We're not racist, but ...

By Susan Edmunds

As a conference this weekend looks at how racism affects Auckland, Susan Edmunds examines the progress we have made and the work left to do.

Innes Logan says the biggest driver of racism is not being exposed to other cultures. Photo / Doug Sherring
Innes Logan says the biggest driver of racism is not being exposed to other cultures. Photo / Doug Sherring

On my second date with my now-husband, an elderly Maori woman pulled me aside. "Don't worry," she whispered, gesturing at her silver hair, "You're not the only blondie here."

Until that point, I hadn't noticed that not only was I the only blonde in the room, but I was also the only white person. As an import from the North Shore, the fact I was in the Kaikohe RSA to watch my now brother-in-law's band play was more of a culture shock than the colour of the skin of the rest of the audience.

In the year since my Maori husband and I married in Hawaii - when the US registrar asked us to state our ethnicities and told us there were increasing numbers of interracial marriages - we've had to navigate a few other differences.

We travel from Birkenhead, where we have turkey for Christmas lunch, to Kaikohe, where we have hangi for dinner. My in-laws are patiently kind about my desire to avoid sleeping on the floor "marae style" when we visit.

But these novelties feel more like the foibles of newly mingling families than any real racial divide.

Of course, there have been many occasions when I have been the only non-Maori at family parties and dinners.

But while my skin colour might be unusual in some parts of my husband's Far North home-town, where almost everyone works at the meatworks or the jail, those occasions are a reminder to me that it is a common occurrence for him.

He is still the odd one out on most of the boards he serves on. At accountants' conferences, he is sometimes the only one with brown skin in the room.

He has a karakia or two memorised, despite not being fluent in te reo or being religious, because when presented with a new brown face around the table, well-meaning people discover their desire to open a meeting with a Maori prayer.

And when he swaps his suit for his gym gear, people who've shaken his hand in the boardroom avoid eye contact in the street.

And even more seriously, if we have children, they are statistically far more likely to end up in jail or to die earlier than kids from two European or Asian parents.

Young people with brown skin are twice as likely to suffer mental illness, and woe betide those with darker complexions who run into police - young Maori and Pacific Islanders have been shown to be dealt with much more harshly.

Even the United Nations has noticed. Its Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discriminations urged New Zealand to intensify efforts to reduce structural discrimination in the criminal justice system.

Damon Salesa, a University of Auckland professor of Pacific studies, says it is something New Zealanders need to talk about a lot more.

Maori people are going to the same hospitals and receiving the same treatment, but dying far more frequently after hospitalisation, he says. "That's something we should be trying to talk about. There's something so profoundly wrong."

Former Radio New Zealand journalist and now AUT Pacific journalism programme leader Richard Pamatatau says the media needs to take some responsibility.

When Maori or Pacific Island children are involved in crime, reporters often call on a community leader to comment.

"When boyracers are playing up, do you ever hear the call that we should speak to their community leaders?"

And despite the failed finance company directors being almost all European men, there is none of the racial profiling that has seen us make domestic abuse a "Maori problem", or sudden infant death syndrome the fault of Maori women who want to share their beds with their babies, he says.

New Zealanders are happy to celebrate Maori and Pacific Island culture, fashion and art - and then report on crime and diabetes. "But there's silence in between," Pamatatau says. "Media as a group has a lot of work to do."

Innes Logan agrees there is progress to be made. If Logan, who runs Spasifik magazine, wants to know what it's like to be the subject of this country's racism, all he has to do is head out of the door wearing a hoodie and jeans and have a couple of days' growth in his beard.

People who would smile and look him in the eye when he is dressed in his business suit turn away or regard him with distrust - as if he might pinch their cars when they're not looking. "People say I look a lot harder than I normally do."

He describes it with a sense of humour but admits it makes him sad - mostly for other people with browner skin than his, or those who don't have a daily uniform of a suit and tie and a business to run. These people must deal with this kind of thing every day, he says.

Spasifik, approaching its 10th birthday, is aimed at celebrating Pacific Island culture and communities but Logan is careful not to take a patronising approach.

"If I write about someone successful I don't want it to be 'hey, this brown fulla has a degree, isn't that amazing', but try to normalise it."

Too often, he says, Pacific people are stuck in a rut thinking they are good at music and rugby - and little else.

"We like to portray that ourselves sometimes, saying things like 'this brown fulla's excelling in individual sport rather than a team sport, wow'."

Logan, who had a European father and a Samoan mother, says the biggest driver of racism is not being exposed to other cultures. "The more isolated you are, the more images and perceptions fester and grow."

NewZealand isn't worse than any other country in which a whole lot of different ethnicities live together. "I think we're getting better."

Pamatatau says new Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy has the biggest learning curve of her life ahead of her. "Hopefully she can take the rest of New Zealand on that journey with her."

Despite the grim statistics on death rates, crime, health and jail, there are positive signs, too. Tuhoe has received $170 million to settle historical grievances and an apology from the Crown.

The United Nations' Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has noted that many of New Zealand's efforts at race relations represent "best practice", to which other nations might aspire.

Kiwis are also talking about issues a lot more. The Ethnic Peoples Advisory Panel, part of the Auckland Council, hosted a mini-conference yesterday looking at how racism affects the city and what can be done about it.

Panel deputy chair Rev Amail Habb says racism in employment is a huge problem. "Your name, skin colour and accent do affect your employment opportunities."

But by talking about the issue openly, the panel hopes to provide some solutions.

Even white supremacist groups are less keen to show their faces. Earlier this week, a group called Right-Wing Resistance was reportedly planning to distribute anti-Chinese flyers around Auckland. The same group was responsible for previous "stop the Asian invasion" flyers in Northcote, Howick and Pakuranga.

But they obviously know the weight of public sentiment isn't with them. The phone number listed as its headquarters does not have a voice message on the answer machine. Calls and texts went unanswered. Similarly, the National Front appears to have gone into hiding. Its website does not list contact details and a man who answered the phone listed as its Auckland office said it was not the group.

And if you accepted Ron Mark's argument on The Vote on TV3 this week, marriages like mine are the proof that New Zealand is not a racist country.

The more we inter-marry, the more we must be accepting each other, he said.

When more people look at couples like my husband and me and see just a local boy introducing his date to his hometown, not a Maori man with the only white girl in the room, or describe my husband as the part-owner of a successful accounting firm, not just the Maori accountant who will offer the Ngapuhi view, I think we'll be able to say we've taken another step forward.


Read more:

Pakeha-Chinese family thrive

Younger Kiwis more enlightened

- Herald on Sunday

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