Internalised white supremacy and how it affects our relationships

Image description: a photo of Audre Lorde in a circular frame with the text in white and yellow: “The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us, and which knows only the oppressors’ tactics, the oppressors’ relationships.” – Audre Lorde 

Out of all the violence and damage that colonisation and racism has done to non-white peoples, one of the most hurtful and insidious forms of violence is when it becomes internalised. It’s when we are used instrumentally to maintain systemic racism, to harm ourselves, our families and our communities; when we stop fighting back and accept it, or worse, think we deserve it and that we are the problem that needs to change. 

This is written more for diasporic East Asian folks living in Aotearoa as this is based on my own experiences in political organising, but I want to acknowledge that a lot my learning about race, white supremacy and racism has come from Black feminists such as Audre Lorde, bell hooks, the Combahee River Collective, Angela Davis, Christina Sharpe and the connections between white supremacy and colonialism from Māori thinkers/activists/friends: Moana Jackson, Sina Brown-Davis, Annette Sykes, Kim McBreen, Kassie Hartendorp, Tina Ngata, Aaryn and Alesha of REA and many more as well as my Pacific Islander and Tauiwi of Colour (ToC) friends who have also taught me so much. 

A lot has happened in the last few years to make me return to reflecting more on this problem of internalised white supremacy in more detail. I have been sitting on this piece for a couple of years now, and in that time there has been a greater consciousness of racism and white supremacy. The white supremacist terrorism in Christchurch that took the lives of 51 Muslims and then the subsequent white fragility in response to the Jummah Remembrance vigil at Pukekawa (aka “Auckland Domain”). The policing of grief and anger was telling of how the outpouring of support was conditional. There was a window in the aftermath where racism was being talked about more honestly. Yet how quickly afterwards, the problem is allowed to fester when gun laws can be changed overnight but institutional racism remains intact. When white supremacist violence continues. When Jacinda Ardern can ignore the calls from mana whenua at Ihumātao to visit and return the land, but then make patronising announcements about how she hopes land protectors there are being “peaceful.” We’re seeing another global revival of anti-Asian/Sinophobic racism spreading alongside COVID-19 in white-dominated countries while China was made accountable for its own xenophobia against Africans in Guangzhou. Structures of white supremacy have exacerbated or perhaps just became more visible and newsworthy at this time of global crisis.

This year, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter uprisings that spread globally demands more urgent action against anti-Black racism and organising for police and prison abolition. During this moment, I have seen Asians on social media talk more openly about anti-Black racism. The 1.8 million member boba meme group, Subtle Asian Traits even retracted their “no politics” policy to allow Black Lives Matter posts. But there are also Asians who have been silent or critical of it, dismissing these calls for police to stop murdering Black people and take action on anti-Black racism as “identity politics”. According to them, anti-racism unfairly treats white people. These stances prioritise white people’s feelings over Black lives. I wrote a Twitter thread that addresses this in more depth, but here I want to share some of my personal reflections and experiences of how internalised white supremacy has affected our relationships to each other. 

Over the years in activist organising contexts, there have been times when I’ve felt sidelined, ignored and taken less seriously by other Tauiwi of Colour who often have closer proximity to whiteness. There have also been times where I catch myself thinking or acting in ways that undermine or stereotype other Asians because of internalised racism and probably many times I haven’t noticed myself doing this. It’s painful to confront because it’s so close to the bone. And it’s shameful to acknowledge. Yet it is necessary if we want to build relationships with each other, our own communities, with other Tauiwi of Colour, with Māori and Pacific communities, that is truly threatening to white supremacy, relationships that do not replicate the harm of white supremacy. 

Internalised white supremacy is like a slow-killing poison injected in our veins growing up in colonised lands. It’s unavoidably there for most Tauiwi of Colour, but especially for those of us who culturally pass as “kiwi”, speak fluent English with a NZ accent, understand all the slang, jokes, humour and customs to be able to fit in easily. 

For those of us working towards dismantling racism and colonialism, it’s going to be difficult for us to get anywhere unless we address our own internalised white supremacy and support each other to do so. I wanted to be specific and break down all the ways that this manifests on an interpersonal and personal level. It’s important because the way we relate to each other is foundational to the success of achieving any kind of tangible social and economic change. The way we treat each other can make or break movements, it can mobilise or alienate communities directly affected by colonialism and racism. Unlearning white supremacy can build stronger bridges across racialised communities and with our own cultural genealogies.  

I’ve written a list of behaviours that I have observed, engaged in myself, or heard about as a starting point for people to consider and reflect on how we can also uphold white supremacy in ways that are too easily taken for granted. I know this list can be confronting and could be met with a similar kind of fragility, defensiveness, shame or guilt. I name it because it can be so insidious that those of us with more proximity to whiteness often cannot see it ourselves. Some of them are more specific to left activism, where I’ve noticed a frustrating and dangerous trend of apologism for white people’s racism to silence and shut down Māori, Pacific Islander and Tauiwi of Colour (MPITOC) who have called out their politics or practices as racist, and dismissing it as “identity politics”. There will be more examples I’m sure that other people have, but I hope it can be a starting point for discussion, healing and change. 

A note on language: originally, I used “people of colour” in this article but I know it has its problems and doesn’t attend to the different effects on racism on differently racialised groups of people and the specificities of the context in Aotearoa. I’ve opted for “Māori, Pacific Islanders and Tauiwi of Colour” (MPITOC) which is also limited, but I’m happy to take feedback for alternative ways of expressing this! I used the term “tauiwi people of colour” many years ago to describe migrant communities of colour in relation to tangata whenua, but “people” is redundant since “tauiwi” already implies people. More recently Arama Rata and Faisal Al-Asaad wrote about Māori and Tauiwi of Colour relationship-building and uses “tauiwi of colour” to mean “settlers of colour” so I’ve also used this language here. On Turtle Island, people use BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) but I don’t want to transplant that universally. 

