In her book, Killing Rage: Ending Racism, the late bell hooks communicates the weight of what feels like an axiomatic truth: “All black people in the United States, irrespective of their class status or politics, live with the possibility that they will be terrorized by whiteness.” As we bear witness to the authoritarian violence imposed upon Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s deployment of Russia’s military might, and to his perverse fantasy of a “New Russia,” we must never forget that anti-Black racism in the U.S. is inextricably linked to the perverse fantasies of white supremacism and operates according to vicious, racist violence. This is one reason why, for me, all the oppressed people of the world — the colonized, the violated and the marginalized — must be heard, and their pain made legible on its own terms. At the end of the day, however, I know that, as Black, I am deemed by many to be the most racially abject monstrosity that there is. I continue, though, to be shocked by the global degree to which Black people experience anti-Black racism.
Adele N. Norris is senior lecturer in sociology and social policy in the faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand, and coeditor of Neo-Colonial Injustice and the Mass Imprisonment of Indigenous Women. In my engaging discussion with Norris, which follows, she illuminates the harsh reality of the similarities of the U.S.’s anti-Black racism and that of New Zealand, which was also colonized by the British.
Whiteness as a normative structure pervades New Zealand. Indeed, the Indigenous Māori are disproportionately imprisoned, and Black bodies experience forms of anti-Black racist stereotyping that are found within the U.S. and places like Finland and Sweden. As a scholar who engages Black feminist methodologies to explore state-sanctioned violence against Black, Brown and Indigenous people, Norris explicates these contemporary dehumanizing forces with clarity and autobiographical insight.
George Yancy: In my own work, I have argued that the Black body is deemed the site of the racially deviant, the racially monstrous, the racially abhorrent and the racially abject. In the U.S., Black bodies are disproportionately stopped and placed under surveillance, incarcerated and rendered “criminal” as a “self-evident” truth. This vicious and racist treatment of Black people is not confined to the U.S. The Western world, out of which the concept of race developed, has historically operated under myths about Black bodies and the trope of blackness as “evil,” “sinister” and “ugly.” Whiteness, of course, was valorized as the apex of civilization, the most intelligent and the most aesthetically beautiful. It is this last issue that I wish to discuss with you. Here in the U.S., there have been laws passed against hair discrimination vis-à-vis Black people. This cuts at the heart of Black aesthetic integrity, agency and humanity. As you may know, Afro-Finns have started an annual celebration in the form of a “Good Hair Day” to deal with complex aspects of the racialization of hair. The denigration of Black hair has also been experienced by Black people in Sweden, especially mixed-race people who have suffered from being stared at and rendered “exotic” and “strange” because of their hair. You’ve written about the issue of Black hair and anti-Black racism. Are you surprised that such a form of racism continues to exist in the 21st century? And what are your thoughts on the psychological toll that this sort of anti-Black racism has on Black people?
Adele Norris: I remember with the election of President Barack Obama how eager people were to mark his presidency as the beginning of a post-racial era. For me, that moment is marked by the many ways his Black wife, former first lady Michelle Obama, was vilified at a national level — from her body, hair texture, to her facial expressions. A wider-white-elite society, in expressions of outrage, compared Mrs. Obama to men and monkeys. The same with Venus and Serena Williams’s appearance undergoing pervasive scrutiny over their 20-year careers. What this shows is that Black women rising to the heights of global success are not exempt from the white dehumanizing gaze. The corresponding psychological burden is felt and carried within us all when we see Black women’s appearance picked apart and disparaged. The night of Donald Trump’s presidential election, a New Zealand colleague asked me if I thought Michelle Obama would run for president. I could tell the question was meant to virtue signal, which was confirmed after my response: “Seeing her [Mrs. Obama] compared with monkeys every day, I hope not.” My colleague was visibly baffled and walked away. People are so desensitized to and comfortable with a certain amount of anti-Blackness that it hardly registers in the minds of non-Black people, including people of color.
