Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Minority Person Claims To Come From Racist Country

I talk about a lot of different topic on this blog. A lot. Even allowing for my label-crazy tendencies. You might remember such classic blog posts as:
I could go on, right? I mean, I am going to go on, but I'm pausing briefly here to point out there's a theme to what I am doing with these posts. They're not so different in subject, the examples I am drawing. In fact, I think they present angles to talk about today's title.
When I started writing this post like this yesterday the above seemed rather clever. I suppose I thought the idea was to get you, the reader (if only a conceit), thinking about how I think about things. That's useful. As I once said, the point of political analysis is actually substantive political argument. If you know the shape of my thinking, you can strip me out and get to the TruthTM of the matter. But looking back at this now the idea doesn't seem quite as sensible. I mean, how well do these links do that job?

I suppose the general themes you get (or could get if you squint a bit) from the above are thus:

  • Context matters to me, a lot.
  • The way we express ourselves is an important thing to consider.
  • I am frequently disappointed in my fellow New Zealanders, including in areas/errors connected to racism.
  • It's not helpful to apply American/foreign discourses to New Zealand.
These are useful ways of approaching Taika Waititi's claims that New Zealand is a racist country. Here's what he said or some of it:
Taika Waititi: Nah, it’s racist as fuck. I mean, I think New Zealand is the best place on the planet, but it’s a racist place. People just flat-out refuse to pronounce Maori names properly. There’s still profiling when it comes to Polynesians. It’s not even a colour thing – like, ‘Oh, there’s a black person.’ It’s, ‘If you’re Poly then you’re getting profiled.’
Ruban Nielson: I appreciate being Polynesian more than I did when I was there. When I go back now, I find myself being more aggressive when I’m pronouncing Maori names around people who refuse to do it. (laughs)
Taika Waititi: Yeah. Because because they don’t mispronounce French words, do they? They can say fucking ‘Camembert’ properly.
Interviews are like comedy gigs.

What happens in an interview happens only because of the specific circumstances of that interview. Here we've got a three person interview done via Skype. The only one I've ever heard of is Waititi so I'll quickly note he's a director, actor and writer. He's pretty famous. Oh, and he's Maori.

Let's discuss four issues that arise from this.

Number One: Maori Names

I'm not 100% sure what sort of Maori names Waititi's trying to talk about. He probably just means all of them. But the truth is there are three kinds:

  • peoples' names... there is no excuse for deliberately mispronouncing someone's name but it must also be said that sometimes you just can't do it (this shouldn't be an issue with Maori names except with rhoticism).
  • place names... there is a world of difference between how Paris is pronounced in English and French but that doesn't make the English version evil or even wrong... it's just the English pronunciation of a French word, or even a borrowing.
  • random place names... it is inappropriate to mispronounce (not try) place names for places which aren't part of your everyday life, e.g. the Seine or the Kapiti Coast.
When something is really part of English now can be a difficult question. The Kapiti Coast is reasonably well known but it's not like Taupo or Rotorua or Manukau... at least not where I live. But my general point is that the context matters. It's always dubious with peoples' names, but with place names (and Maori words more generally, e.g. kumara) things are a bit different. And which names can be said to be English? Well, now, that depends on where you live.

See? Context.

Part of the issue, it must be said, is that the level of awareness of what is and isn't correct differs. 

Personally, I pronounce Maori as something like Mow-ree. You often hear something not dissimilar to mouldy, Mole-ree. As far as I know that's actually hyper-correction and the real pronunciation is much closer to how I say it but not quite how I do. Yet, a The Mole-ree brigade imagine they have the correct pronunciation.

With things like Whakatane the munters who go around saying Wakatane are just wrong. Everyone knows how to say "Wh" in basically the right way, i.e. "f". So widespread is this is that it's given us the old Whanganui or Wanganui issue... te reo isn't really a written language and the local dialect is more similar to Wanganui, hence why it is spelt like that (except with the river, and why not just use f? clearly there's some complexities here I should have looked into). 

Now, this isn't really what Waititi's talking about. "Flat Out Refuse". It's very, very clear that he's talking about people who are offered a right pronunciation and choose to not take it up. Who knows why? Maybe because they're from Manukau and it's much more part of their life than Waititi the Wellingtonian's. Maybe they're a munter who also says Camembert properly. And if they are, it's probably fair to say, "Hey, you're a racist munter"... why else would they pronounce one foreign language properly but refuse to do the same for another?

Number Two: Profiling

The discussion about profiling doesn't really need much elaboration on. Or, well, it didn't except it's also in the news for a separate reason.

In statistics a lot of what you do as an undergraduate is called model building. Sometimes that's for predictive purposes and sometimes it isn't. The way to go about building models, as Thomas Lumley (quoted in the article) will tell you, differs between these two cases. When we're talking about profiling, I believe we're talking about prediction.

A classic example of profiling is the Arab looking dude getting chosen for a "random" bomb test. Their physical appearance (Arab-lookingness) is the only reason they're suspected to be someone to check out. The problem is that this reasoning is just really dodgy. Very few Arab (looking) people are terrorists or otherwise threats to society. A tiny, tiny minority. I reckon the odds of finding a terrorist are a lot higher if you're looking at Irish and Northern Irish males over the age of 40.

But that would be profiling too.

The line between profiling and not-profiling occurs when you start talking about absolutely high probabilities, not higher ones. When you start taking all the characteristics, feeding them to a model and then acting. Not when you're looking at a person, looking at your profile of a "bad guy" and then deciding they fit it. And let's be honest, normally it's only the one characteristic that makes the profiler go "Gotcha".

The issue is a bit more complex than this, of course. If you had a data set that said French government agents are 74% likely to commit a crime in NZ, would that be sufficient material to deport them? Would it be sufficient material to watch them? If something they're predicted to do happened, it would definitely validate (in my eyes) specifically trying to exclude them (although I'd want a separate team otherwise un-involved with the investigation to do this).

But the truth is that Waititi's often talking more about stuff like Overheard's "get ready to run" controversy... where some random person said if you see Polynesians walking behind you in a group at night (maybe not even at night), it's time to get ready to run. (I believe the post was deleted by the admins, but I assure you it happened.)

Firstly, harden up. New Zealand (and Auckland in particular) is safe. The paranoid among us are paranoid... they cannot find statistics to validate their fears.

Secondly, how is that not racist?

Don't try and answer. It's sort of explained by the harden up point. But you shouldn't even need that much explanation.

Number Three: What does it Mean for a Country to be Racist?

There are lots of different ways to talk about this but I'll quickly bullet point five of them:
  • when racism is an ordinary and everyday experience within the country
  • when the majority of people in the country are racist
  • when there's a non-trivial prior belief that any particular person you might encounter is racist
  • when you find unusual disparities in the lived experiences of people of different ethnicities
  • when you find unusual disparities in the institutional outcomes of people of different ethnicities
All of these are pretty valid except point two. I mean, why would you talk about that?

Number Four: I REALLY Don't Like Using Kiwi as an Identifier

From this article... and yes it is literally the only reason I wrote any of this blog post.

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