Susan Devoy: Race relations a talk worth having

Ranginui Walker had the right idea about needing to debate our shared history as New Zealanders.
Like many great New Zealanders Ranginui Walker went to places no one had gone before - or more correctly took the rest of us to places we had never gone before. Photo / File Photo
Like many great New Zealanders Ranginui Walker went to places no one had gone before - or more correctly took the rest of us to places we had never gone before. Photo / File Photo

Soon after I was appointed Race Relations Commissioner the phone rang and it was Dr Ranginui Walker. He invited me to lunch at his home with him and his wife Deidre. We talked about many things and before I left he asked me to come and have a look at their bedroom.

I thought that was a hard-case thing to ask but when we got there he showed me a wall covered in photographs of his beloved mokopuna.

Their whakapapa comes from many different cultures, Maori, Japanese, Lebanese, Pakeha New Zealand. As Ranginui stood there smiling at me he didn't explain his mokopuna wall because he didn't have to: he was showing me the future face of Aotearoa.

Before I left he said, "Whatever you do: don't give up. We need New Zealanders to talk about race relations." And so with the help of our team at the Human Rights Commission, that's what I've been trying to do.

Many Kiwis I talk with are older men and women. When I tell them we are one of the most ethnically diverse and peaceful nations on the planet and that our multicultural change took place in less than a generation they nod.

This is a very different New Zealand to the one they grew up in. What they don't understand is what they can do about it and the answer isn't easy.

They, like us all, need to talk openly about race relations and question our own views. Do we have a right to tell a woman to take off her head scarf? Do we have a right to say No Asians when we put our house up for rent? Is it okay to racially profile Maori?

We need to have courageous conversations, we need to call out intolerance and replace ignorance with intelligence: sometimes there is a fine line between the two.

My friend's son has started university and says some students tell him his iwi scholarship is racist. The thing they need to understand is that my friend's son's tribe is his family. His scholarship comes from his family's trust, paid for by assets his family own.

Those students wrongly assumed his scholarship was paid for by their parents' taxes but it was paid for by lands owned by my friend's son's family since before Pakeha arrived. These are not special rights: these are birth rights.

There are other educational scholarships administered by the Government but a huge number are funded by Maori-owned assets. Furthermore, there are thousands of schools and educational institutions across the country that stand on land donated by or taken from Maori New Zealanders.

TVNZ's Kiwimeter survey assures us that by the end, we will know what kind of Kiwi we are. The statement, "Maori should not receive any special treatment", comes up and asks for my opinion. As my colleague, Indigenous Rights Commissioner Karen Johansen, says, this is a leading statement because Kiwimeter fails to explain what "special treatment" means.

The Treaty of Waitangi settlements process is a judicial form of truth and reconciliation that acknowledges human rights abuses faced by generations of Kiwis: to dismiss it as "special treatment" is disingenuous and wrong.

The elephant in the Kiwimeter room is that opinions about the "special treatment" other non-Maori New Zealanders have received over the past two centuries are not asked for.

We welcome opportunities for Kiwis to debate our national identity but debate needs to be transparent and open: let's hear all sides to the story because there is never only one.

I heard about a recent conversation where a new Kiwi commented negatively to his co-worker about the numbers of "blacks and coloureds" employed on their building site. His Pakeha co-worker turned to him and said quietly: "Mate, you're in New Zealand now, we don't talk like that. That's not us."

This is the kind of courageous conversation we need to have. Our national identity isn't decided by a flag or an online survey - our national identity is decided by how we treat each other and how we live our lives.

We lost a great New Zealander with the passing of Ranginui Walker. Like many great New Zealanders he went places no one had gone before - or more correctly he took the rest of us to places we had never gone before.

Ranginui was innovative, intelligent and courageous. And he was right. More of us need to have innovative, intelligent and courageous conversations about race relations and our shared history and future as New Zealanders.

Dame Susan Devoy is Race Relations Commissioner

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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