Review: Towards a Grammar of Race in Aotearoa New Zealand

Reviewed by Ruth Smith

Editors: Arcia Tecun, Lana Lopesi and Anisha Sankar. Reviewer: Ruth Smith.A search for new ways to talk about race in Aotearoa New Zealand brings together a powerful group of scholars, writers and activists in Towards a Grammar of Race in Aotearoa New Zealand.September 2022 release

Towards a Grammar of Race is a collection of essays by a group of friends who formed a fraternity, of sorts, as academic writers. Together, and through each of their individual lenses and experiences, they tackle the huge topic of race and how to talk about it in Aotearoa-New Zealand in the present context. So, before you even open the cover you know that this is going to be intense. An important read, for sure, but one that you’re probably going to have to take in bite-size chunks.

First and foremost, the title - “Towards a Grammar of Race” - piqued my interest because of my background in linguistics. I mean, WOW! Two of my favourite topics, grammar and race, sharing centre stage in the same sentence. I immediately surmised that this is going to be good while acknowledging that any mention of “race” in today’s world is a “big hitter” so I prepped for a heavy read. And, to be frank, it really is. You are getting exactly what it says on the label.

If you’re an avid listener of music like I am, you’ve probably cobbled together a few Spotify playlists that capture your favourite ‘sounds.’ You may have even done the collaborative playlist with your nearest and dearest, where you’ve all contributed to a playlist that captures your idea of a particular genre. Well, this book is a lot like that playlist.

All the contributors are adding what they think that classification of music sounds like, but as the listener, you might find some of the selections in complete opposition to your own definition and belief of what the playlist should look and sound like. In fact, some of what you are listening to can run the gamut of being somewhat ‘odd’ to ‘totally off the mark.’ Overall, your own opinion of the music doesn’t invalidate someone else’s and, in some respects, this book can take you on much the same journey. So, for argument’s sake, let’s refer to this review as our Grammar of Race Playlist!

It’s obvious that all the contributors have either met prior to writing their essays, or at the very least, you can assume that they know each other intimately enough to know what each would bring to the table. Either way, this works in their favour because viewpoints are consistent, so the cross-referencing to the same theorists and research texts is unsurprising. However, as a reader it’s not so clean cut unless you have read these same theorists and/or research texts being referred to. And, if you haven’t then it’s likely that you’ll be doing some additional side-readings, which have the potential to be a little overwhelming, but perhaps necessary if your goal is to keep up with the conversation.

For me, personally, the commentary on said side-readings are not so bad because the same literature is much the same from author to author so these references are cited more than once. So, if you’re still with me on the Spotify playlist analogy, you’ll be fine. It’s just like adding a new artist to our Grammar of Race playlist.

My view is that before you get into the book, you should at least have an opinion or your idea of what race is - a ‘must-do-first’ task. These are high level thinkers who do not write in everyday colloquialisms, so it generally feels like the authors’ assumption is that you will know what race is, in the context of the book. If you come in ‘cold’ and you’re unsure, then you’ll need to wait until about halfway through before you start to gain some clarity of what is being conveyed. I can assure you, though, that once it is explained, it is done really well, and you can then form a basis from which to further build your own knowledge.

By far, one of the book’s best features is that it introduces the concept of race in relation to real and recent social issues. This makes it immediately relatable!

The diversity of the authors’ backgrounds, and the perspectives that they bring in order to explain their views on race and in relation to their social issues, makes many of the entries very interesting to read. At times, I found myself wanting to actually look further into their worldview, which encouraged me to consume pages enthusiastically. Another advantage of the inter-connection between each essay is that you’re not obliged to read each one in order. It is absolutely possible to scramble the order to best suit your area of interest and return to the others at a later time without losing the essence of the overall book. Although not entirely necessary, the commentaries at both the beginning and end solidify all the messages.

One of the main pitfalls in the book is language. In the absence of an everyday ‘tone,’ the conversation taking place potentially disassociates itself from everyday people, who should be the target audience. It’s like playing only Country to a strictly RnB crowd - they may sit politely through the performance but won’t necessarily walk away feeling like any value has been added to their lives. This is a contraction for the authors, whose main goal - going by the title alone - is to make the Grammar of Race an everyday discussion through all walks of life. The vernacular and philosophies are not aligned to the initial invitation to “everyone,” so the playlist has somewhat missed its mark. There really needed to be a balance of RnB and Country to make it a win for both genres and their respective audiences.

It is a bit of a shame because the idea of this book has the potential to really generate meaningful race-based conversation in Aotearoa NZ. I think it still can, and will, but as it is, its reach is limited. This means that the language needs to change in order for people to take part in the conversation, and so a revised edition in the future may be what is required.

Overall, I think this was a genuine and robust attempt to tackle subject matter that is complex, but ready to be discussed. I would recommend that people read it, but I caution that for the non-academic minded person, it will be a challenge.

Reviewed by Ruth Smith

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