Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Postscript to Hungary:

A Commentary on Tacit Racism within Eurocentric Criminology

In the blog I released on 10 September, based on my presentation at the 2013 European Criminology Conference, I said that I would add a postscript focused on feedback I received during the session.  So here it is:

During question time two members of the audience took exception to my critical commentary on the Restorative Justice (RJ) industry's use of indigenous artifacts to construct and market their products.  The first made an exaggerated claim that I had accused ALL RJ theorists, writers, etc, of doing this; when clearly I was referring to many who write about FGC, sentencing circles, etc, and so his criticism was easily dismissed as nonsense.  The more interesting response was the second, and I want to highlight this individuals statements as I believe they are representative of the kind of lazy, prejudiced, sometimes even racist attitudes I've experienced in the last 15 years: they beautifully illustrate the 'tacit racism' and Eurocentrism that is never far below the surface of certain forms of the discipline of criminology.

In response to my commentary the individual in question countered with 2 comments:

"Who really owns culture; do you (Maori) have intellectual property rights over your culture"; and

"When I was in New Zealand I found out that the word 'Maori', means 'other person', so, I can call myself Maori...."

The first comment is typical Eurocentric bullsh*t: the line of argument is that unless we have a piece of paper saying 'we own these elements of our culture', as understood in Western legal terms, our culture, or anyone else's for that matter, is fair game.  In response; it is intellectually lazy to see these issues simply in terms of Eurocentrically-derived understandings of ownership of culture, and the racism inherent in these understandings are well documented in critical literature.  The issue for me was not 'ownership' per se, but the way in which European criminologists, RJ practitioners, policy entrepreneurs and RJ franchise companies are utilising Indigenous 'cultural artefacts' in ways that are unethical, such as exaggerating the 'Maoriness' of certain products in order to sell them on the crime control market.

While the first comment was intellectually lazy, the second was outrightly racist and offensive: first of all the word 'Maori' means different things, depending on dialect and socio-historical context, but was interpreted in the early to mid-19th century by Europeans to refer collectively to the various members of iwi (tribe), hapu (sub-tribe), whanau (family) etc.  There is no debate about it; to be 'Maori' you must be able to trace your whakapapa (genealogy) to these entities. 

What this individual was doing was taking one translation of the word from sometime in the mid-19th century to make the argument that he was 'Maori' in order to justify being able to 'take' whatever cultural artifacts he wanted to.  Now, in all my years of working in criminology and policy, I've come across some really obnoxious, Eurocentric assh*les, but never have I encountered this level of racism before, and never in an academic setting.  Since returning from Budapest I have pondered this response time and again, trying to make sense of it.  So far my only conclusion is that this individual, and the other person who's comments I discussed above, belong to that small group of Western academics who have been utilising First Nation cultural artifacts, as and how they wish, without ever having been challenged.  Well, they got challenged, and their responses revealed much about themselves AND the wider discipline they are members of.  

The Eurocentrism of the 'Liberal' Academy
Lately, I have been asked by a few colleagues whether we can/should develop an Indigenous Criminology as a sub-set of the broader discipline.  Those asking this question make the assumption that an Indigenous component to the discipline is required, and that staying 'in house' is the most effective way of challenging the issues I and other Indigenous criminologists have expressed about the discipline.  Looking at this question from inside the discipline, this makes sense, for as the saying goes 'how can you effect change if you are sitting outside the tent'.  Well, some tents you simply don't want to be sitting in, especially when it stinks of the racist paternalism, faux 'liberalism' and Eurocentrism that pervades certain portions of the discipline.  

Of late, the behaviour of members of the Eurocentric Academy such as the two individuals at the Budapest conference discussed above, and the behaviour of the two professors at the 2012 Australian and New Zealand criminology conference I dealt with in a previous blog, has me thinking that we are perhaps better off leaving the tent and thereafter applying a liberal dose of anti-bullsh*t spray.  My drift to this position has been propelled lately by the behaviour of a bunch of criminologists who seem to think that being obnoxious covers for being 'ethical'.  Their behaviour matches many of the concerns held by the Indigenous Academy, most particularly their preference for responding to the critical Indigenous voice by personalising issues and demonising the Indigenous Other who dares express a different point of view to them.  When you dovetail those issues with the inability to develop different (meaning respectful, collaborative) ways of engaging with the Indigenous academic community, then yet again we are faced with concluding that if you scratch the surface of Eurocentric criminology hard enough, the shiny, thin lacquer of liberalism falls away and the same tired old paternalistic odour is released that has permeated Criminology since its birth in colonial times. 

But all is not lost: there are those within 'White' Criminology we can work with and trust to behave ethically towards ourselves and our communities.  Presently, we are most likely to find these individuals within Cultural Criminology, Peacemaking Criminology, and the developing schools of Post-Colonial and Queer Criminology.  However, we should not forget that we owe the wider discipline of criminology nothing, especially as its practitioners have given us very little, except more prison, more brutal policing, more trauma. In response I expect some of its practitioners will talk about how we would be better off being part of a public criminology as opposed to becoming a boutique sub-school.  I'm also certain that some of them will like nothing more than for us to add an Indigenous element to the discipline, thus 'correcting the discipline from within'. Unfortunately, given the pervasiveness of the paternalistic, colonising attitudes of the wider discipline, I fear this approach will end up as nothing more than the criminological equivalent of the state's indigenisation of youth justice, where we 'add a bit of colour' to the same, tired old epistemologies, methodologies etc, as opposed to the discipline taking a long, hard look at itself. Sadly, given the repetitiveness of the unethical, racist behaviour of members of the Academy that I and other Indigenous scholars have experienced over recent years, it is apparent that the wider discipline is not our friend, and nor is it ever likely to be: I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that it might be better for us to walk away and leave it to stink up its own tent.

But if we do walk away, what then?  I don't know, I haven't really thought that question through in detail.  We could walk back into the Indigenous/Maori/Aboriginal justice fold and become a justice/human rights component of that discipline.  We might look to the growing, sophisticated school developing in Australia called Settler Colonialism, where Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars engage in critical analysis of the strategies used by neo-colonial states to subjugate First Nations.  Or we could become part of the growing Postcolonial studies movement, or even dovetail with our colleagues working in law and International relations to construct a broad 'school' of Indigenous Justice.  

A lot of food for thought and definitely the topic of a future blog.

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