So today’s blog was supposed to be about the state of our democracy/government in New Zealand. I’ll try to get onto this one soon because its something thats really bothering me. But as it happens, I went to the 3rd Degree/The Vote website to check out any intersting episodes I might’ve missed and I came across the episode ‘Is New Zealand a racist country?’. And my answer to that question is YES, New Zealand is a racist country.
In order to put this into context it is important to know a little about me and my background. I have blonde hair, green eyes and fair skin. I look like the average Kiwi, although the Maori in me must come through because I have often been asked if I have other more exotic bits and pieces, and this has been asked both in New Zealand as well on many of my excursions around the world. Most recently I’ve been asked if I’m Pay Basque (the indigenous people of Southern France/Northern Spain) or Tahitian. While my appearance undoubtedly comes from my Nana, a 6th generation Pakeha New Zealander and my Australian Grandad of English descent I am also staunchly proud of my Maori heritage. I whakapapa to four iwi, Te Pakakohi and Nga Ruahine of South Taranaki and Te Whanau a Apanui and Tuhoe of the Bay of Plenty region. The iwi I have been most heavily influenced by in terms of its history, is Te Pakakohi. But thats another story. The point that I am trying to make is that I am an urban New Zealander of Maori and Pakeha descent who has been heavily influenced by my Maori culture.
But I was also fortunate to grow up in a multicultural community and was surrounded by Samoan, Cook Island, Tonga, Tokelaun, Fijian, Indian, Cambodian and Laotian friends and teachers. In fact, Pakeha New Zealanders were a minority where I grew up and were often half castes like me (yes, i know the use of this word is supposed to be derogatory but I am owning it. This is what I am and I am not ashamed of it). This is what culture means to me. An awesome array of diverse ethnic groups, mixed together and getting on with life. To be honest, I wasn’t even aware of New Zealand’s mainstream Pakeha culture until I arrived at high school where I became aware of a group of people who looked like me but whom I had very little in common with in terms of shared experiences.
I cannot say that I have been on the receiving end of racism but I can say that I have heard first hand accounts from family and friends. But because I ‘blend in’ with mainstream Pakeha New Zealand, I can attest to experiencing, seeing and hearing completely racist statements, comments and behaviours that have become commonplace amongst white New Zealand – provided there are no brown people around of course! Yes there are brown folk who will apologise for the behaviours of a few racists and proclaim that it doesn’t mean New Zealand is in itself racist but I am white and I have seen and heard with my own ears what Pakeha New Zealanders think its okay to say after the last brown person has left the room! Some horrible things come from some seemingly down to earth, lovely and everyday New Zealanders. It’s actually got to the point where I wait for the first brown joke when I go to a social gathering where there are no brown people (though I admit this is limited to my experiences socialising in central Auckland).
I have to be honest, before leaving my hometown of Porirua, I wasn’t really aware that racism existed in New Zealand. But I am now and I have heard a lot of stuff being said, particularly about Maori but also including Pacifica and Asian populations. One might say that its just a harmless joke or generalisation, like the lovely, elderly Pakeha woman I met in Timaru while working as a Treaty of Waitangi Facilitator. This lovely woman took the time to come and learn about New Zealand’s history and came over afteward to share her sentiments. She thought it was “so wonderful to have computers in here. Then Maori will feel they’ve accomplished something when they’ve learnt how to use them!”. The cheek of it! I wanted to ask this woman (c.70+ years of age) if she knew how to make a blinking powerpoint slideshow. But the thing is, she was so genuine in her praise and without an ounce of mallice, truly thought this was going to benefit Maori and their IT skills.
To me, it’s not excusable that she is a lovely old lady who made a seemingly harmless generalisation. If people repeat any idea enough, like she probably did with her own children and grandchildren, people start to believe them. The ideas then become entrenched and are transferred from generation to generation. This is where it becomes problematic, because while it may not be overt or obvious enough to point the finger at, an while they may appear harmless, these beliefs actually DO shape how people make decisions. The behaviours, norms and structures of individuals, communities and society become shaped by them. And this is not ok.
As mentioned previously, I have worked as a Treaty of Waitangi Facilitator. It was a hugely humbling job and I would jump at the chance to continue working in that type of role again. Empowering everyday New Zealanders about our country was awesome. Why? Well after working in that role, and having lived between Auckland, Wellington and Queenstown I can confidently say that as a nation, we don’t have a clue about what shaped our past and what influences us today. This lack of understanding has created such a divide when it comes to the issue of race. Through this role, I dealt first hand with many peoples’ issues with the cultural divide in NZ.
