Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Political Roundup: Brown lives matter

Tear gas reigns down on a woman kneeling in the street with her hands in the air after a Black Lives Matter demonstration in the U.S. Photo / Getty
Tear gas reigns down on a woman kneeling in the street with her hands in the air after a Black Lives Matter demonstration in the U.S. Photo / Getty

We are currently seeing a heightened awareness of skin colour, race, ethnicity, disadvantage and discrimination influencing politics and society. This renewed concern about racial issues is in line with today's more radical world. It seems that global concerns about racism and ethnicity - especially the Black Lives Matter movement - are filtering through to domestic politics here, with more sensitivity about racism and discrimination than ever before.

Last Thursday the Human Rights Commission launched an anti-racism campaign called #ThatsUs. This was reported in various international media - for example, the British Guardian newspaper published Eleanor Ainge Roy's report, New Zealand warned against 'overt racism' of Australia and other nations. According to the newspaper, "New Zealand's human rights commission has announced a new campaign to combat racism, warning that action was needed to prevent overt discrimination becoming as widespread as in Australia and other nations."

Susan Devoy explains more in a widely published Open Letter to all New Zealanders. She says that she is asking "Kiwis to start sharing our own stories about racism, intolerance and hatred", and explains "We've always had a problem with racial intolerance in New Zealand - Maori New Zealanders know it is not new". Devoy is quoted in the Guardian saying: "I don't want to be the only Kiwi calling out racist behaviour, I want other people to be calling it out too."

The campaign was launched at the commission's Diversity Forum in Wellington, which is covered in Rosie Gordon and John Gerritsen's article Anti-racism campaign asks for NZers' stories.

However, despite Devoy's warnings of potentially worsening race relations, others at the conference gave evidence of an improving situation. For example, University of Auckland academic Chris Sibley is quoted saying, "We're finding over the last seven-year period warmth towards Asian peoples in New Zealand has been increasing", and a refugee from Africa, says that despite "micro-aggressions" and other "subtle racism", she was reported as believing "New Zealand's level of racism was 'pretty good' in comparison to other countries".

Devoy's campaign is strongly applauded by Newstalk ZB producer Thomas Thexton - see: Nothing casual about casual racism. However he also considers that the situation is getting better: "I genuinely believe that racism and discrimination are dying out with the younger generation... As Generation Z moves into positions of influence there has been a noticeable increase in how society tolerates people of all creed, colour and sexuality."

Nonetheless, Devoy has emphasised what problems do exist, pointing to the numerous issues her office has to deal with - see the Herald's Racism in NZ: Over 400 complaints a year.

So, how racist are New Zealanders?


There have certainly been a lot of questions and assertions about levels of racism in this country lately. Last month Guy Williams wrote about the quiet racism of New Zealand. Although flippant and jokey, Williams' column brought up important observations about increasing concerns over xenophobia and casual racism. This followed on from Dave Armstrong asking: Is racism more than skin deep in New Zealand?. In this, column Armstrong answers his question with "a big fat 'yes'", and discusses the referendum in New Plymouth, in which 83 per cent of residents voted against the introduction of a Maori ward for council elections.

Similar debates happened last year, after controversies over discrimination and racism. Some of the best articles then were Oscar Kightley's Underlying shades of racism need to be tackled, Heather du Plessis-Allan's Let's condemn real racism, not pick on blackface of the week, Tess McClure's Does Christchurch have a racism problem?, and best of all, Russell Blackstock's Rise of 'casual racism' in New Zealand.

By the end of the year, the build up of allegations of discrimination and offence led Rodney Hide to suggest: We have reached peak racism.

There's evidence for both sides of the argument over how bad New Zealand's racism problem is. Last month, Alexandra Nelson reported on a online survey of over 10,000 Chinese living in New Zealand - see: More than half of Chinese living in New Zealand feel unsafe: survey. But there are signs that racism is probably on the decline - see Emile Donovan's July report, Kiwis becoming less tolerant of racism and sexism.

Being Maori


With so much of the focus on ethnicity being about personal identity, it's not surprising that some Maori experience difficulties if their skin is lighter than other Maori. And Victoria University's Salient magazine recently published an article by a self-described "white Maori", Kahu Kutia, titled If You're From Waimana, Why Are You White?. In this she explains the problems of being oppressed due to her ethnicity, yet people not realising that she is Maori.

Subsequently RNZ's Kathryn Ryan conducted a 28-minute interview with her and another student, Kayla Polamalu - listen here: What does it mean to be 'White Maori'. You can also read an edited excerpt of the interview.