A list of questions to ask ourselves: 

  1. Do you treat white people better than Māori, Pacific Islanders, and Tauiwi of Colour? 
  2. Do you take the opinions of white people more seriously than Māori, Pacific Islanders, and Tauiwi of Colour who have expressed the exact same view? 
  3. Do you prioritise your white friends and partners over your Māori, Pacific Islander, and Tauiwi of Colour friends and family? 
  4. Do you pride yourself in being able to speak English without a non-white accent? 
  5. Do you treat Māori, Pacific Islanders, and Tauiwi of Colour who speak English with a non-western (or middle class) accent differently (less respectfully) to MPITOC who speak with “Kiwi”, Australian, British, Canadian and American accents? 
  6. Do you prioritise white people’s feelings over Māori, Pacific Islanders, and Tauiwi of Colour joy, pain and labour? 
  7. Do you minimise and victim-blame Māori, Pacific Islanders, and Tauiwi of Colour for their pain and trauma? 
  8. Do you feel competitive, embarrassed or threatened when there are other Māori, Pacific Islanders, and Tauiwi of Colour operating in white-dominated spaces that you have felt accepted and comfortable in? 
  9. Do you jump to your white friends, colleagues, partner or comrades defence when other Māori, Pacific Islanders, and Tauiwi of Colour are calling out their racism? 
  10. Do you act as a protector of white fragility to maintain your proximity to whiteness?
  11. If you hold a position of power in a scene, organisation or community, do you side with and make excuses for white people’s racism? 
  12. Do you use or acknowledge your culture tokenistically to gain social capital from white audiences or to add ‘flavour’ to your art projects? 
  13. Do you feel uncomfortable or intimidated in Māori, Pacific Islanders, and Tauiwi of Colour majority spaces? 
  14. Do you spend more time and energy critiquing Māori, Pacific Islanders, and Tauiwi of Colour communities and culture while hiding behind western academia? 
  15. Do you dismiss concerns of racism as “identity politics”? 
  16. Do you make excuses for white people’s cultural incompetence and expect Māori, Pacific Islanders, and Tauiwi of Colour to accommodate them without any reciprocity? 
  17. Do you take resources away from Māori, Pacific Islanders, and Tauiwi of Colour communities and use it for white-centric projects? 
  18. Do you exploit Māori, Pacific Islander, and Tauiwi of Colour generosity for the interests of your white friends, comrades or partners? 
  19. Are you silent and indifferent when it comes to deaths and murders of Māori, Pacific, and Tauiwi women of colour and have more empathy for gender violence against white women? 
  20. Do you only get behind a campaign or movement only after white people have gotten behind it? 
  21. Do you take Māori, Pacific Islanders, and Tauiwi of Colour labour for granted and give more acknowledgement and credit to white people for being halfway decent? 
  22. Do you prioritise learning western theories and overlook, dismiss or devalue the knowledge of your own people and other Māori, Pacific Islanders, and Tauiwi of Colour? 
  23. Do you look down on your culture’s knowledge and theories as unscientific, superstitious, irrational or anecdotal? 
  24. Do you take light-skinned or white-passing Māori, Pacific Islanders, and Tauiwi of Colour more seriously than darker-skinned brown and black people? 
  25. Do you find yourself spending more of your time judging Māori, Pacific Islanders, and Tauiwi of Colour and dismissing/minimising/managing their anger or pain than challenging institutional racism or white people on their racism? 
  26. Do you only refer to colonisation and racism when it’s politically expedient for public communications but don’t address it in the organisations or communities you’re involved in?
  27. Do you prefer working with white structures and capitalise on your proximity to whiteness to gatekeep and use that power for your own career?
  28. Do you think twice about how your actions can affect or impact on Māori, Pacific Islanders, and Tauiwi of Colour when you have the support of powerful white people?
  29. Do you pander to white people and deny that racism exists in this country? 
  30. Are you far more forgiving and generous to white people than Māori, Pacific Islanders, and Tauiwi of Colour? 
  31. Do you look down on Māori, Pacific Islanders, and Tauiwi of Colour who are less assimilated than you? Do you feel embarrassed to be associated with them?   
  32. Do you find a sense of righteousness when operating in white-dominated spaces and can speak out about racism in those spaces but in Māori, Pacific Islander, and Tauiwi of Colour majority spaces feel superior to less westernised MPITOC and undermine or underestimate their intelligence? 
  33. Do you feel ashamed and try to hide/change your physical features that aren’t considered desirable by white beauty standards? 
  34. Are you only attracted to white people, light skinned or white-passing people? 
  35. Do you find yourself correcting Māori, Pacific Islanders, and Tauiwi of Colour on English grammar or pronunciation when they haven’t asked for it? 
  36. Do you expect Māori, Pacific Islanders, and Tauiwi of Colour to soften their voices or tone for you to engage with them? Do you think MPITOC who don’t are overreacting or being unreasonable when they’re angry about racism? 

Hurt people hurt people. Many of us have been hurt and are still hurting from the violence of racism and colonialism. But to stop this cycle of hurting, we can’t ignore the ways that we uphold white supremacy and sacrifice other MPITOC to gain white approval, prestige or status in a white-dominated colonised society. 


Special thanks to Anevili for feedback on languaging and adding more to the question list, to Kirsty and Kassie for reading and providing feedback and to Teina for proofreading! Ngā mihi aroha ki a koutou.

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