This week an unsolicited EziBuy brochure turned up in my mail box. It was unnecessarily wrapped in plastic, and unappealing in its styles, utopian in its settings, unrealistic in its prices. But there was a more insidious underlying issue that took a while to become apparent. Of the 117 pages, including front and back, there were only about five that contained any images of dark skinned women.
When I observed on that great stewing cauldron of opinion, Facebook, that there were virtually no ‘women of colour’ in EziBuy pages, I was told I was homogenising women. (Sorry to every one of you!). I was told the descriptor ‘of colour’ was an ‘Americanism’; I should have referred to Indian, African-American, Maori, Pacifica…. While labels matter, racism itself is of broader concern.
The absence in EziBuy of pictures of Maori, Asian, Pacific, Middle Eastern women of all ethnicities and nations, and other women who make up the diversity of New Zealand life, meant that women different from a ‘white’ homogenous ‘standard’ were made subject to ‘symbolic annihilation’. They were made invisible, denormalised, diminished. And given the role the media of all types plays in shaping views of ourselves and the world, EziBuy failed to reflect, speak to, or even acknowledge the beautiful diversity of New Zealand women. That every woman in the catalogue met a rare and unrealistic standard of ‘perfect’ teeth, hair and height, was a bad enough signal to real women everywhere, but the absence of real, diverse New Zealand women, said only white women (of certain Aryan characteristics) are and can be, beautiful and suitable for wearing EziBuy clothes.
In the long Facebook discussion that followed, I was told that ‘we should just get over it and stop whining and making politics out of everything’. “We should all be one people”. Someone I’m fond of said I should just face up to the fact that we are white New Zealand.
I double checked New Zealand’s demographic figures, which confirmed we are definitely not ‘white NZ’, but are 14+% Maori, 11% Asian, 7+% Pacifica, plus other ethnicities, and just 72% are ‘European New Zealanders’. Certainly when I walk down an Auckland street it looks a lot like a mixed modern city to me. And all the richer for it. Though no wonder attitudes of European entitlement and privilege prevail. It was only in the 1970s that New Zealand stopped selecting immigrants just based on their European descent, and instead accepted them on more equal basis of skills, financial capacity and family links. We’re dealing with a culture that’s still striving to retain its dominion.
The recognition and denigration of others based on physical characteristics is said to stem from unity of tribal group bonds and fear of those who are different. Racist stereotypes have long been used in this country to justify a settler society and colonisation. Claims that we should have ‘one (white) law for all’, and be ‘one’ New Zealand, assume a systematic Euro-centric superiority, dishonour the Treaty, insult bi-culturalism and thwart opportunities for recognition and celebration of indigeneity, and diversity.
Diversity and different skin colour and dress in our communities is an obvious sign of social change, and those with established privilege or status, even if they can’t see it themselves, will feel threatened by change and by a society they perceive as filled with others. There’s casual racism and every day bias against Indian shopkeepers and bus drivers, women in headscarves, Maori, ‘Asian homeowners’. Fourth generation kiwis of Chinese descent get told to go back where they came from. A whole range of derogatory terms are used to describe good, hard working kiwis who, if they had the same skin colour as the dominant paradigm and its narratives, wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. In many cases, prejudice works against people just because of the colour of their skin not because of the fact that they’re foreigners though – there’s less bias against immigrants from England, Australia or Europe, than there is against indigenous Maori and Pacific Islanders, or people of ‘different’ colour.
That’s because colour is a proxy for political inequality – power imbalance. Who needs a brand or a label to highlight the target of your opposition when simple pigment will do. Racism is, according to sociologists, ‘a political construct, primarily a manifestation of unequal power between groups’. It’s the machinery of an ‘ethnocentric paradigm’ which maintains those unequal power relations.
The absence of ethnically diverse women in fashion magazines as part of media bias, ‘defines the contours of society’, shapes our understanding of the world, how we see ourselves, how we are seen, and helps create ‘social identities and realities’. It’s a form of ‘racial framing’.
So while some said ‘it’s just a magazine selling clothes, don’t read too much into it’, the racism problem goes further than just in magazines. There’s evidence from the Human Rights Commission that racism is getting worse though most victims of racism ‘suffer in silence’ according to Commissioner Susan Devoy. And racism works on all fronts, there’s internal, interpersonal, institutional, and societal racism affecting individual’s health, wellbeing, experiences and life chances in the workplace, public sector and in the provision of goods and services. It’s been seen in popular culture from ‘My Kitchen Rules’, to the NZ Music Awards. It’s expressed in differential access to health care, education, rental accommodation, and in unequal treatment through the criminal justice system.
It was pointed out that EziBuy is an Australian owned company, as if that explains the homogenous white women filling their pages. It certainly doesn’t excuse it. But given New Zealand and Australia are richly ethnically diverse and are both target audiences for the magazine and the company’s clothes, it would be wholly appropriate to include images that represent the real women of those countries. In fact, EziBuy started as a New Zealand company, before it was bought by Coles and then Woolworths, so it has had quite an opportunity to reflect the make-up of its country of origin. Their head office is in Parnell.
There were no pictures of models with t-shirts saying ‘I’m racist on the inside’ in the EziBuy magazine, to adopt an angle from the Human Rights Commission’s ‘Give nothing to racism’ campaign fronted by Taika Waititi. And even when we think we’re (one) colour blind, we’re seeing the world from a particular lens. The concerning thing about the EziBuy catalogue was that it presented a (series of) false realities as if they were ideals. Though there was no ‘I’m racist on the inside’ label on the cover, its pictures spoke a thousand words, if only you read between the lines.