Another interesting account of being Maori is put forward by technology entrepreneur Ian Taylor, who recounts the racism experienced when "growing up as a Maori kid in the '50s and '60s" - see: Yes. I'm a real Maori.

Taylor's views on being Maori are also reported by Mihingarangi Forbes in the article Hui aims to get more Māori working in tech. According to Taylor, Maori are a intrinsically practical people, who are perfectly equipped to use iPads: "I believe that Steve Jobs, he didn't realise it - but he designed the iPad for young Māori. It wasn't in our DNA to use paper and pen, never has been. We use our hands, we carve, we tell stories. We're great storytellers and technology has allowed us to engage in that way."

Law lecturer Marami Stephens is aghast at this "ossified and essentialist understanding of Maori culture", and also expresses her own bemusement at so often being expected to provide a Maori perspective in her job at her university: "I am expected to be a proponent of, and knowledgeable in, Māori culture to some degree", but says "I really don't know what Maori need, what Maori want; what direction would be best for Maori, how best to cater to, provide for, uphold, respect, all things Maori. I have no portal into the Maori hive-mind" - see: The Māori in the Room.

You can also watch a five-minute video by Herald journalist David Fisher, in which "Maori speak about what it is to be Maori in 2016 and how the 'soul wound' of colonisation has yet to heal" - see: Who We Are - Being Maori in 2016.

The return of anti-colonialism


The global resurgence of debates about colonialism has sparked a renewed focus in New Zealand about the negative impacts of European settlement, with all that this entailed. One particularly controversial view was put forward by Waikato University's Associate Professor Leonie Pihama, who says that "Historical trauma caused by colonisation is the root cause of intergenerational issues, particularly child abuse within Maori families" - see Florence Kerr's High rates of child abuse among Maori can be traced back to colonisation, academic says.

In response, Rodney Hide challenges the lack of evidence in such a theory, and says such ideas need to be combated: "Her claim is not just stupid but dangerously so. To ignore her nonsense is to allow the torture and murder of toddlers to be justified and excused" - see his NBR column, Colonial trauma theory absolves responsibility (paywalled).

But the Waikato Times' Tom O'Connor says "Professor Pihama seems to have contributed a valuable, if unpalatable for some, part of that definition and solution. She might not have all the answers, but her work deserves much more than knee-jerk rejection" - see: Colonisation link to abuse should be considered.

Anti-colonisation motives can also be detected in the repeated vandalism of Captain Cook statues in Gisborne, and news that the city council is considering replacing Cook with a statue of a Maori chief - see RNZ's Calls to replace vandalised Cook statue. For more about the debate, see Kayla Dalrymple's Captain Cook statue targeted by vandals.

And as a sign of how anti-colonialism is resurging as a major theme amongst leftwing and liberal activists, see the video of the speech by Kassie Hartendorp speaking at the launch of the new ESRA leftwing think tank: Neoliberalism as a colonising project.

This, along with a dominating focus on colonisation and race at the related Social Movements conference, suggests that the left is currently much more concerned with ethnicity than class or economic inequality. Which is partly why Chris Trotter has blogged his rather harsh critique: Sour Fruit: Why I'm not pinning my hopes on ESRA.

Cultural etiquette and language


Other signs of the resurgent politics of cultural sensitivity can be seen in various campaigns to change place names and pronunciations. The replacement of offensive place names is discussed in Mamari Stephen's blog post, N-words and the good ol' Christchurch childhood.

More recently, the Spinoff website has been pushing for Radio Hauraki to change how the station pronounces its own name - from "How-raki" to "Hoe-raki". This was first brought up by a former Hauraki DJ - see Alex Behan's Don't rock the boat: the real reason Radio Hauraki refuses to pronounce its own name right. And the battle was finally won, with Duncan Greive announcing: Good news! Looks like Radio Hauraki has figured out how to pronounce its own name.

For more interesting points about this and other correct pronunciations - such as the South Island (or Te Waipounamu) towns of "Oh-Am-aru" and "Teem-aru" as well as "a few mispronunciations of English place names in New Zealand", see Derek Burrows' Wait ... how do you pronounce that name?.

Finally, the University of Auckland Law Revue - internationally famous for their video parody of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines", addressing misogyny - have now turned their attention to "race relations in New Zealand with a satirical parody of Justin Bieber's 'Sorry'." - see Newshub's Auckland Law Revue confronts NZ race relations in parody.

Tomorrow: Political Roundup looks at ethnicity in parties, voting and representation.

- NZ Herald

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