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

Political Roundup: Does Real Housewives racial stoush reveal an uncomfortable truth about NZ?

Is New Zealand suffering a crisis of both “casual racism” and “institutional racism”? A surge in current controversies suggests so.
Does the recent surge in stories about racism such as that on Real Housewives of Auckland mean that there's a growing crisis of "casual" or "institutional racism" in NZ? Photo / Norrie Montgomery
Does the recent surge in stories about racism such as that on Real Housewives of Auckland mean that there's a growing crisis of "casual" or "institutional racism" in NZ? Photo / Norrie Montgomery

Does the recent surge in debates and stories about racism mean that there's a growing crisis of "casual" or "institutional racism" in this country, or is it more a case of a growing awareness and visibility around issues relating to race? New Zealanders seem more likely these days to detect and "call out" what they see as racism. And sometimes it might even mean that people are more readily using allegations of racism as either a marketing tool or a political campaigning weapon.

This comes to mind with Ben Clark's blog post on The Standard, Is Vic Crone racist?. In this he argues that the rightwing mayoral candidate for Auckland is erring badly in her attack on Phil Goff's political finance: "Vic Crone is trying to make a story out of the fact that Phil Goff is against foreign ownership of our housing stock, but accepted $250,000 from the NZ Chinese community at a fundraiser. Does she not see a difference between NZ Chinese and foreigners?" Interestingly, Clark also defends Labour's so-called "Chinese-sounding names" campaign, saying Labour's "story was statistically sound" but simply "didn't fit nicely into a news soundbite".

The Real Housewives of Auckland racism and marketing

The same point might be made about this week's reality TV programme the Real Housewives of Auckland, in which the offensive "n word" was used. This was first publicised in Carolyne Meng-Yee's Herald on Sunday report, The Real Housewives of Auckland's racial slur stoush, which was followed up on the Spinoff website in Duncan Greive's The story behind the racist explosion on next week's Real Housewives of Auckland. Unsurprisingly, it was then reported that Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy wades into Real Housewives race row.

But was there an element of exploitation of the controversy, designed to further certain agendas? The NBR's Nick Grant asks this in his article, Is Human Rights Commission guilty of bullying 'racist' Real Housewife? (paywalled). He outlines how the Spinoff and the Human Rights Commission have been involved behind the scenes in the dealing with the Real Housewives racism incident for quite some time. Indeed, the Commission had been aware of it for "three months", and he ponders whether the recent launch of their anti-racism campaign is therefore connected.

Grant says "It would obviously make sense to draw attention to the campaign by latching on to a "teachable moment" that screens on a high-profile television show, wouldn't it? Marketing 101, really." Furthermore, "This could be seen as a case study in how to leverage publicity for an "unsexy" subject - but I can't help wondering if something less laudable is also going on."

Others have hit out at the Mediaworks Bravo TV channel for their decision to screen the controversy, as well as how they've handled it. Newstalk ZB's Rachel Smalley has been strongest on this: "It gets people watching. It'll get people outraged. They'll talk about 'casual racism'. The social networking platforms will light up. Explode, even. But does it reveal that casual racism runs deep in New Zealand? Or does it just show one woman's ignorance? A highly offensive remark from a woman who lives a life that few of us can comprehend? I would suggest the latter. But I would also question on what basis the broadcaster insists that this should be aired. How are they spinning the PR around this? What puerile reason are they giving for broadcasting it? These women are not reflective of New Zealand. They're not even real, are they? You have to question the broadcaster's ethics. And in this case, I think you can shoot the messenger. Bravo is endorsing and legitimising racism in order to attract viewers with an end goal of satisfying its advertisers, but at what cost?" - see: Broadcaster boosting Real Housewives slur for ratings.

See, also, her follow up column, Bravo's decision to broadcast racial slur unjustifiable.

For other reviews of the episode, and of the issue, see Hussein Moses' Good grief, The Real Housewives of Auckland just hit a low-point and Siena Yates' The real problem with the racial stoush on Real Housewives of Auckland.

There are plenty of other interesting racial controversies being debated this week. For example, there is a lot of unhappiness about the latest kids' movie and merchandise with a heavy racial theme - see Leah Damm's opinion piece on The Wireless website: Sorry, but Disney's Maui costume is simply not OK. It's noticeable that this afternoon Disney has announced that this merchandise will be withdrawn - see: Disney pulls Maui children's costume amid claims it is offensive.

