The Human Rights Commission recently launched an anti-racism campaign encouraging New Zealanders to stand up to racism and share their experiences of the issue. Juliet Rowan talks to Race Relations Commissioner and Tauranga local Dame Susan Devoy about the state of race relations in the Bay. She also hears from a Maori woman and a Sikh man about their experiences of discrimination and their wish for better cultural understanding.

TEISHA PARATENE'S STORY

Teisha Paratene says racism is ``alive and well``in Tauranga.

The day before our interview, she says someone she knows used the N word about another person she knows.

"I really had him up about it,'' she tells the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend.

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"His reply was, 'So it's all right when you black people use the N word, but one of us use it [and] it's suddenly horrific'.

"And I said, 'Yeah it is'."

Paratene, who runs Tauranga's Haeata Charitable Trust and has had five jobs since moving to Tauranga, knows what it's like to face racist abuse.

The 37-year-old quit a previous job amid what she says was a barrage of daily racist taunts.

Without identifying that employer, Paratene says some of the racism was blatant and directed straight at her.

She says she was called "black Maori bitch'' and had to listen to one person in the workplace make slurs against Maori customers.

The person would say: "Your cuzzy bros over there are pinching all our stuff."

Paratene says customers also discriminated against her, some in a more covert but no less offensive way.

"They'd clearly be looking for something and needed help. I'd offer them help and the customers would make a remark that they didn't want help from me."

She saw similar behaviour directed towards Indian staff and complained to the company, which she says removed one of the problem employees.

Teisha Paratene says racist abuse made her self worth disappear. Photo/George Novak
Teisha Paratene says racist abuse made her self worth disappear. Photo/George Novak

But she says the abuse had already taken a toll and in the end, she felt she had no choice but to quit.

"I was just traumatised. Every time I went to work, I was crying on the way there and on the way back. I ended up leaving. I just got sick from the stress."

Paratene is from Gisborne and says racism had not been part of her life before she moved to Tauranga.

At the same time, she recalls being the victim of racist abuse when she started a new school in Australia as a teenager.

"I lasted two weeks at that school," she says.


GURVEER SINGH'S STORY

Gurveer Singh fights back tears as he talks about discrimination in Tauranga.
"Racism is here," he says quietly.

Singh came to New Zealand seven months ago in search of a better life, choosing Tauranga because immigration websites had said it was booming and a good place to get a job.

"It's not reality," he tells the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend.

Singh is 24 and has a degree in IT from his home country of India.

"We IT guys are not getting any jobs." he says.

"They are asking for New Zealand experience, but if we are not getting the jobs, how will we get experience?"

Singh is from the northern Indian state of Rajasthan, where he says corruption is endemic and despite his education, work is scarce.

He is doing a Level 7 diploma in computing at NTEC in Tauranga to add to his degree and passed his latest exam this week.

But despite applying for a host of positions, Singh says the only work he has been able to secure is part-time at an orchard.

"I don't want to work in an orchard because I am a professional and have my bachelor's degree, but still I have to earn my livelihood," he says.

Singh believes cultural prejudice is the reason he has been unable to find a job of his choosing.

He says he is overlooked by potential employers because he is Sikh and wears a turban and beard.

"[They think] Osama bin Laden.

Gurveer Singh, 24, asks people to judge him on his ability to work, not his appearance. Photo/George Novak
Gurveer Singh, 24, asks people to judge him on his ability to work, not his appearance. Photo/George Novak

Singh says he is at the point of applying for any kind of work and thought he had been successful when he called about a dishwashing job at a restaurant.

He was told over the phone he could have the job, but says the situation changed when he appeared in person.

"The next day when I went, they told [me], 'No no, you are not the preferred person'."

Fellow Sikhs have told him his turban is the problem, but Singh says removing it would be a very difficult decision.

"From childhood I haven't cut my beard, I haven't cut my hair, so if I do now, just for getting a job, it will really hurt me."

He says the irony is that under Sikh custom, the turban is meant to identify the wearer as a person willing to help others.

He says this was demonstrated by an Auckland Sikh who removed his turban to put under the head of child hit by a car, a story reported in the New Zealand Herald last year.

Asked if he thought he would face discrimination before arriving in New Zealand, Singh replies: "No, not at all. I did my own research and according to my research, New Zealand people are very friendly."

Singh's eyes fill with tears and he says he feels despair at times but is also desperate to persevere with his dream of finding IT work in New Zealand.

"I love this country because the careers are good and government policies are good."

For now, he is living in Greerton but says if he can't get a job he wants when he finishes his studies, he will look at shifting to Wellington.

He is focusing on improving his English and says his greatest wish is that people would judge him on his ability to work rather than his appearance.

"If you want to judge me, just judge me on my skills [and] my qualifications...

"I'm like you. I'm also a human being. I'm just wearing the turban because it's my culture."


