Glenn Singleton: World needs courageous conversations about race

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Jerry Hapuku and Te Ahi Ahi sign the Heretaunga Tamatea Deed of Settlement. Photo / Hawkes Bay Today
Jerry Hapuku and Te Ahi Ahi sign the Heretaunga Tamatea Deed of Settlement. Photo / Hawkes Bay Today

Three years ago, after arriving in New Zealand for the first time, I was welcomed as part of a Maori powhiri ceremony. It was an unforgettable honour and to this day, as a Black American man, I've never felt welcome like that before - especially not in my own country.

Since then I have fortified my belief that here in the South Pacific is a nation of peoples who have made unprecedented gains in getting along with each other in a way folks in the US could learn a great deal from.

In my expanding view, New Zealand's quest for racial equity leaves many of us far behind. That is not to suggest race relations here are utopian, but rather achieving racial justice is a credible work in progress and a cause for which New Zealanders should all accept responsibility for improving on, so to realise the promise of your beautiful country.

In this unique context of Aotearoa, I have learned it is impossible to talk about race relations without understanding the intentions of the Treaty of Waitangi.

New Zealanders can be proud of the Treaty for several reasons. Most of all, when ratified in 1840, it guaranteed civil rights to all people, while at the same time in the US, indigenous and African people, respectively, were experiencing government-sanctioned genocide and brutal enslavement.

The Treaty of Waitangi, signed into law when many people around the world were treated as less than human, is a founding human rights document that today still provides a crucial starting point, and even a headstart, for having what I call "courageous conversations about race".

Speaking openly and honestly on the subject of race in racially diverse Aotearoa is essential to address social, economic and broader cultural challenges.

These courageous conversations must take place within the framework of New Zealand's founding human rights document, and to specifically and intentionally centre the voices, perspectives and experiences of Maori people.

According to "the protocol" for Courageous Conversation, the first person with whom we each need to have honest dialogue is ourselves. If racism ends with me - as your neighbouring country's campaign states - then courageous conversations about race and racism must begin with me as well.

Often I meet people who wish to "fix other people's racism" without honestly looking at their own journey or without examining their own tightly held racial biases.

This is why having courageous conversations about race is not about rectifying an external or structural problem only. It is equally about developing a deeper understanding of and expanded literacy about race through examining our own lived experiences.

Given we all have lived racial experiences, an initial step is to determine whether your experience is primarily one of racial oppression or racial privilege and then offer voice to that experience.

Increasingly, New Zealanders are acknowledging that race matters, but racism needs to be an issue everyone is willing to better understand and confront. Collectively, we need to have courageous conversations about race if we are going to eradicate racial inequality locally and globally.

Increasingly at home in the US, I hear mainstream media commentators and political pundits ask, "aren't we done addressing race ... after all, we twice elected a Black President?"

My response to this type of sincere inquiry is, if we were done with racism, we would no longer be asking such astute questions about race. Indeed, we will know when we have solved the problem of race.

We need not gaze long on New Zealand television or canvas social media to notice the intensity of beliefs, thoughts, feelings and actions issues of race surface in people across the racial spectrum.

Many people not only here, but all around the world, harness a significant amount of emotion about race, but lack the requisite knowledge, skill and capacity to talk about race and racism effectively.

It's time that we address our centuries-old paralysis and collectively, as one people of this world, engage in courageous conversations about race, about our shared humanity and about our shared future.

Glenn Singleton, a race equity educator based in San Francisco, is in Auckland today for the opening of Unitech's Courageous Conversations Institute.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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