Denying racism holds us back
Written by Simone Kaho, republished from e-tangata
Over summer, I lay on my favourite Auckland west coast beach, Kaitarakihi, getting browner and making a mental inventory of all the racist things that have happened to me, then questioning whether each one really happened.
It’s because I wrote a story about racism and got trolled.
No one told me that writing about racism is like going down the rabbit hole. It’s an issue at once so personal, and equally societal and historical, that it asks of you both intense personal reflection and fact-based knowledge.
It’s also a core problem of colonial cultures that blocks real and equal social progress. For someone like me, who likes solving problems, the wheels don’t stop turning once the story is done.
Also, that thing the troll said got me ruminating.
The story I wrote last November looked at the racist response to an anti-racist documentary web series in which Pākehā subjects talked about moving past white guilt.
I struggled with a paragraph trying to pinpoint the difference between the racist experiences I’ve had, as an afakasi born in New Zealand in the 1970s, and what my Tongan father, who migrated here as a teenager in the 1950s, went through. In the end, I said the racism I’ve experienced has been “mostly coded and covert”.
In the Facebook comments section, someone said: “Coded and covert! Lol in other words ‘it isn’t there’. Everybody understands it, now move the f k on!”
The person identified himself as mixed-race. I suppose that’s what got me ticking. What would be in it for him to deny racism?
Hence, the summer stocktake.
I’ve been called a “nigger”, and told to go back to where I come from (I was born in Auckland). I’ve been called a “brown shit”, “blackface”, “a big brown poo”, and told I’ll get fat “because all niggers do”.
That’s not the coded and covert stuff — that’s the racism that made up the balance of “mostly”.
Coded and covert racism is confusing and harder to process, and often happens when I’m the only non-white person in the room.
It’s Pacific Island or Māori accents being mocked, and comments that start with: “I’m not racist but . . .”
It’s jokes about colonisation, or about how they’re not allowed to say the n-word because they’re white — while actually using the word “nigger”.
It’s laughing about how they can’t say the word “Māori” properly. Or forgetting whether I’m Sāmoan or Tongan ‘cos it’s one of those. Or telling me I should run when the police enter the workplace.
It’s the friend who wouldn’t come to the Ōtara market because she wouldn’t “fit in” there. Or the boyfriend who wouldn’t pick me up from the Pasifika Festival.
This racism comes primed with defensiveness and denial. If challenged, the person gets emotional and aggressive, or withdraws coldly: “Are you calling me racist?”
I’ve lost friends, boyfriends, and whole “crews” over it. I’ve had heated discussions — me versus everyone else — in classrooms, on a boat, in a van, on holiday, at an Airbnb. Or I’ve kept my mouth shut because I didn’t want to deal with the fallout, and then hated myself for it.
In my experience of New Zealand, covert and coded racism is normal.
That said, the Pākehā friends I have now strongly reject this kind of normal. They question themselves, and know they’re untangling ingrained racist stereotypes. They say things like “White people should shut up and listen” and “OK coloniser” to online trolls. They acknowledge structural inequality in their respective fields — education, art, veterinary care, and literature.
Looking over the inventory of my experiences — of which I’ve offered only a sample summary here — I feel 100 percent confident to say racism in New Zealand exists. Saying otherwise is trolling, whatever your motivations are.
And although the trolling triggered a personal reflection, it’s not about me. Denying racism in New Zealand is as factually problematic as denying climate change. Racism is baked into the Kiwi cultural DNA and infrastructure. That’s how colonisation works, as Moana Jackson explains.
New Zealand isn’t unique in this. We belong to a group of colonial nations — the most similar of which are Australia, the US, and Canada — in which a white-settler majority took, and held on to, power and land at the expense of the indigenous population.
While there are significant territorial differences, all four countries have socio-economic outcomes where indigenous peoples are over-represented in suicide, addiction, prison, and unemployment — and under-represented in education success, wellness, wealth, and life-expectancy.
The outcomes are the same because English settler colonialism works the same way.
The dominant ethnic group of these colonial nations, the European diaspora, has a vested interest in denying racism. To admit that power and land were acquired, and are kept, through racist and unjust means, means facing moral questions.
Do we continue as we have been, and just accept our baked-in racism? Or do we try to get back on the right side of history by reshaping the frameworks of power and privilege established by colonisation?
For New Zealand, that would mean truly honouring Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
Many New Zealanders have no idea what that would look like. Some are dead set against it. Others are already moving towards it. The halls of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa are filled with Pākehā learning te reo. NZ On Air funds anti-racist projects like Land of the Long White Cloud. New Zealand history will soon be taught in schools. And Pākehā like Andrew Judd are self-identifying as recovering racists.
But real progress requires change at a structural, constitutional level. It requires a reimagining of what our nation might look like, free of the long shadow of colonisation. And that work — of putting structure around the vision of a more inclusive Aotearoa — has already been undertaken by Māori, in a widely consultative process. The result is laid out in the report of Matike Mai Aotearoa, written by Moana Jackson and published in 2016, which sets out to
. . . develop and implement a model for an inclusive Constitution for Aotearoa based on tikanga and kawa, He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Niu Tireni of 1835, Te Tiriti o Waitangi of 1840, and other indigenous human rights instruments which enjoy a wide degree of international recognition.