TAURANGA'S CHANGING FACE

Singh is part of the changing face of Tauranga, a city which now has the country's second-largest Sikh community.

There are Sikh temples in Oropi and on 15th Avenue, and like other Asian immigrants, Sikhs are adding to the cultural mix on the streets of Tauranga.

After Singh's interview, two young men in red turbans walk past and two others, Sunny Singh, 20, and Raman Singh, 21, stop to talk to the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend.

Both are from Punjab and have been in Tauranga two years.

Raman Singh says people are "all very friendly and kind to us" and he does not see racism as a major issue.

However, he admits that he sometimes encounters abuse from customers when working at his part-time job delivering pizzas.

"Sometimes it happens when they are drunk on something," he says.

Asked how he feels when the target of slurs, he says: "I just feel nothing. I just ignore them."

Sunny Singh says people sometime mimic the way he speaks, but he also believes racism to be a minor issue in Tauranga.

"There are some racists in my community as well."

Migrant communities in Tauranga have grown rapidly in recent years and the trend is showing no signs of slowing.

An Asia New Zealand Foundation report last year revealed that the Indian population in Tauranga tripled between 2001 and 2013 while the number of Chinese almost doubled over the same period.

Candy Yan, president of the Bay of Plenty Chinese Business and Commerce Association, says racial discrimination is not something she has experienced in Tauranga. Photo/George Novak
Candy Yan, president of the Bay of Plenty Chinese Business and Commerce Association, says racial discrimination is not something she has experienced in Tauranga. Photo/George Novak

Candy Yan, president of the Bay of Plenty Chinese Business and Commerce Association, has lived in Tauranga 14 years and says racism is not something she has experienced and nor has she heard complaints from her friends in the city's Chinese community.

"All the information that comes to me is very positive," she says.

"They just think people here are very friendly and their experience in Tauranga is very, very nice."

Tauranga Muslim Association president Ahmed Ghoneim also says racism is not an issue for him and his family, adding that his wife walks their children to school in her headscarf and has no problem.

However, Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy has lived in Tauranga almost 15 years and says it would be wrong to assume that racism is not an issue in the Bay.

"We're like any other region, that it's a problem," she says.

"It's a New Zealand problem."

Dame Susan is at the helm of a new campaign by the Human Rights Commission called That's Us, which aims to encourage people to stand up to racism and share their stories of discrimination online.

Since the campaign's launch in September, a million New Zealanders have viewed the stories and other campaign content, and liked or shared the information 300,000 times on Facebook, Twitter and the That's Us website.

Dame Susan says the figures are heartening.

"People are actually commenting now and saying, 'It's made me look at my own behaviours and attitudes. It's made me realise that some of the things that I do say which can be hurtful to other people, I didn't realise it.'

"That's what we're trying to do - have courageous conversations."

Dame Susan says racism is a polarising topic and it is important to have open conversations on the issue.

"Every one of us has a responsibility to lead because if we look around the world, we see what happens if people do not get race relations right. And we've got an opportunity in New Zealand to make sure we don't bring that divisive language, that hate speech, into our country."

The That's Us campaign raises the issue of casual racism, which Dame Susan says is "not very casual if it's happening to you".

"It's the abuse you experience when you're standing at the bus stop and you're told to 'go home', or if a car drives past and someone yells out vitriol at you or throws a can or does whatever. Those are the things that I hear about unfortunately in my job every day and they're not the things you have a medium to complain about."

Dame Susan says such racism falls outside the jurisdiction of the Human Rights Act and does not tend to be the subject of complaints to police.

"The campaign was really about an opportunity for people in a safe way to share their experiences of racial intolerance and abuse. We want the good stories too. We want people to share their experiences and to talk about what sort of society they want to live in in the future."

Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy says we have a long way to go in terms of cultural acceptance in the Bay. Photo/Dean Purcell
Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy says we have a long way to go in terms of cultural acceptance in the Bay. Photo/Dean Purcell

Dame Susan says despite diversity and inclusion being buzzwords in organisations, institutional racism continues to be a major problem nationwide.

She says some people make racist comments without considering themselves racist and it is important for others to challenge such prejudices.

"We have to stand up. We can't be bystanders when this happens. It's politely reminding people, or not so politely reminding people. that that's not acceptable."

She believes many New Zealanders find it confronting that the country's demographic has changed so rapidly, saying it has gone from being bicultural to multicultural in the space of a generation and when "we actually haven't even sorted out truly what being bicultural means".

She does not single Tauranga out as being more or less prejudiced than any other city, but says she is concerned by "some of the attitudes of the people who stop me regularly in the supermarket in the weekends".

"I'm often asked what I'm going to do about immigration and I like to remind them I don't have that power or responsibility. I'm not the minister of immigration.

