Unpacking the Christchurch massacre

Mourners offer funeral prayers for Syed Areeb Ahmed, a victim of the Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque shootings, in Karachi, Pakistan, on Monday. Ahmed was among nine Pakistanis who were killed on March 15 when a white supremacist shot people inside two mosques. Ahmed was an only son who had immigrated to New Zealand for work, according to his uncle Muhammad Muzaffar Khan. Fareed Khan AP

The massacre in Christchurch has seen an outpouring of sympathy from the New Zealand state and its people. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, TV news reporters and police wore headscarves in solidarity with Muslims. There were other public displays of solidarity in prayer and human chains. The famed silver fern was appropriated, too, to show support, to show ‘this is not us’.

Online there has been a glut of positive responses. From Muslims and non-Muslims alike, black, brown and white the world congratulated New Zealand for its reaction to the hate crime that killed Muslims in a place of worship. In a place of spirituality and vulnerability.

While state and individual actions are to be recognised for their humanity and intent we must also pause and reflect. Have we fallen so far in global, nationalist politics that basic human and neighbourly dignity is now to be commended? In a way, yes. The rise in illiberal authoritarian democracy, populist ethno-fascism and dehumanisation of the out-group has caused us all to unconsciously adjust our expectations such that the basic decency captured in the New Zealand response is lauded. The global imaginary’s expectations, especially of whiteness, have been reduced. So much so that Ardern donning a headscarf has shaken the world enough to suggest she deserves a Nobel Peace Prize, the same headscarf that allegedly indicates a lack of freedom for women who are not of European ancestry.

This is what many warned us against when Trump and his band rose to power. That the values of white supremacist fascism would be normalised, that we would shift our perceptions to expect the least. Because hate would become normalised we’d react in shock when kindness, a basic human act, is shown. In the era of Trump, in a land like New Zealand where indigenous people are still overlooked, surely – we cannot continue to pretend as if this is the only act of genocide on New Zealand soil.

I reject this and ask that we expect more of each other. Human ideals demand that we do.

In expecting more of each other I further reflect on how islamophobia as part of white supremacy has unfolded in this instance. While many have congratulated wearing of scarves for solidarity, I find it jarring – especially seeing a police officer, and all that the institution of policing represents, clutching an automatic weapon. It comes off as cosplay when in true, the police have always been there to protect public property/public figures and not the people as we would like to believe. In the US, sheriffs from the bygone days, became police officers and ran police offices – yes, the same sheriffs who would sic their hounds on Black people. This has not changed.

White women, through privilege, face less of a burden in wearing a headscarf than the fear of having it violently yanked off while verbally and physically abused when worn by a person of colour who is a Muslim, in some admonishment to be more civilised and liberated. And as with all appropriation, whiteness means you can discard the symbol of the Othered and return to the warm safety of the in-group. Yet for Muslims, especially in New Zealand, the return to normalcy won’t be as easy. In fact, it may never happen. The harsher fact is that there was never any normalcy to begin with because Islamophobia is everywhere, and only emboldened by 21st century fascists.

While questions are now being raised about why New Zealand’s intelligence and police apparatus failed to identify the alleged suspect it brings to mind the ways and workings of global white supremacy and global whiteness. Many have favourably compared New Zealand to other white settler nations because of their reaction to the massacre of 50 Muslim worshippers. The ‘this is not us’ is welcomed as a rejection of hate and exclusion in favour of multiculturalism and inclusion. But in that act of distancing their brand of whiteness from the global white imaginary, New Zealand actually covers itself in a veil of benevolent whiteness, when whiteness can be no such thing. How can such even begin to exist in nations like New Zealand which has been colonialised and continues to be?

This expression by New Zealand and its people, seen previously in their reaction to racist South Africa expats living there and the apartheid flag at a rugby international, seeks to say about New Zealand by New Zealand that we are not as racist as you. While this may seem laudable what it does is abrogate their part, as a white settler colonial nation, in internationalised white supremacy. In the first instance, this is an illusion. Secondly, it demonises nations like South Africa and the USA as particularly peculiar in its version of white supremacy when in fact it is no different. 

The contours and nature may manifest differently but white supremacy in its internalised project shape and form is violent here and everywhere. In that demonization it cloaks itself in a veil of liberalness and inclusion which doesn’t exist (or there’d be no -phobias or hate crimes). It does so by making South Africa a psychological container in the imaginary of global whiteness as a particularly backward nation while allowing other white settler nations to congratulate itself and receive applause from other countries, even Black majority countries, for their bravery and compassion. Yet, in Ardern’s case she campaigned on slashing immigration and is in coalition with a party led by a man who has stated “New Zealand is being dragged into the status of an Asian colony”.

South Africa is by no means a great country on racism and white supremacy. That is an understatement. But to see New Zealand receiving praise is a trick of white supremacy. We should stay alert to how it adapts and manifests, as it never truly goes away – it just changes shape and attacks in different forms. We deserve so much more than the kind, gentle face of global whiteness, what we deserve is justice.

Nadine Dirks is a writer and activist who currently works as a Communications and Advocacy Associate at Nalane for Reproductive Justice. She is a social justice, women’s health and rights advocate and a Black consciousness fighter.