In places where Black bodies are recent and few, there is a paucity of a language for anti-Blackness and Black racial discrimination. The language is not well-developed in academic, political and social discourses. Anti-Blackness, in these contexts, is understood primarily through the ways it is expressed in the United States, especially in its most extreme forms. Last year, a 12-year-old Black girl (Zimbabwean and Samoan) from Rotorua, New Zealand, made headlines for being called the N-word and teased for her hair texture by her classmates. I remember reading that she asked her principal to address her school about the harms associated with the N-word. She said the kids are learning it from somewhere and have been using it since she began school at the age of 6. Children who have never lived in the United States possessed an understanding of Black subordination. What I found most interesting about this case was the applause the young girl received for starting an anti-Black bullying and racism initiative at her school. She’s only 12. Why are her adolescent years spent engaging in work that schools and parents should do? These cases are everywhere (e.g., Britain, Canada, South Africa, Sweden, the U.S.).
The psychological and emotional toll related to hair discrimination is massive for Black youth, [but] gets rarely classified as anti-Black racism. Black people’s experiences of state-sanctioned violence are so severe that cases of hair discrimination are peripheral to extreme cases of police brutality against Black bodies, but they are [also] violent and disturbing. It is important to see that hair discrimination and police brutality are products of the same system.
I would argue that the stigmatizing of Black hair is one mode of visual anti-Blackness. It has to do with the anti-Black dimensions of the white imaginary and the white gaze. White people have created a world within which what they see and what they imagine are what they deem to be the only legitimate ways to see and to imagine. As a result, Black people — and I would include people of color, as Frantz Fanon would say — suffer in their bodies, because their bodies are bombarded with racist fictions and racist stereotypes. Talk about anti-Blackness and how it operates within New Zealand (or Aotearoa, its Māori name). Do Black people find themselves facing and resisting the toxic reality of being reduced to their epidermis, where they suffer under forms of anti-Black surveillance?
Experiences of anti-Blackness are often muted or subsumed by a fascination with Black culture and aesthetics. I think Black people can be deceived by non-Black people’s fascination with Black entertainers and athletes and fail to understand that Black culture can be consumed by holders of anti-Black beliefs. The two are not mutually exclusive. One of the first things I noticed teaching “Introduction to Sociology” in New Zealand was how students’ responses and understandings of racial stereotypes and social inequalities mirrored [those of] U.S. students. While there is a deeper understanding of the effects of colonization, which is the result of a powerful Indigenous presence, notions of Black and Indigenous people as “criminal,” “deviant” and “lazy” are embedded beliefs Black people engage with daily.
Also, people may be familiar with Brown bodies, but they have rarely lived next door to a Black person or worked with one. There is an expectation for Black people to make the people around them feel comfortable, which typically involves the Black person assuming a posture of subordination. Many U.S. scholars have written extensively about this. In many ways, I think my research agenda, which heavily engages with anti-Black racism and racial inequalities, protects me. People know exactly who I am when I show up because I am not just a Black body. For example, I was approached by a white colleague to collaborate on a project for which he wanted to critique U.S. Black women’s scholarship in relation to Marxism. I asked him to name five Black women authors. He stared blankly, and I walked off. While he took pride in his love for Bob Marley, he had never cited a Black woman in his 20+ years in the academy.
However, I am not surprised when I meet other Black people who are accustomed to racialized surveillance and consider racism an American invention. Some Black people from the African diaspora have spoken and written about daily experiences of racial profiling in New Zealand. With so few Black people, they are not likely supported or validated. I do think being from the U.S. links me to a tradition of resistance and a knowledge of whiteness where it does not take me long to identify covert forms of anti-Blackness and respond accordingly.
The point about your white colleague is so powerful. He wanted to critique the work of Black women without being able to cite a single Black woman author. This says to me that he doesn’t really give a damn about what Black women actually think. You know, I can imagine Black people and people of color from the U.S. visiting New Zealand and thinking that they will finally experience a reprieve from the daily insults of racist microaggressions. Given the global dimensions of anti-Black racism, however, I would not be surprised how deeply anti-Black racism runs in New Zealand. Could you say more about how you have dealt with anti-Black racism in New Zealand?
