Author name withheld by request.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Dr Martin Luther King
The murder of George Floyd isn’t American news, or a reflection of an American racism problem, or an American law enforcement problem. In the past when things like this have happened we (in Aotearoa New Zealand) have had a tendency to shake our heads and tut knowingly. We are self-congratulatory about our egalitarianism with little justification beyond anecdotal and unempirical comparison with other countries.
But the cycles of social inequity, injustice, insecurity and oppression that people of colour in the US face are the exact same human behaviours that afflict the rest of the world. American news is human news. They are not unique and we are not exempt. If we had a denser population or were born into a different (random) inheritance of history, it could be one of our sons being buried and our own country on fire tonight.
Aotearoa New Zealand has indeed suffered, and continues to suffer, through the traumas of systemic racism. However, in many privileged corners of the country, it’s not a common feature of our experience to have family members who lived (or otherwise) through the Holocaust or the Jim Crow laws. To a greater or lesser extent, most of us don’t have to explain to our children that because of their skin colour the world will treat them differently. Where many of these features of our post-colonial experience did (or do)occur, we avoid discussing them – few Kiwis could tell you about the 1867 Native Schools Act which banned the Maori language from classrooms, or the fact that in the lead up to our own civil rights movement in the late 1960s many Maori were still segregated from Pakeha in cinemas and public pools, refused service in bars, or excluded from applying for rental properties. It is great that we don’t think of ourselves as a racist country and are proud of that status, but this may lead to a dangerous sense of complacency.
I would argue that racism lives in New Zealand just as much as anywhere else in the world. English cricketer Jofra Archer was racially abused in Christchurch just this summer. I’ve played rugby games where powerful Fijian men have left the field in tears after being subjected to prolonged racial taunts from the side lines. I have Maori friends who earn more than I do who are ignored by real estate agents at open homes. We laugh at memes which mock and degrade people who are different to us, or are suffering the results of generations of educational exclusion, or cyclic physical and mental illness. Talk-back radio shows freely discuss the prospect of sports teams being more successful with “thinking” (read: “white”) players in key positions. Maori and Pacific Islanders are disproportionately represented in negative crime, education, health and income statistics. It’s not unusual to see confederate flags throughout the South Island. Many white men look down on white women who date Men of Colour. Less discussed but increasingly prevalent, our attitudes towards our Asian population (and tourists) have been a disgraceful case-study in xenophobia at every level of our public and private sectors.
The difference for us is, we don’t know how to recognise racism in New Zealand. We write ourselves waivers for our jokes, attitudes, biases and predispositions because “we aren’t racist, we…[just have a dark sense of humour / just have a different culture / have friends of all ethnicities / are actually .XYZ% minority ourselves / didn’t realise it was racist / are just ignorant but good people] etc.” We create safe places for these attitudes where we expect it; i.e. around low-skilled workplaces, white collar boardrooms, and rural sports clubs etc. When we do recognise it we don’t have the courage to confront it because it’s a cultural norm for us to avoid public confrontation, and because we fear being cut down for sticking our head up above the pack.
When confronted with negative feedback, many of us find it easier to discredit the messenger rather than the message. We dismiss and deflect on the basis of virtue-signalling, bandwagoning, professional manoeuvring or PC-woke-overreach. Others respond with anger because they recognise one or more of these behaviours in themselves and feel attacked.
I am of the (possibly controversial) opinion that there are very few truly, deliberately and consciously racist people in the world (wherein a person would be defined by that substantive, fixed quality). I would hazard a guess that they probably number just a little more than the number of humans who could be psychologically categorised as sociopaths. The rest of us, myself included, are complex and contradictory products of the societies we are all shaped by. Consider for example how innocuous and common it would be to hear “man up,” “you throw like a girl,” “don’t be a pussy,” “grow some nuts,” or “you’re the man” from someone with absolutely no conscious designs on the oppression of women. But the language, inferences, stories, values and assumptions that we learn, borrow and teach all around us – in plain sight every day – create a world which devalues women relative to men. This occurs across the full spectrum of ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation and more. When this happens in barely discernible, but constant and normalised ways the task of re-educating a population is akin to explaining climate change. Until your house floods, or you sustain a flood of murdered People of Colour, it is difficult to convince anyone of the problem linked to the solutions you are promoting.
For this reason, it’s increasingly important for us to be introspective (fewer memes, more self-awareness), reflective (adjust after the fact) and reflexive (adjust during the fact). We need to have a growth mindset and to practice the ability to step outside of our position and look critically at ourselves, even when it hurts. It’s okay to be honest about mistakes we’ve made, and we need to find a balance between the righteous anger needed to confront racism and the grace needed to allow people to reinvent themselves without being marginalised.
We may not be able to help America change any faster or more effectively than they can themselves. But we shouldn’t sit back and watch silently like this isn’t our problem, or feel – particularly for those of us who are white – that it’s safer to stay quiet. It’s not enough to not be racist, we need to be proactively anti-racist. New Zealanders should lend their voice to this moment in human history and turn their attention to the long white cloud of “casual” racism at home. We can do better.
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