Like many New Zealanders, I was inspired by our Prime Minister Jacinda Arderns declaration in the wake of the terror in Christchurch that This is not us. I took it as a signal of our intentions for the immediate future. From now on, from this day forward, this is not us. From now on we are vigilant for the early warning signs of white supremacist violence. From this day forward we reject every expression of racism and hatred and stop it in its tracks. To this promise we pledge ourselves. So say we all.
Taken as a statement of New Zealands past and present the comfortable bubble we were all living in up until that Friday Im afraid it was inaccurate, as many other New Zealanders have sad cause to know intimately. We are a nation where cries of Go home! follow brown-skinned people down the street. We are a nation that elects anti-Muslim racists to Parliament and appoints their party leader to the second-highest position in the land. We are a nation whose primary political divide in our most recent election was between those who were racist against Māori and Pacific Islanders and those who were racist against Asians.
I happen to have the tremendous good fortune of being a white man; the only racism Ive had come my way was a couple of the half-dozen occasions when Ive been mistaken for Jewish. And yet even from this position of privilege Ive seen plenty of racism directed at others. How much more visible must it be to those on the pointy end?(Content note: If racism in New Zealand is the last thing you need to be reminded of just now, Id advise not reading any further.)
There was the guy in the supermarket who yelled Come on, [racial epithet]! when a South Asian worker, busy arranging trolleys, briefly got in his way. There was the guy who expressed regret, in tones of deep distaste, at how his country was being taken over by persons of a yellow persuasion. There was the guy on the bus who hypothesized that the East Asian owners of the internet café next to the bus stop had taken down the bus timetables to fool potential customers into parking there. There was the guy who, having come off his bike to avoid a car rounding the corner, shouted not Watch where youre going! nor Ive got a right to use the road too! but Bloody Asians!
Ive heard people yell at the television Youre not Māori! when a commentator claimed otherwise who didnt look Māori enough for their judgement. I lived through the time when Arderns party (before she entered Parliament) blocked Māori customary property claims to the foreshore and seabed while allowing commercial ones, and sold this policy to the nation as the Māoris want to stop you going to the beach (to complete the irony, the Māori claimants more often wanted to ensure public access to beaches). I heard people then joke, since by then our laws had abandoned the racist blood quantum criterion for telling who counts as Māori, that maybe they would still be able to go to the beach if they feel Māori. It wasnt that long ago. New Zealand is still pretty much the same people now as it was then.
Once, conversing about my job with a social work lecturer after class, I happened to mention that in my dentistry classes there was a high proportion of Asian students. Insofar as I had a point it was to puzzle over why so few Pākehā students were going into dentistry (the paucity of Māori and Pacific Islanders in the health professions is, alas, less mysterious). But the lecturer whose inclusive attitudes I had until that point admired took me to be saying something quite different. Yeah, he said, they shouldnt let them in to take those places off our people, should they?