Being from Mississippi, I am often asked how it feels to have left. Mississippi is one of those places recognized — and rarely contested — for its brutal history of white hostility toward Black people. People feign a look of shock when I respond that the world is like Mississippi. Mississippi just owns what it is. It is like in 2018 when Cindy Hyde-Smith, the Republican senator from Mississippi, said, “If he [a cattle rancher] invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” Hyde-Smith was still elected for saying exactly how she felt. Two years later, the world held a front-row viewing of George Floyd’s public lynching. For those white people seeing a large Black man rendered powerless, and his life slowly and brutally taken from him as others watched, is reminiscent of the Jim Crow era, post-slavery, where the lynching of Black people by ordinary white citizens in collaboration with law enforcement was a sanctioned practice. Floyd’s public lynching represented for many people that all was right in the world and order had been restored. I work with and engage with many people like Cindy Hyde-Smith on a daily basis.
During Trump’s presidential campaign, extreme-right groups around the world mobilized and expanded exponentially. Growing visibility of white supremacist groups — the True Blue Crew and United Patriots Front in Australia, and the New Zealand National Front and Right Wing Resistance in New Zealand — hardly received media and academic attention. Yet, statements such as “We are not as bad as the U.S.” are commonplace. If the U.S. is your point of reference, you are doing pretty bad. Like the U.S., there is unwillingness to name and confront white supremacy here. Even after the Christchurch massacre in 2019, when Brenton Harrison Tarrant, a white supremacist, murdered 51 people at two mosques, New Zealanders were quick to point out that the gunman was Australian. A massacre of this scale should have signaled white supremacy as a national threat. Racism is seen as something that happens elsewhere.
Evasive tactics deployed to explain away systemic racism are most evident in the reluctance to use the terms “race/racism.” For example, racial segregation as a result of housing discriminatory practices becomes “cultural bubbles” or “ethnic clustering,” and racism becomes “unconscious bias.” Racism is viewed as something people would not do knowingly. When I informed my colleagues of my first experience of many instances of racial profiling, they responded that people are just curious. Yet, two months later when I disagreed or could not undertake a task a colleague asked of me, I was called an “uppity Negro,” twice. Of course, I was not outraged or surprised. Navigating white hostility and other forms of anti-Blackness (anti-African Americanness) has been a transnational burden. As a daughter of Jim Crow survivors, white hostility was always discussed in my home so that when we saw it, we could identify it and not internalize it.
The structure of whiteness is to obfuscate its reality. Your insights suggest global instances of white mystification. When I think about the European imperialist violence brought to bear upon the Indigenous Māori in New Zealand, I think about the suffering, misery and death of Indigenous peoples in both North America and Australia. Collectively, I think about the themes of land dispossession, cultural ruptures in language, religious rituals and broader questions of cultural identity. European imperialism is about domination, usurpation and dehumanization. Death and dying are inextricably tied to European arrogance, xenophobia, exoticization and hatred of those deemed “less than human.” Could you talk about how the Indigenous Māori continue to face contemporary forms of discrimination, inequality and oppression?
Coming from the U.S. with an understanding of the racist laws and policies — such as Black codes, Pig Laws and Jim Crow that eroded the progress Black people made during Reconstruction — I saw the effects of Indigenous land dispossession, but I also saw features of Jim Crow, though it was not codified like in the U.S. Many Indigenous people were urbanized and relocated to urban hubs like many Black people, but on a much smaller scale. While segregation was not codified in New Zealand in the same way as in the U.S. via Native reservations and redlining, Māori were encouraged to migrate from rural areas where they owned land and were targeted for social housing to meet the demand of cheap labor and to further facilitate land dispossession. Like the U.S., social housing means lack of home ownership that disrupts the creation of generational wealth.
Urbanized hubs of predominantly Indigenous and Polynesian people were singled out as in need of targeted policing and social control. When I first arrived in 2015, I looked up the imprisonment rate. I thought it was a typo. While New Zealand is a small country of 5 million people, the imprisonment rate per capita for Māori is higher than the imprisonment of Native Americans. Māori women represent roughly 16 percent of the total population of women, yet Māori women represent 65 percent of women imprisoned (over four times their representation). Māori rate of imprisonment follows the trend of Indigenous people in Australia, Canada and the U.S., which is often framed through a lens of deviancy with little attention toward state-sanctioned and colonial violence. My collaboration with Indigenous colleagues strives to fill this gap in New Zealand criminal justice scholarship.