In the current local government election campaigns, there have also been some racial attacks on candidates and their advertising - see today's article by Tarannum Shaikh and Shabnam Dastgheib, 'Cowardly' racial attack on Auckland local board candidate's billboard.

Institutional racism in the justice system?

Despite some of the more "casual" forms of racism in the headlines, there is no doubt there are serious questions that need answering about racial and economic inequality in New Zealand society. The police and judicial system seems to be the institution under the most scrutiny at the moment. In this regard the must-read item of this week is Eugene Bingham and Paula Penfold's investigation: New Zealand's racist justice system - Our law is not colour-blind.

And further aspects of how this discrimination impacts on Maori continue to be uncovered and publicised. The latest example being convictions for cannabis use and possession - with Maori making up about 43 per cent of those convicted, despite the Drug Foundation's calculation that it should only be about 33 per cent - see Don Rowe's De facto decriminalisation of cannabis: politically convenient and terrible for Maori.

Institutions of public life will continue to be scrutinised for racism, especially with the notion that they are characterised by "institutional racism" - a term, popularised in the 1980s, which is having a resurgence of use lately. The idea of "institutional racism" is that an organisation or institution contributes to ethnic disadvantage due to structures and ways of operating - especially a lack of cultural awareness and personnel from ethnic minorities.

In this regard, a recent Ministry of Justice decision about changes to Legal Aid is being criticised because the new delivery model "flies in the face of their tikanga" - see Laura Bootham's Legal aid closures put Maori 'at a disadvantage'.

This is because various legal aid centres are being closed in favour of online digital platforms. A spokesperson for Community Law Centres Aotearoa says: "The manner of participation of legal systems is disadvantageous to Maori in that a cultural way of communicating is face to face (kanohi ki te kanohi), it is sitting down and talking to people, it is interacting on that level and this removes that ability by shifting to more digital formats of dispute resolution."

Institutional racism in health?

The health system is often critiqued as being in need of cultural improvement. And today RNZ has published Indira Stewart's article, New Zealand midwives accused of racism. In this, allegations are made of large scale failures of "cultural competence" in midwifery - and it's pointed out that nearly 90 per cent of midwives are pakeha.

Last month RNZ also published Aaron Smale's The politics of Māori health, which asks whether the health system is failing Maori, and whether "institutional racism" is to blame. The article quotes John Tamihere explaining why he is considering legal action against the Ministry of Health, with the charge of "manslaughter". Similarly, Dr Rawiri Jansen, chairperson of Te Ora - the Maori Medical Practitioners Association, argues that officials in the ministry play a part in thwarting initiatives that could dramatic improve Maori health outcomes.

Similarly, doctors and politicians have criticised the refusal to fund a Maori safe sleep device - pepi pods - as a racist decision that could have saved many lives - see Olivia Carville's 'Institutional racism' behind funding decision.

Last week a "Stop Institutional Racism" symposium was held in Auckland to examine how the health system was failing ethnic minorities. Spokesperson, Dr Rhys Jones, a senior lecturer in Maori health at the University of Auckland is reported as explaining why the sector is not more responsive to Maori needs: "He believes the political will for real change is lacking because politicians fear a backlash from other sections of society, who will see themselves as missing out. As a result, institutional racism drives a lack of resourcing for Maori providers, reduces Maori input into policy documents and lays the blame for poor health outcomes at the door of Maori people" - see Ruth Brown's Fear of political fallout hinders real progress in Maori health: Physician.

Institutional racism in education?

Our schooling system is also seen as a major site of racism. The following recent items are all interesting in this regard - see RNZ's Children's Commissioner says bias exists in justice, education, Mani Dunlop's Unconscious bias against Māori children 'structural', and Kate Pereyra Garcia's Teacher bias hurting Māori education.

One University of Auckland sociologist is doing something about this - see Nicole Lawton's New Zealand education accused of subtle racism and told it needs to 'brown up'. Together with other academics, students and children, he's put together two videos in a campaign to tackle the racism - watch: Brown People Get Everything They Want and Decolonising Education.

Other academics are attempting to rectify wrongs by getting universities to give land back to Maori, or at least pay proper compensation for what they say are campuses on stolen land - see Laura Bootham's Iwi wants Karori campus land back.

Finally, if you want to discuss racism with insight and humour, it helps if you're both funny and from an ethnic minority group. And as usual Raybon Kan does this very well in his column, Real Housewives - no excuses for racist slurs.

- NZ Herald

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