Outrage ensued at smoko the other day when the story broke that Mana Party leader Hone Harawira had “dropped the N-bomb”. In a Facebook outburst, he had called right-wing Māori MPs “house niggers” for staying loyal to John Key despite his contempt for Māori water rights.
The way my co-workers were talking about it made it clear they had no idea what Harawira was actually saying. I think they were confused because it’s usually Pākehā that Hone is supposed to be ‘racist’ towards, not African-Americans. But they still managed to have a delightful conversation about how he’s a racist bastard and, worse, an extremist. The listener was even treated to such phrases as “It’s OK if they say say it, but if we do…” and even the perennial favourite, “I’m not racist, but…”
But we can’t really expect the general public to understand what Harawira was getting at when the mainstream media’s reporting of it was hardly less ignorant. The Stuff/Fairfax coverage was basically like this (watch 0:52 – 1:20). It was another excuse for them to return to their tired, attention-grabbing theme of being outraged that Harawira says blunt, harsh things, which can occasionally be construed as racist if you have a shallow understanding of racism.
In a later revision of the story, they allowed Harawira to defend himself thus: “If people want me to stop using language from Alabama in the 1950s, maybe they should go back to John Key and tell him to stop treating his Maori MPs like he’s a plantation owner from Alabama in the 1950s.”
But there was still no mention in any article on Stuff of the fact that the phrase “house nigger” comes from a classic speech by Malcolm X. Nor was there any attempt to explain what Harawira was trying to communicate with the reference. The Stuff reporters either didn’t recognise the reference, didn’t bother to find out what it meant, or deliberately obscured it.
So, since Stuff have failed to educate us on it, here is Malcolm X’s original description of the “house negro” or “house nigger”… (full quote here)
“There was two kind of slaves. There was the house negro and the field negro. The house negro, they lived in the house, with master. They dressed pretty good. They ate good, cause they ate his food, what he left. They lived in the attic or the basement, but still they lived near their master, and they loved their master, more than their master loved himself … And if you came to the house negro and said “Let’s run away, Let’s escape, Let’s separate” the house negro would look at you and say “Man, you crazy. What you mean separate? Where is there a better house than this? Where can I wear better clothes than this? Where can I eat better food than this?” There was that house negro. In those days, he was called a house nigger. And that’s what we call him today, because we still got some house niggers runnin around here.”
If you ask me, this concept is highly pertinent today, and not just for African-Americans, or Māori for that matter. It’s a challenge to all of us who are subjected like everyone else to the domination of the current capitalist masters, yet are doing quite comfortably out of the deal.
Not least, journalists with steady jobs for corporate media conglomerates like Fairfax.