go back where you came from.

And if they answer, you mean Alabama, or Ferguson, or New York City, they’re told not to be uppity. You can’t be really human if half of you are in prison and the rest are unemployed or drug dealers or get pregnant for the hell of it. How dare you have five kids if you can’t look after them? Why was your teenager out late anyway? What was he doing with a toy gun? Don’t you know what’s appropriate?

Or, how can you say I’ve got privilege? It’s not my fault, no one cares if I lose my job, or the factories close. No one can say I shouldn’t own as many guns as I want. Don’t act like you’re underprivileged when you’ve had a university education and I worked my way up from nothing.

The thorny crowns rammed on by the privileged.

And then, there’s the betrayal by friends, the crucifixion by allies. The whinging, and the fragility, and the “I’m doing my best. I wear my safety pin. A bit of thanks and encouragement would be good. You know, we’re supporting you, we’re standing with you; we don’t have to. We’re good people and do the right thing, so a bit of appreciation wouldn’t hurt. And if we’re not doing the right thing, why don’t you tell us? What can we do? Do you expect us to get our hands dirty right along with you?”

And what that means is, we haven’t been listening. We haven’t tried to imagine your life, your history, your fear for your children. We haven’t confronted our friends or colleagues or family members who make racist remarks or homophobic asides or sexist jokes. You’re tired and you’re angry, and you thought the Constitution, the Covenant, the Treaty included you. But at the same time as you work nights and study to get qualifications and lead social justice initiatives and support your families and raise your kids and teach them fear as well as respect, really, haven’t you got time to educate me? I admit I’m privileged, but can’t you just spoon feed me a bit? I want to be an ally. I think I’m one. How come you’re questioning my sincerity?

The betrayal by friends, the crucifixion by allies.
You know about the post-Brexit safety pins? Some people in the UK started wearing safety pins to show their stance against racism and their solidarity with immigrants[i]—and tweeted photos of themselves wearing them. In the wake of the US election, the safety pin strategy caught on among white people there. And now they’re feeling offended if a person of colour says, “If I’m being insulted or intimidated or attacked, I don’t have time to look around and hope one of you well-meaning white people has a safety pin on their jacket.” And that it’s feel-good tokenism that doesn’t actually help.

So why does the “Black Lives Matter” movement mean so much, to me, here in Aotearoa New Zealand? To the tiny number of friends—Māori, queer, rarely Pakeha—who acknowledge the Facebook articles I share, the hashtags and the heartfelt paragraphs begging white people to confront our privilege and listen to black people and people of colour?

A lot of the information about “Black Lives Matter” comes from my friend who’s living in Austin, Texas. Who might bring her beautiful mixed-race daughter back to Wellington where she was born, to check out secondary education in a place that’s safe for her. One of the most gregarious, educated, independent women I’ve met tells me her daughter’s scared to go to school; and one of the black teenagers police killed was a relative, and she’s got the resources and the passion and the ability to spread the word—and she’s ANGRY!

And because I see and read and hear the parallels here. I’m frightened of the racism simmering under the covers of She’ll Be Right, and It’s a Good Place to Bring Up Kids, and We All Get Along, and We’re better than the Aussies because we’ve got The Treaty… because the reality’s not like that. Not for tangata whenua.

Frightened and uncomfortable, and I want to do something! Because I still hear people start sentences with, “I’m sorry, but, Māori are like that”, and “I’m not racist, but…” or “Māoris can be racist, too,” or “I knew him when his name was Steve”. The micro-aggressions, the surprise at success, the sideways glance.

So I asked in a Māori forum, would it be presumptuous of me to start a Facebook page—like Black Lives Matter to White People, too, but for Pakeha to support Māori—and here’s the reply: “Bronwyn, the more people that can raise the issue of the big festering scab that lies beneath the surface of colonisation, which is intergenerational institutional racism, the better. Such a page would need someone behind it with broad shoulders and thick skin as you/the page would receive a lot of hate.”

And I realise again how privileged I am that I can make the choice; that I can avoid all the aggro, while tangata whenua cannot.
In one of his last songs, Leonard Cohen wrote the lyrics, “I wish there was a treaty we could sign… I’m angry and I’m tired all the time. I wish there was a treaty, between your love and mine.” As a Jew who took Jesus Christ seriously, in the end, Cohen chose to be laid to rest in a traditional Jewish rite in a family plot. And when I listen to Treaty, I hear his disillusionment with the Christianity he’s explored, although not with the “beautiful guy, Jesus” he once described; and I hear his wish for treaty between our belief systems. [Listen here]

And I think of the Covenant between God and Abraham, the Covenant represented to Noah by a rainbow, the Covenant between Jesus and his friends on the night they were to betray him… and I think about Waitangi Day, and the Covenant this country, Aotearoa, has between its peoples.

I think of my Black friend in Austin, Texas, who’s tired and angry at having to keep explaining to White people—including her friends—about how to be a true ally, and about white privilege, and white fragility and defensiveness, and instead of asking her figuring out for themselves what to do. She’s tired and she’s angry, but she keeps sharing and posting and marching and preaching.

Won’t go away, Treaty won’t go away. Treaty, written in the skies. Treaty, written in the hearts of mankind.” [Treaty by Moana and the Moahunters.]

Are my shoulders wide enough? Could my white fragility cope with the hate? Is my white skin thick enough? I’d need allies: and we’d get the disdain and the thorns and be metaphorically crucified for speaking out. But will you join me, anyway?

And in promoting God’s Kin-dom of self-determination for all, where treaty and covenant are honoured, maybe we should wear our safety pins on the inside—by our hearts—as a constant reminder; open perhaps, so the pinpricks are real to us, too.

Tātou tātou e. Amen.

Visit Bronwyn White’s website here.

Review & Commentary