OPINION: I do not know if I can join the choir of shocked people who describe the attacks in Christchurch as ‘unthinkable’. I am shocked, perhaps, but not all that surprised.
Sure, white supremacists do not make it to the news everyday, yet the structures and narratives that brought to these events are so deeply entrenched in our society, here in New Zealand as well as in many other countries around the world. So how does this come as a surprise?
While researching violence and talking to people who killed and detonated bombs for political ideals, what I have found over and over is that if there is something that kills even more than weapons, it is stories. Stories of hatred tend to spur out of stories of fear and grievance. And we have long believed those stories, haven’t we? These are the stories that draw a line between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
You may not see yourself as a white supremacist, and I believe you. And yet, can you truly say you never felt diffident or afraid of a Muslim or a person with different skin colour? Well, if you did, you are not alone. Today, we hear of white terrorists killing Muslims, but until Friday you might have quickly associated the word ‘terrorist’ with Islam. This narrative of the dangerous Muslim ‘Other’ is all around us, all the time. Muslims are stereotypically portrayed as violent terrorists in media, political debates, popular movies, and TV shows. And perhaps, while watching those movies, you might have even found yourself cheering the heroes who killed bearded Muslim villains. We are so bombarded with these symbols that even people who want to live in harmony in a diverse world may experience that sting of suspicion.
To make things worse, there is this fear of being ‘invaded’. I am quite familiar with that unfortunately, as I grew up in a place, the northeast of Italy, where Right-wing politicians have been openly stirring that fear for decades. This kind of rhetoric is powerful because it links the fear of the ‘Other’ to people’s own grievances. It offers someone someone to blame for our problems, and creates the idea of a competition for resources, so that it is either us or them. By diverting people’s outrage against someone else, political leaders are able to shift the focus away from internal problems, particularly those that are at the roots of complex grievances. When these discourses are normalised and dominating in a society, it does not get better easily.
Is it different in New Zealand? Our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says that this is not New Zealand. I like that. It is a way of showing that we are concerned, that it affects us all. It is a way of showing solidarity. The danger, however, is to dismiss the fact that we do have a problem with race, and it is deeply entrenched in our society. We cannot simply hope that it was just the act of a mad bunch of people, and that once they are caught it will all be OK. We need to do something about this, we need to address the uncomfortable everyday reality of racism. Not just the open racism that ends up in violence, but also all those invisible everyday acts that silently hurt every single day.
The attacks in Christchurch had a clear political agenda: the perpetrators wanted immigrants out of the country. Immigration was a hot topic during the last elections, remember? And not in a very welcoming way. Immigrants are widely perceived as a cause behind social issues, such as housing and unemployment. And it is not just about reducing the numbers. The narratives that link immigration to structural grievances are highly emotional and they are influenced by all those perceptions of the ‘Other’. We do not perceive all migrants in the same way, and some groups – for example Muslims – are blamed more than others – like white Europeans or Americans.
Immigration policies in New Zealand are not colour blind and do not apply to everyone equally either. I have first-hand experience of this. I have a mixed international family, and I do not know how to explain to my Kiwi children that their grandparents from one side (Europe) are welcome, while it has become almost impossible for their Indian grandparents to even get a short-term visitor visa. Racism is very much part of everyday practices in our institutions and social interactions, whether in open or subtle ways.
As a migrant woman in New Zealand, and not a white one, I do love it here. I have bonds with many extraordinary Kiwis and people from many countries and I feel safer than anywhere else I have lived before. This is where my children are born, and Dunedin is the only place in the world they call home. I know people and organisations who wholeheartedly put much passion in connecting people and cultures. And yet, I am also aware of how much immigrants like me struggle in their everyday lives because of prejudice and diffidence.
Today, I read and hear white people talking about the attacks in Christchurch as something that moved them. It is as if a deep sense of grief is affecting us all. Are you experiencing that, too? We academics would call it a ‘collective emotion’. This could be the start of a new powerful story where we all stand together and commit to do something to resist and change those stories of fear and hatred between us. Grief is the perfect time for love and solidarity.
But it must not just be for today and tomorrow, or until the news stops crowding our TV and social media feeds. The stories that justify acts of violence are real and affect the lives of hundreds of people around us everyday. This problem will not be solved with police intervention or more security. It will not be solved until we do something to change those stories. If you choose love instead of fear and terror today, start doing something to change. Get to know your neighbours. Let them in. Rather than seeing them as victims, terrorists, find out who they really are. You may get to know them as students, athletes, parents, doctors… who knows. We are afraid of what we do not know, and we learn the most through direct experiences. What else? Create space for dialogue and exchange in your workplace and among your friends. Ask your Government for better answers to poverty and structural violence. Make sure you provide your professional services without racial bias. Always address all people with respect, no matter your assumptions in regards to their background.
To Muslim friends and people of colour I would say: tell your story. Your voice matters. Nobody else can understand what is happening more than you do. Tell your story so that nobody can claim ignorance. And why not? If you feel like sharing your experience on social media, let us join our voices together and start a new #MeToo campaign. A #MeTooRace this time.
You may think that small acts like this count little. But let me tell you something, I went to the field to research why people choose violence, and I came back learning about how everyday acts of peace in the community can stop it. Community solidarity is what allows people to stand up to violence and achieve change from below. Let us start a new story of peace.
Monica Carrer is a Dunedin-based researcher and practitioner in the field of Peace and Conflict Studies. She is the co-founder of The Everyday Peace Initiative.