Nov 17, 2020
Published on: Newsroom
3 min read


'The best of us,' writes Emma Espiner in a new journal of Māori writing, 'don’t feel bad about employing the tools of the Pākehā for our own ends while simultaneously dreaming differently, collectively, in our Indigenous souls.'

I have always had a thing for the whitest of white men. In my teens and twenties I crawled over the cute but stupid ones, the dangerously narcissistic, the weak and worshipful. I wanted to get inside their skin, possess them and turn it inside out, fascinated by the differences between us. I told my friends it was reverse colonisation. In my secret heart I worry that it’s the opposite. That I crave the approval of white men to validate my existence.

And so I grew to love the essays of Christopher Hitchens. To me, his was the apotheosis of the white man’s brain. He had intellect, a cutting wit and was an authority on everything. I read his polemic God is Not Great after a challenging encounter with a Jehovah’s Witness and I felt liberated by his scorn for organised religion. He’d probably be useless in the zombie apocalypse but the dinner party conversations would be epic.

Since Hitchens died I’ve missed him in the global discourse. I wanted to know what he’d say about Trump, how he’d navigate the cultural changes that the internet thrust upon us by bringing us into proximity with the views of the ‘Karens’ of the world. What would he make of Brexit? #MeToo? Covid?

An American writer, George Packer, won the Hitchens Prize in 2019. This is an award which is conferred annually upon a writer who “... reflects a commitment to free expression and inquiry, a range and depth of intellect, and a willingness to pursue the truth without regard to personal or professional consequence.”

I read Packer’s acceptance speech. He talked about how the world of letters has lost some of its spirit since Hitchens’ death. He identifies the enemies of writing as belonging, fear, and despair. The latter two made sense. But the first? A desire to belong, in his view, has robbed us of the ability to be brave and truthful in our writing. What does that mean, coming from someone who belongs to the dominant culture? True bravery is defined in this context as being able to say whatever one chooses with impunity. ‘Free-speech’ advocates in Aotearoa have used this philosophical position to defend eugenicists, neo-Nazis and home-grown domestic racists. It’s a slippery slope, they told us. Who will they come for next? They’ve been coming for us since forever though, and why is it always the racists these men leap to defend first? I think of the culture which nurtured this view by violently suppressing the thoughts, cultures and existence of others and think - fucking hell, of course we need a crew. As Audre Lorde said, for us, “survival is not an academic skill.”

I bought a book about race science. It was meant to be revelatory, and fodder for this essay about culturally different ways of knowing. I looked forward to an evisceration of racism in science. I had some reservations. A few months earlier I was out walking, listening to an interview with the author and there was a mic drop moment when she was asked about whether there was such a thing as an anti-racist scientific tradition. She said, “Anti-racist science is just science. Mainstream science is anti-racist.”

I slammed to a halt, iPhone tumbling out of my hand, pulling the headphones and Angela Saini’s justification of her statement with it. It was 5.30am and there was nobody to see me gesticulate at the moon. The fuck? How can that be true? I bought the book anyway. Mainly because I am a) bad with money and b) incapable of walking past an independent bookstore without buying something. After writing my name and the date in the top right hand corner of the first page I read the dedication: “For my parents, the only ancestors I need to know.”

I felt like I’d walked onto a hostile marae ātea. Imagine dismissing your tūpuna like that? I realised as I read the book that the author felt that the concept of ancestry had been subverted by western science. It had been irreversibly tainted for her, a woman of Indian-Punjab descent who lived in Britain. She is identified as British on her Wikipedia page. Once I understood her position, I could approach her book with an appreciation of context. Because nothing is truly objective, and it does matter who you are and where you come from.

The good guys of Hitch and Packer’s truth-seeking, objectivity-worshipping Enlightenment put Indigenous people into human zoos in Europe. They categorised us, measured our skulls and the width of our nostrils and assigned character traits, but none of the good ones. Aggressive, submissive, stupid. A local fave, Elsdon Best, brought this kaupapa to Aotearoa: “The communal habits and lack of privacy so marked in Māori life would have considerable effect in retarding advancement, inasmuch as they would impede the development of personality, and prevent introspective thought to a serious extent.”

Te Whē ki Tukorehe.

The ‘Enlightenment’ aligned with the period of mass colonisation of Indigenous peoples. It must have been a coincidence that, at the time when colonists wanted to take our lands and resources, they developed a tradition of scientific inquiry which rendered us inferior. They invented an idea of the truth and used it to tell us nothing but self-serving lies. It’s audacious but then you see someone like Trump and you think - this is where it comes from. The whakapapa to this is sitting at the top of the food chain, never having to adhere to the rules and if the rules come for you, you simply make a new rule.

