December 03, 2019
A Collins’ Guide to Cultural Colour Blindness
A Collins’ Guide to Cultural Colour Blindness
Utilising ‘white’ as a metaphor for ‘a person or woman of colour’ conveys connotations of white superiority.
The inability to perceive colours affects about one in 25 people. Colour blindness can also be cultural. Viewing different cultures as ‘same’ can be constructive, for example in the unity of South Africa winning the Rugby World Cup. In other instances, particularly when an actor from a dominant culture interfaces with a culture they do not understand, it can constitute a negative imposition.
This was the case when National MP Judith Collins tweeted ‘I am a woman of colour, the colour white, and I fully support a ban on this mutilation inflicted on women’. Collins’ tweet was in support of the across-party Bill on female genital mutilation (FGM), the New Zealand Herald described as sponsored by four women of colour, Jo Hayes (National), Priyanca Radhakrishnan (Labour), Jenny Marcroft (New Zealand First) and Golriz Ghahraman (Green Party).
Following the 25 November UN International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women, the Bill will provide an updated definition in the New Zealand Crimes Act that FGM is an abuse of women and girls. The UN has set a goal for an end to FGM by 2030.
Collins seemed unaware that ‘white’ as a cultural identifier has supremacist connotations. There are occasional references to the skin colour of different peoples in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, however, European societies largely identified by nationality, language, geography and/or religion. This changed during the Renaissance as European powers sought to validate violent dominion over peoples and resources in Africa, the Americas, Asia and eventually the Pacific.
The 15th century religious-centred Doctrine of Discovery justified the European Christian seizure of lands and death of non-Christian savages as God’s divine will. During the 17th century, a new nomenclature of a superior ‘European race’, ‘white race’ and ‘white peoples’ emerged to legitimate the unprecedented large scale highly racialized Atlantic slave trade. These ideas crystallised in the ‘scientific racism’ of the so-called 18th century Enlightenment which, applying a lens veiled in avarice and racism, deemed the imposed order of white, yellow, brown and black as coloniser, colonised and slave, the natural order of biology and God.
Despite rejection by sensible people of all hues, the especially virulent strain of 1930s-1940s Aryan-Nordic fascist scientific racism continues to underpin contemporary white supremacism. Reason enough to not say, ‘I am a person of colour and my colour is white’.
Peoples and Women of Colour
‘Coloured people’ was a pejorative 19th century term describing people of mixed descent in white colonies. Replaced by the referents ‘minorities’, ‘non-whites’ and ‘natives’, each carried the notion of backward, inferior and problematic.
‘People or persons of colour’, emerged as a counter during the 1960s/1970s American Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr for example used ‘citizens of colour’.
The expression ‘women of colour’ has similar roots. The first wave of the international feminist movement assumed to speak for the oppression of all women. Composed mainly of white middle-class women it did not deal with the issues confronting women of colour or white privilege.
During a 1970s National Women's Conference in the United States, a group of African American women created a Black Women's Agenda to replace a white promoted ‘Minority Womens Plank’. When other ‘minority women’ joined the agenda the group coined the expression ‘women of colour’. They were neither white nor antiwhite but rather pro-colour.
The most appropriate contemporary use of these counters occurs in non-white settings when colonised and marginalised cultures find common expression in shared experiences. Individuals and or groups within this spectrum will often prefer unique intra-cultural monikers in home culture contexts, for example, Black or African-American in the United States, and Māori or tribe in New Zealand.
In either context, white as a people of colour impinges on the right to counter self-identify because it equivocates whiteness and colour by denying the suffering of the colonised and marginalised, ignores ‘white privilege’ and wealth accrued through that suffering over many centuries, and disregards its maintenance through economic, political, social, cultural and institutional monopoly.
Adding ‘white’ to the debate can also assume that FGM is a singularly brown/black problem. Globally around 200 million girls and women have experienced some form of FGM; 68 million are at risk between now and 2030. Incidents are high in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia, for example Somalia 98%, Guinea 97%, Djibouti 93% and Egypt at 87%. FGM is an issue among some immigrant communities in Western countries.
However, FGM also has a Western dimension. In the United States, FGM was a misogynous driven treatment for ‘lesbianism, masturbation, depression, hysteria, and nymphomania’ well into the 1970s. Self-styled ‘love doctor’ James Burt performed genital alterations on 170 women largely without consent during the 1970s and 1980s. And, as recently as 2010, the American Academy of Pediatrics caused a furore when it recommended ‘a ritual nick’ instead of the full and immediate eradication of FGM.
To her credit Collins immediately withdrew her tweet and apologised, saying ‘I wasn't trying to offend anybody, I was trying to be empathetic and you know, even I, just occasionally, can make an error’.
Without wanting to colour the apology, this is not the first time she has made such a gaffe. In 2013, Collins defended the widely criticised appointment of Dame Susan Devoy to the position of Race Relations Commissioner, saying ‘issues of racism were the same as those for women’. Patently they are not.
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