In truth, most people just wanted to gain a simple understanding of what is going on in our country. There seemed to be widespread recognition that something isn’t quite right (with respect to race relations) but they didn’t always know where they could go to figure it out. At the heart of it all, many people actually wanted to know ‘whats the big deal about all this Treaty stuff?’. One might argue that this has nothing to do with racism in New Zealand. I beg to differ. What was often tagged onto the end of that question, was a statement or generalisation along these lines “you know, its just not fair that Maori get hand outs and me, well I work hard but I dont get anything”, which was then followed by a justification for their argument that Maori shouldn’t gain anything in a settlement. Their arguments often consisted of listing the inherent flaws of Maori. And these were not a minority of viewpoints. These views were reflected by many non-Maori New Zealanders who I came into contact with from Kaitaia right down to Invercargill (of course they didnt realise they were speaking to a Maori). I heard so many generalisations about how flawed Maori were that I had to build a thick skin because it hurt. It hurt. But the bigger problem was that it wasn’t the fault of these individual people. How can you know what you’ve never been given the opportunity to understand? Instead, I see it as the systematic failure of our Government for not having addressed these issues for so long.
So I took this amazing opportunity to bridge the cultural divide. I was both privileged and humbled that people felt comfortable enough to share their thoughts and feelings of growing up in New Zealand and in particular, about their experiences (or lack thereof in many cases) of Maori people and Maori culture. I was able to validate their experiences of growing up in New Zealand, while at the same time teach them our history, indeed world history. It was helpful to recount the experiences of other indigneous groups, including the Bretons people of north western France or the First Nations of Canada, as a way for Kiwis to view the situation with some objectivity. It helped to illustrate that recognising a people’s history is not about making others feel guilty but everything to do with providing validation. The era of colonisation and its present day consequences was and continues to create injustice for a lot of people around the world – and that includes Maori*. It was also an opportunity to correct peoples’ misconceptions about Maori people and culture, like the guy who thought Maori men are sexist for not letting women speak. In this case, it was as simple as explaining the process of powhiri, in particular the role of kaikaranga and that the right of responsibility for whaikorero (traditional/formal Maori speech used in ceremonies) is dependent on the tikanga or kawa of each iwi/hapu and marae. I also challenged him to consider that to an outsider, for example, the traditional christian/Kiwi wedding could be considered completely sexist given that a woman is given away by her father to her husband. I can honestly say that most of the visitors that I dealt with appeared to be less agitated, even sympathetic toward Maori once they realised exactly what the deal is.
What I think was most important in helping people to re-consider their perspectives about Maori was when they gained an understanding of the Treaty settlement process. In particular, learning that private land is not used in settlements and that this means Pakeha homes and identities are not in fact being threatened. A question that often eventuated after some discussion was “well, I’m not Maori but I’m not English so if all the land in NZ is returned to Maori, where do I belong?”. When people realised this scenario would never eventuate and that the settlement process basically has no effect on the average Kiwi, a look of relief came over them. After people realised that Maori people and culture were not a threat to them personally, they often opened up and wanted to know more about Maori culture and traditions. It was like the penny finally dropped. That is one of the most awesome things to be part of. Awesome, in the true sense of the word.
I know I dont have statistics to back myself up so many people will dismiss my experiences as invalid or only limited to a small minority of people. I dont care. Its widely known that when people feel threatened it is easier to create barriers. And after my experience as a Treaty Facilitator, I now know that when people are empowered with knowledge of our country and how it all works, they feel confident in themselves, their idenitites and their place in the world. They no longer feel threatened and instead become open to new ideas and in particular, to other cultures. But I strongly believe that until New Zealand starts teaching our history and how it has shaped us, as well as celebrating what binds us as a nation and our unique (and AWESOME!) Kiwi culture, there will always be a large sector of New Zealanders who feel threatened by other cultures and who perpetuate the racist norms and structures that exist today. With our increasingly diverse nation it really is a necessity and I just don’t understand why its not already taking place.
*Recognising that the consequences of colonisation continue to create injustice for indigenous populations does not serve to take anything away from other very important issues, such as economic inequality and the diverse issues of working class popoulations. These issues deserve just as much time and effort to be understood and ameliorated. It is my view that juxtapositioning the issues of ‘race’ against ‘class’ serve as divide and rule tactics. I think it would do us a world of good to remember that at the end of the day, colonial policies were very much about the economy of the ‘motherland’, and that today, race and class issues are often interconnected.