My love, medical science, has been horribly complicit. This is why I struggled so deeply with Angela Saini’s assertion that pure science is, by definition, anti-racist. Because we have seen how scientific discovery required the contribution of the unwilling. The corpses of slaves were used by anatomists to learn about the human body. Instead of a peaceful freedom in death, the organs, tissues, limbs and bones of deceased slaves were dissected and categorised. The irony of using a so-called inferior race to advance medical science for the benefit of the white man, because you know that the benefits of these discoveries were not evenly distributed - not then, and not now.

Much more recently, in the early 1900s, an African American woman, Henrietta Lacks, died from cervical cancer at 31 years of age, after her cells had been extracted from her cervix and used without her permission in medical research. This improved the lives of millions. She and her family got nothing. Then there was the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male which looked at the natural history of syphilis. That sounds benign until you translate it into real words - scientists took destitute African American men with syphilis and then watched them sicken and die, after inducing their participation with meals, medical care, and burial insurance. When a cure was found, they didn’t offer it to the participants of the ‘study.’ This was only shut down in 1972.

I’ve watched allies with ‘ngā mihi’ on their email signatures cleave loudly to radicalism now that it’s safe

It’s hard to imagine my colleagues and mentors diligently cataloguing the demise of hundreds of men, impervious to their suffering. But everything has a whakapapa. Lindsey Fitzharris, author of The Butchering Art, talks about how medical students were once trained to remove all empathy for their patients as individuals, so that they may achieve a position of objective purity. Modern medical schools are still wrestling with this heritage, trying to figure out the best way to select students who are not psychopaths because, as it turns out, empathetic doctors make for better patient outcomes.

I recently read Patricia Grace’s Baby No-eyes. This is the story of a Māori baby whose eyes were stolen after she died at birth but really it’s the story of everything that was stolen from us, including the confidence in our Indigenous knowledge traditions. When I read it I was living away from my family, who I abandoned for six weeks so I could work alongside one of the only wahine Māori surgeons in the world. I was flatting with a family friend. His house was tucked underneath some council flats, across the road from the sluggish Hatea river and my room shook every time a truck drove past. I read about the eyeless baby girl from underneath my duvet with a hot water bottle and a torch. I looked at my hands that had held a scalpel and cut flesh that day and wondered if I was tapu. Aunty Pat saw Indigenous data sovereignty as an urgent political issue before we even had a word for it. When I think of all the turgid ‘thought leadership’ articles I read during my ill-advised and short-lived career in business, written by white men calling themselves ‘futurists’ I cackle on the inside. They can’t imagine shit compared to our Aunty.

I know what George Packer is getting at, and I agree that the excesses of virtue signalling in public discourse have had a chilling effect on intellectual inquiry and social cohesion. I’ve seen people take on the mantle of woke superiority to stifle criticism and mask their lack of authenticity and originality. I’ve watched allies with appropriate ‘pronoun-tanga’ and ‘ngā mihi’ on their email signatures cleave loudly to radicalism now that it’s safe and no longer radical while failing to act courageously to effect meaningful change. I can see the harm in dogmatic censorship of views even when the dogmatism in question comes from a perspective that aligns with my values.

But I disagree with Packer about the solution. It makes no sense to me that the solution to the predicament we find ourselves in relies on doing the same things that got us here. He’s limited by an intellectual tradition that has confined his imagination for what is possible. Enlightenment thinking is unable to help us now on its own. Moana Jackson says we owe it to our mokopuna to dream big and dream differently and that’s the philosophical tradition that I’m proud to belong to. Moana demonstrates how we can belong to the future by making explicit that the actions we take, or the injustices that we allow now, will literally shape the lives of our grandchildren. So of course we - collectively - have to be capable of imagining a different world and a different way. How can this vision be an enemy of writing?

We’re well placed as Māori to imagine a new world with more than one acceptable knowledge paradigm because we have all had to navigate Te Ao Pākehā and come to terms with duality. No matter how close or far you are to your whakapapa, this is a reality we confront sooner or later. ‘Objectivity’ in things like medical science hasn’t paid dividends for us because the subjective racism in the enactment of science kept us in the dark. We know that there isn’t one way, but our differences have been pathologised and denigrated. The best of us don’t feel bad about employing the tools of the Pākehā for our own ends while simultaneously dreaming differently, collectively, in our Indigenous souls. Kahu Kutia told me at Te Whē ki Tukorehe that she’s tūturu to the tikanga at home, but she’ll cut a bitch in Te Ao Pākehā if she has to. I still love Hitch and his wisdom is filed in my kete alongside Aunty Pat, equally valued taonga.

In Superior, Angela Saini talks about non-Indigenous scholars in Australia: “The more experts like him have tried to decipher ancient art, wherever it is in the world, the more they’ve found themselves only scratching at the surface of systems of thought so deep that Western philosophical traditions can’t contain them.”

I like that. We can’t be contained.

Emma's essay appears in the new online journal Te Whē ki Tukorehe, which also features the work of Becky Manawatu, Ruby Solly, Sinead Overbye, co-editors Anahera Gildea and Nadine Anne Hura, and others.

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