The report identifies six potential models for constitutional transformation and explains how Māori, Pākehā, and the many other cultural groups living in New Zealand, could work together in a more inclusive way. It should be compulsory reading for all New Zealanders.
Denying racism is really about blocking this real progress. It provides cover for racist attitudes and excuses unequal outcomes. It gaslights people who’ve experienced racism, and stands in the way of people who want to start the real work of moving beyond our colonial heritage.
It’s also highly effective because, unlike overt racism, it can run unchallenged in the media. At the moment, any discussion of racism in the media will trigger an onslaught of denial, defensiveness and, well, racism.
I encountered this first-hand when I reviewed a sample of 280 Facebook comments for the white defensiveness story. It gave me the blues for a week. But it was worth it, because I found common threads that pop up again and again, which make it easier to identify what’s going on.
Max Harris identified four types of white defensiveness in his 2018 E-Tangata piece — and they all came up repeatedly in the Facebook comments. Denial was one of them. And then Diversion (“Māori did bad stuff in the past, too. We’re all just flawed humans”). Detriment Centring (“We need to fix Māori”). And Move On (“We’ve done the Waitangi settlements. It’s fixed now”). In my review, I found recurring themes within these categories.
Blame the Crown (“The Queen did it, not us”).
That’s “woke” crap (The new political correctness).
Focus on unity (“I don’t see colour. We’re one people, and talking about racism divides us”).
It’s a media beat-up (This person or the media made up this racist incident for clicks or money).
Victim-blaming (“They need to try harder”).
I’m a victim, too (“I didn’t choose to be born here”).
Don’t blame the past (“Colonisation has no bearing on the present”).
Be tolerant (“They’re not really racist — they were just raised that way”).
Focus on the solution (“Talking about racism is blaming”).
Māori have privileges, too (Giving Māori more say/indigenous rights is reverse racism).
Extreme appropriation (“I’m tangata whenua, too, because I was born here”).
Many of those threads were echoed in a study of anti-Māori themes in the New Zealand media, published in 2014.
There were also examples of more overt racism among the Facebook comments — for instance, references to Māori bloodlines and Māori character that mirrored negative stereotypes consistently found in mass media portrayals of indigenous peoples.
We know the stereotypes. The most blatant examples pop up in the media every now and then and (rightly) get pounced on. Heather du Plessis Allan calling the Pacific Islands “leeches”, which was upheld by the BSA as a breach of broadcasting standards. Or Al Nisbet’s awful cartoons.
But covert racism — including denial and other subtle forms of racism — is more difficult to identify and challenge, or to prosecute.
You don’t have to go too far to find examples of this. A couple of weeks ago, I listened to Conor English, the chairman of Agribusiness New Zealand, on The Panel on RNZ. He started by saying that “we’re all migrants here”, which showed that he either doesn’t understand the term “indigenous” or that he denies its significance.
And then, during a discussion on the disproportionate uplifts of Māori children by Oranga Tamariki, Conor trotted out the “I’m a victim too” thread (because look what happened in Ireland) and “Don’t blame the past” (what happened here 180 years ago is no excuse for family violence — which no one was suggesting).
He then went a step further and questioned how those uplifted children had come to be identified as Māori — a racist theme that defines Māoriness on the basis of blood quotient and questions the right of Māori to self-identify. (Also, how could it be said that Māori children were disproportionately targeted, if they weren’t really Māori at all?)
The host, Wallace Chapman, clearly flustered by this, shut it down by deflecting the question but didn’t challenge the attitude behind it. The other panel guest Fatumata Bah, a youth leader originally from Mecca, Saudi Arabia, managed some diplomatic counters. A mixed response poured in from listeners, some approving of Conor’s courage in saying what everyone thinks.
A 2019 Australian study on race representation in the media found that more than half of all articles sampled over a 12-month period were negative when discussing race — that is, they used racist language or themes. Almost all of those negative articles (96 percent) were written by media commentators with an Anglo-Celtic or European background.
Another key finding was that 70 percent of all articles that talked about race, used covert techniques to push racist narratives. As the authors write:
“Our analysis shows that covert racism is more prevalent than overt racism in media opinion pieces. This indicates that language is evolving along with the changing media landscape to accommodate racist attitudes and language in mainstream media.”
Whether it’s covert or overt, as the report makes clear, such framing “reinforces white dominance and can undermine a sense of belonging for those targeted”.
Talking about racism is uncomfortable. It makes me question my own identity and experiences and brings up feelings I’d rather not dwell on. But, as racism changes tack and becomes more stealthy and harder to recognise, it’s critical to pay attention to the recurring themes, and to talk about them.
Racism, covert racism, and the denial of racism, undermine the safety, identity, and political power of Māori, indigenous, non-white communities.
It hinders our progress towards a fairer, more inclusive New Zealand.
Being honest about racism in New Zealand — acknowledging that it’s a cultural norm in colonial societies, that it is lived experience and fact — is a step towards a better future.
As James Baldwin wrote: “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”