Speaking about the issue of criminal justice, what impact did the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in the U.S. have on bringing light to bear upon the disproportionate effect of policing of Māori people? I ask because I am aware of how the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the U.S. galvanized protests in Australia that brought attention to the large number of deaths of Indigenous/Aboriginal peoples there while in police custody. While there are differences, there are so many shared patterns of carceral violence experienced by Indigenous peoples who are subjected to racialized and colonial oppression. This speaks to overwhelming proof that there are fundamental links between processes of otherization, race, white supremacist state power and criminalization.
Issues raised by BLM protests resonated with many Indigenous, Black and Brown New Zealanders. Many Indigenous people have firsthand experiences of racialized policing, surveillance and imprisonment, and understand the implications via lived experiences. BLM became a rallying cry reinvigorating attention toward Māori mass imprisonment. However, in places like West Papua, where Black Indigenous people are experiencing genocide under Indonesia’s rule, BLM was easily incorporated alongside the Free West Papua movement, which has a large New Zealand base.
While I was thrilled to see how quickly BLM traveled and spoke to specific issues in this context, I did not recognize parts of it. What happens to Black social movements when they migrate, and Blackness is not centered or understood? If we are not careful, it is like consuming Black culture. BLM was adopted in ways that did not shine light on the Black experience. Expressions of anti-Blackness in the U.S. were acknowledged, but how anti-Blackness is experienced in New Zealand was not. Black children being called the N-word by white people and [non-Black] people of color is a huge problem in a place like New Zealand, but it rarely gets attention. I only use this example to show the interesting power dynamics that influence how Blackness is articulated, if at all, when movements like BLM travel outside of the U.S.
Many people who champion BLM also regard experiences of all marginalized people as being on par, when they are not. I explain to my class that Black and Indigenous bodies are read as deviant and violent by white society and by other people of color. I remember a couple of faculty members discussing a large, irate student roaming the halls. The student was described in such a way that the two people knew who the student was except for me. I was envisioning someone at least six-feet tall around 250 pounds. Finally, someone said to me that they saw me speaking with the student. The exact words were, “He accosted you in the hallway.” I think I would have remembered being accosted. The student they spoke of was a young, thin Black male nowhere close to six-feet tall. I found him quite timid. He always smiled when he saw me, because I always acknowledged him and inquired about his studies. Yet, it was amazing how two white faculty members held the same image of a “giant.”
The implications of the perceptions of Black bodies go unexamined in New Zealand. Yet, it is a truth of Black life for which BLM shines a spotlight. In some cases, BLM became a tool people used to leverage visibility and space without a particular focus on various forms of institutional racism. Under such conditions, anti-Blackness remained at the periphery if at all acknowledged.
Could you provide a sense of how you envision ways in which Black communities, though small in New Zealand, must resist anti-Black surveillance? Also, how are Indigenous communities fighting against various modes of discrimination?
Aretina Hamilton advanced a concept called “white unseen” in 2020 to explicate how deeply embedded the erasure of Blackness is as it relates to Black pain, Black anxiety and Black despair. The sanctioning of this erasure is evidenced by the fact that it is so deeply normalized that it takes severe disruptions, like in the case of George Floyd, for Black rage to gain validity.
White unseen, as Hamilton describes, is an intentional thought pattern and epistemological process where the everyday actions, terrors, ruptures, and tensions faced by Black and Indigenous people are rendered invisible. As Black people, it is important for us not to fall into this thought pattern as well, such that we do not register something like hair discrimination as a form of anti-Blackness or consider it too minor of an issue to warrant action. The insidious nature of white supremacy renders something like hair discrimination as “race neutral” compared to police violence that led to the premature deaths of Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Mike Brown, Atatiana Jefferson, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, and many more. Like racial profiling, hair discrimination reveals the insidious nature of the global white gaze that demands Black subordination. Black people are expected to acquiesce under the white gaze, and everyone knows it.
We saw how Black people were treated in China when COVID-19 first emerged. We see as the world watches Russia invade Ukraine how Black people are not allowed to flee Ukraine and have been forcefully removed from buses by Ukrainian police. We are witnessing in real time how Black lives do not matter globally. The initial step is seeing anti-Blackness as a global phenomenon, a pandemic — not something existing solely in the United States. It is important for us to see these connections and combine our energies to make them visible.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.