"And then I dig a little bit deeper and I ask them about immigration because most of us are migrants from somewhere ... Then I understand they're concerned about the people who are visually different from themselves.

"So to be perfectly honest, they're not worried about Europeans migrating to New Zealand. They're concerned about Asians and/or others.

"So when you challenge them about that, you can see the look on the face and the dawning, which is to actually say, to actually in some way have to admit, they are concerned about the colour and the culture of the people that are coming to live here.

"That says to me we're got a lot of growing up and a lot of acceptance and a lot of talking about what an inclusive society really looks like."

She says all New Zealanders are entitled to have a conversation about immigration but she says the conversation needs to be "based on fact, not hyperbole".

She says the multiculturalism we have in New Zealand is amazing and she wishes everyone could have the cultural experiences she's had in her almost four years as commissioner, saying they have been overwhelming and enriching.

She believes part of the problem is people not mixing with other cultures, despite the fact we now celebrate festivals such as Diwali, Eid and Matariki.

A 2013 Asia New Zealand Foundation report found that the more contact non-Asian New Zealanders have with Asian people, the more positive they feel about them.

Says Dame Susan: "I think if we can talk and look at people's attitudes around the everyday racism, the stuff that happens out on the streets at the bus stop or on the sports fields, that's good ... [and] the simple things we can all do about learning to pronounce someone's name, even though it might be difficult."

She says learning to say and spell Maori words correctly is another example, giving the example of Otumoetai needing a macron.

"Things," Dame Susan says, "that aren't going to kill us and actually go a long way."

Teisha Paratene of Haeata Trust has experienced racism in Tauranga and says activities such as community meals can help build tolerance and understanding. Photo/George Novak
Teisha Paratene of Haeata Trust has experienced racism in Tauranga and says activities such as community meals can help build tolerance and understanding. Photo/George Novak

BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS

Teisha Paratene's iwi affiliation is Ngati Awa of Whakatane, and she says the racism she experienced in the past caused her to spiral into a deep depression.

"It just made your whole self worth go down the toilet."

Today, Paratene is a stay-at-home mum to her 3-year-old and in February this year, launched the Haeata Charitable Trust.

The trust provides a free community meal at Tauranga's Anzac Park each Saturday and also delivers free bread to families in need during the week.

Paratene distributes donated bread to the families from various sources, including Life Church on Cameron Rd, and also has a table outside her house in Gate Pa where she puts food for anyone struggling.

She says homeless people are among those who use the table and the trust's community meal now attracts up to 90 children and 50 adults each week.

Paratene runs two Facebook pages advertising the trust's services but says even in providing free food, she has encountered racism.

"I've had people message me going, 'You shouldn't do that because those Maoris will just take advantage of you' and 'All those dole-bludging Maoris from that area will just be using you.'

"Actually," she says, "the people who have come to us have been the working people and it's not about colour."

Sunny Singh, 20, left, and Raman Singh, 21, say Tauranga is a friendly place but admit they have been subjected to racist slurs. Photo/Juliet Rowan
Sunny Singh, 20, left, and Raman Singh, 21, say Tauranga is a friendly place but admit they have been subjected to racist slurs. Photo/Juliet Rowan

Racist perceptions, she says, can stop people seeking help when they need it and breed fear among ethnic communities, giving the reluctance of local Indians to join the trust's Saturday meal as an example.

"We're trying to encourage our Indian families to come and be a part of it because they're very shy to receive stuff from Maori and I guess they think it's because we're going to bash them."

Paratene and her husband started cooking for their community after moving to Gate Pa in January and feeling despondent at violence they witnessed on the streets.

"They were all sorts of people fighting. It was teenagers, it was adults, it was husband and wife, women against women, just flat out punching each other.

"So I said to my husband we'd put a barbecue out there and just start a community sausage sizzle, and just put it there where the fights were happening.

"We decided to occupy that space with something positive. It grew bigger than what we ever thought it would."

The meal was moved to Anzac Park and most of the food now comes from Good Neighbour, with other donations from Kai Aroha, a local doctor's surgery and the public.

"Otherwise my husband just buys sausages," says Teisha.

Asked whether her Maori culture plays a part in her desire to help her community, she replies: "Absolutely. That's how I was brought up. My mum fostered kids left, right and centre. Our house was always full of kids and she was always feeding people."

Paratene's mother is now 95 and Paratene hopes she can continue following her lead for a long time yet.

She says even the simple act of people sharing a meal can break down prejudices and is paying off in her neighbourhood.

"It's built us a nicer street. It's built us a much nicer community. We've met heaps of people on our street, gotten to know heaps of the families.

"A lot of neighbours have met each other that would never have spoken."

ON THE WEB
- The Human Rights Commission's That's Us campaign is online at www.thatsus.co.nz
- Teisha Paratene's Haeata Charitable Trust is on Facebook as Haeata Community Meals and Haeata Trust Community Needs.