Biculturalism as Multiculturalism

Biculturalism as Multiculturalism (in monocultural New Zealand)
Talk given at “Biculturalism or Multiculturalism?” conference, hosted by the School of Culture, Literature and Society at the University of Canterbury,
1-3 September 2005

[This is a rough paper, not designed to be published, so excuse poor grammar and lack of references]

Tena koutou katoa.

Nau te raurau
Naku te raurau
Ka ki te kete

If only biculturalism was that simple.

It’s mixed feelings flying back into Christchurch. Like a kea, I feel a bit cheeky and insolent and likely to peck off someone’s roofracks. As with Tze Ming Mok, my formative experience here is having four white supremacists in the central square grabbing me by the ATM machine and yelling “WE HATE GOOKS! Do you hate GOOKS!!??!!” before throwing me to the ground. While I escaped physically unharmed, it’s been difficult to muster much enthusiasm for the city since then, and I’ve never lived here. But I greatly appreciate the opportunity to speak here. I looked through my schedule recently and realised that all of my presentations on cultural politics have happened overseas, but so much of their source is here. My respects and thanks to Ngai Tahu, the whanaunga of my dear friends up in Tairawhiti. Although 13 years ago I moved from Australia to New Zealand, it is the other place we sometimes stand, Aotearoa, that taught me what it is to stand and to speak, in the particular place where I am, in the presence of the ancestors. So on the one hand, being in Aotearoa also makes me less inclined to write papers. But then on the other, I don’t trust myself at all, and feel that it’s important to be precise, and writing perhaps makes this more possible. Anyway, my oratory is not particularly good, but it’s something I’m working on. It was a real treat to hear Ghassan Hage talk again yesterday. In my dreams, I present like Ghassan, with phrases just floating in the air like butterflies. Instead, I always talk like I pack my luggage, trying to squeeze too much in, a bit flustered having to repack to get through security.

I believe that the Avon is properly called Ötäkaro – “place of a game”. That seems appropriate if we think of “game” in the hip-hop sense, as a field of contest where language, power, and reputations are made and lost. Leaving the academic sector for me was the feeling that “the game need a makeover”, as Chicago rapper Common puts it. But as Teresia Teaiwa has pointed out, the real makeover of the academic game can only happen kanohi ki te kanohi, in gatherings such as this, however full of aporias and miscommunications.

When I first saw the title of the conference “Biculturalism or Multiculturalism?”, I was a bit annoyed and confused. Obviously, as we all know, these discourses are rhetorical figures employed by the monoculture to inoculate itself against transformation by the priorities of another culture – to recognise, tame, and domesticate difference. That was a given, but it wasn’t all of it. At first I thought that part of the problem was with the “or”. I don’t like the word “or”. It seemed to me the question was a bit like: “Should I take my children to the park or spend more time with my family?” And of course, my main experiences of having biculturalism contrasted to multiculturalism have been about white people saying they prefer the latter to the former.

As a sometime copyeditor, a good rule of thumb to make sentences clearer is to put the subject in the sentence. I realised that the problem with these terms is that there is an implicit subject being addressed. Who or what exactly is the person with the issue that needs to be addressed in this discourse? Well, we know very clearly what the problem in Aotearoa is that biculturalism and multiculturalism address. The problem is… white people. White people and our cultural supremacism. So we could reframe the question as “Decolonisation or Anti-racism?” That makes a lot more sense, and sounds more like a conference my crew would want to attend.

Not that white people are the entire problem. But the same way that feminism realised that the problem is men, and that there is an undeniable truth in that, anti-colonial activists realise that when you take the white guys out of the room, a lot of the problems go away.

[At home, whenever I leave the house I can hear the sighs of relief from halfway up the street. They’re like, ‘whew, hopefully he’ll be gone until the next time we need a funding application edited.’]

So we’ve identified that white monoculture is a problem. The question is how do we get white people to realise that we’re a problem? Indigenous people aren’t so good on this issue, so the job falls to us. Even though indigenous peoples know 99% of what you need to know about colonisation, that particular part of it’s not their strong suit. Because indigenous people have never had to work out how to be a problem. They know they’re a problem. Every day some white person tells them they’re a problem. My political upbringing was within the white Australian left, and though we grew up with an official policy of multiculturalism, whenever specific demands are made to relinquish control in response to indigenous issues, we always seemed to respond with the problems such a change raised. Employing indigenous staff? “Hmm, that could be a problem”.

European culture claims to be interested in rationality and progress, so I think there’s an idea floating around that it will learn from its mistakes if they’re politely pointed out. But even if we could, cultural power is one of those things that can be put on the table and divided up without giving anything away. It’s like Jesus with the loaves. We can put it out on the table, look like we’ve handed over some, then we go off to the next town with a full basket of bread. It’s incredible. So for me the deconstruction of cultural power is a psychic, emotional and affective question more than a rational one.

