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  • Our Words Matter

Looking at what lurks within to stop the hurt of discrimination

Updated: Sep 16, 2019

Contributor: Sue McCabe

We need to look within ourselves, if we are to be a society that contains sufficient understanding to minimise the chance that terrorism survives in Aotearoa.

Going to a vigil, donating money, and supportive social media posts are important visible ways to show we condemn terrorism and are willing to help those suffering. While critically important, these actions are relatively easy and short term.

What is harder but will have greater impact in the longer-term, is recognising that most people have bits within us, sometimes hidden deep, that support a culture that fears the unfamiliar.

I share the following hidden bit of myself as an example. To me, the terrorist attack in New Zealand was unsurprising (but at the same time still unreal) as I’d thought one was just a matter of time.

However, subconsciously (unbeknown even to me until Friday [15 March]) this act took the shape of an extreme Islamic terrorist attacking, with their motivation our Western lifestyle and political actions.

That says it all really. I’ve been in the fortunate position to work on myself to recognise my unconscious biases and how I am a product of our racist and sexist society. I’ve come a long way, to the point I’m called upon to give public talks on sexism.

I talked as recently as International Women’s Day on March 8 about the harm that stereotyping people does. I know the connection between people who let racist or sexist jokes slide by, and those that undertake race or gender based violence. It’s the little things we do that mandate or allow the bigger acts to happen, as they enable a culture that tolerates discrimination.

Yet my subconscious still had this one-sided picture of what the terrorist act would look like. This picture wasn’t even obvious to me until Friday, when all of a sudden I had a moment of clarity that this isn’t how I thought the attack would occur.

What does this mean? I’m not going to beat myself up. I’m not going to get defensive. I’m accepting that I need to keep challenging myself and learning more. And so do many other people if we are to give longer-term effect to our current social media statements with their beautiful sentiments like You Are Us.

Societal evils like racism and sexism are on a spectrum. At one end, there’s the people who are overtly racist and sexist. I often feel those at the other end are likely to have had an enlightened childhood and have grown up without being so heavily imprinted on by society.

Then there’s people like me, who grew up in the middle of the spectrum in a good family, but one that subconsciously carried some harmful societal norms. I’m lucky to have had experiences that moved me positively along the spectrum so that I now — usually — can identify racism and sexism, even in their covert forms.

But there’s more I can and need to do to contribute to a harmonious Aotearoa. I’m going to continue to challenge the thoughts that come unbidden into my head. I’m going to assess what I see and hear as to whether it’s contributing to or against a culture that welcomes difference.

I’m going to redouble my efforts to speak up in the moment when I see or hear expressions of discrimination (I’ve been doing this for some years with regard to sexism — and it’s tough going).

At this time when people are wondering what they can do to help, I encourage looking deep at what lurks within and opening up to learning, as a powerful way we can stop the hurt of discrimination within Aotearoa.


Sue is Chief Executive of Philanthropy New Zealand and the former Chief Executive of the National Council of Women. She also is a co-founder and trustee of not-for-profit the Community Comms Collective and co-founder and director of social enterprise The Good Registry.



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