So we situate Pakeha as the source of all these culturalisms. And we Pakeha all prefer multiculturalism to biculturalism. Now that instantly makes me suspicious. But when you think about it, who wouldn’t prefer multi- to bi-? More is obviously better. I don’t know if you’ve seen that advert for disposable razors where the white guy says “Wow, not two, or three but FOUR blades”, and shakes his head in disbelief at the miracle of modern progress. That’s sort of like multiculturalism. It’s like, not just two restaurants, but a whole lot of different restaurants, with all sorts of interesting food. Wow, I bet back in those bicultural days, if they saw this they’d wish they got on the multicultural tip early. As documentary maker Suchi Kothari noted, New Zealanders’ quest for the perfect coffee suppresses the racist injustices suffered by those who brought such foods to New Zealand.

Multiculturalism is not that specific in its demands on Pakeha. If any particular culture makes us feel uncomfortable, we can always choose another one next time, and still claim to be multicultural. Mutliculturalism is a discourse of pluralism. And more importantly, it is a fantasy whereby all ethnic others can be subdued under the rule of institutional law, and incorporated into the self. But when it comes to practically applying multiculturalism, we run into problems. Most of all, we run into problems of language and epistemology. There is limit to number of languages we can learn, how “multicultural” we can be, unless we decide to reify cultural otherness into identity, and decide that there are general ethics of interaction that we can develop around culture. Very dangerous. So even though “multiculturalism” sounds pragmatic, it has a tough time cutting through the stuck-ness of Pakeha psychology. Multiculturalism affirms the potential diversity of the self, presuming the possibility of translation, and the understanding of others within Pakeha consciousness. And scholarship in the wake of colonialism has rigorously critiqued this. As Dipesh Chakrabarty points out,

“there was a time – before scholarship itself became globalized- when the process of translating diverse forms, practices, and understandings of life into universalist political-theoretical categories of deeply European origin seemed to most social scientists an unproblematic proposition. [but]…what translation produces out of seeming ‘incommensurabilities’ is neither an absence of relationship between dominant and dominating forms of knowledge nor equivalents that successfully mediate between the differences, but precisely the partly opaque relationship we call ‘difference’. To write narratives and analyses that produce this difference – and not transparency – in the relation between non-Western histories and European thought and its analytical categories is what I seek to both propose and illustrate.”

Why would I join with Chakrabarty in writing to produce difference? Isn’t the great need for us all to come together? Particularly when, as many here have already noted, governmental biculturalism outlines the distinction between Maori and Pakeha only in order to disavow it in instrumentalising both under capitalism? So the standard Pakeha response to assertions of alterity, as we’ve already heard in the conference, is to remind us of the complexities, how it’s not as simple as coloniser and colonised, of the imbrication of culture talk in colonial history of the nation, and other such anti-essentialist argument. This is all technically true, but it suppresses a meta-truth, which is that there is a vast gulf between Maori and Pakeha ways of talking about the supposed biculturalism or space of interculturalism. I put this aporia forward as a divide not only to be “recognised” in the space of theory or policy – though it should be – but, firstly and most importantly, as a crisis in our subjectivity that must be staged within our own practices, whether our practices are theory, policy, or institution building. In other words, we need a bicultural approach to biculturalism, where biculturalism can never be located in ourselves, but is always found outward in the practice of intercultural engagement.

To stage this crisis effectively requires knowledge of both biculturalisms. One would be the Pakeha Biculturalism that is mobilised in New Zealand via Canada (the comparison is instructive in its rhetorical similarity within radically different historical contexts) – the idea that institutions can somehow be renovated to include Maori culture. The second biculturalism has a role as cover for Maori interventions into state and institutional resource distribution in reparation, or to suppot Maori development. This is the part that makes Pakeha nervous. Because we know we’re going to be asked to do something by people that know us better than we know them.

[Men understand this. It’s like when you’re watching some TV and your partner says “Honey, we have to talk.” As Dave Chappelle puts it, a man’s response to “we need to talk” is “Damn!” Because “we need to talk” always means it’s something I’ve gotta do!]

We’ve talked a lot about the problems of ‘respect’ the past few days, but biculturalism does not ask for respect. It says: Maori are here, and this is who they are. The time for rhetorical accommodation is over. Here are the things that can be done: learn the reo, learn tikanga, employ Maori staff, cite their books. Develop an understanding of Maori consciousness. Tell a story of New Zealand’s cultural development where Nga Tamatoa can play at least as important a role as Michael King or Janet Frame. These are all possible to do. These are all equivalent to things Maori have also done to learn the ways of the Pakeha.

I want to express solidarity with Chris Prentice’s desire to offer theory as a way of disrupting the instrumental logic of cultural nationalism. There are too few people undertaking this work. But I depart from her in my reading of the history of New Zealand’s Pakeha-Maori interactions – in particular, the grouping of James Ritchie and his one-time student Michael King.

In his book “Becoming Bicultural”, James Ritchie says – “I have a theme which is also a thesis. It is this. The tide has turned. We face a future in which Maori people will assert their rightful place in this society, with or without non-Maori help. They are fashioning a thoroughly modern, totally viable Maori lifestyle in which the rest of us may participate, if we wish. Between their world and the majority culture we also must fashion the bicultural world of inter-connections and common pathways and understandings, but [and this is the critical piece that Prentice omitted] we will not be successful in this until the Maori world is respected, is resourced, is in good health and strength, and is in a true state of equity.”

While some of this language is now dated, and that overall recognition of a need for cultural equity in any real biculturalism is what led Ritchie to work toward supporting tino rangatiratanga and mana motuhake as core principles. In the end, it didn’t get him that many good book deals, and had its own set of problems, but it is certainly a different position than King’s interpretation of Maori culture back out to a predominantly Pakeha audience of “New Zealanders”. To group them both as conversion narratives misses a great deal of the difference in their approaches. Certainly, Ritchie never thought of himself as indigenous or native in the King sense. I am insistent on this point because I think that Ritchie, along with others such as Dame Joan Metge, offer Pakeha a New Zealand pre-history to the development of what Sandoval calls “differential consciousness”, or an ability to recognise the limits our lived identities create to our actions, and an ability to self-consciously transform that identity when required by the identification of cultural power by others.

The colonial relationship that has a great deal of currency and transformative power for both Maori and Pakeha – and the decolonisation of the imagination may also be the best way we can achieve something like a differential consciousness, an intercultural ethics we would want for a critical multicultural perspective. The sucess of this interaction is an empirical question. After Larissa Behrendt, as I’ve mentioned previously, if we are to work in this space of engagement, we should see our relationship with indigenous epistemology and people as the benchmark for the quality of our work?

The question of consciousness and responsibility to the other returns us, then, to the question of the subject, and as Ghassan Hage mentioned yesterday, the question of intimacy with the other – what Spivak calls the “impossible intimacy of the ethical.” This occurs under structures of violence and inequality that are not of our own choosing. If biculturalisms to some degree set the institutional scene for exchanges to take place, in my view the guides for our subjective orientations toward these intimate exchanges is to be found in feminist theory, and particularly the more psychoanalytically inflected versions such as Luce Irigaray. This is because feminist work has done a lot of refiguring of the “bi” in “bicultural”. As Spivak notes, “Irigaray has rewritten the fecundity of the caress as the figuring of the prepropriative into an appropriation” which is both possible and impossible. What is it to learn the agency of the caress? That is a serious question. It happens, once again, kanohi ki te kanohi, rather than in the text – although the text may shift our imagination in order to open our bodies toward the engagement.

Irigaray says “The loved one’s face radiates the secret that the lover touches. It says the hidden without exhausting it in meaning… A giving of form to matter that precedes any articulation in a language”

As Spivak closes:

“The generalization of a bicameral universal (the clitoris in the mucous of the lips that figures so strongly in Irigaray’s work), or even two universals, to provide the impossible differed/deferred grounding of the ethics of sexual difference in the fecund caress seems to respond to the call of the larger critique of humanism with which postcoloniality must negotiate, even as it negotiates daily with the political and cultural legacy of the European enlightenment.”

In the various calls for a return to universal values then, Irigaray’s work suggests a method for generating intimacy between two universals working both independently and unthinkable without the other. The figure also suggests that to development of this kind of intimacy relies on development of the Maori universals and the reduction of asymmetries of power. I suggest that in our current, colonial asymmetric context there are two specific ways this intimacy can be fostered: firstly, when the colonised asserts their equality, it must be accepted with the suspension of difference. Secondly, when we assert the systems and structures under which our action takes place, it must always be with a mind for the irreducible difference of the other. This is how we can build intimacy as a space for our own transformation. In other words, love.

Ghassan suggested that the effusive love for the other was only possible through distance. This is a type of masculine, romantic love which the colonial history knows well – loving the other who we are killing. At home, “smoothing the pillow of a dying race” as it was described here. But in feminist work, we are imagining a different kind of love – one that emerges and grows over time, that survives the bumps in the road on our lines toward utopias that are both individual and partly shared. Sandoval calls this the physics of love: the practice of differential consciousness, to allow Pakeha imaginations and priorities to be transformed by the Maori renaissance, is the practice of Love as a social movement.