Lizzie Marvelly: We have important questions to ask

Real Housewives of Auckland cast (from left to right): Michelle Blanchard, Gilda Kirkpatrick and Julia Sloane.
Real Housewives of Auckland cast (from left to right): Michelle Blanchard, Gilda Kirkpatrick and Julia Sloane.

I'm always intrigued when people tell me that they "don't see colour". It's a phrase that is intended to convey a belief in racial equality, pithily interjected into conversations about racial discrimination. It sounds good, and it's a nice sentiment, but it leads me to question: if you believe that you are blind to race, are you also blind to racism?

The concept of racial "colour-blindness" (with apologies to anyone who lives with visual impairment) is an alluring one. I love the idea of the colour of one's skin being a marker of the beauty of our culturally diverse world, and nothing more. If our society were an egalitarian meritocratic utopia with equal opportunity, security, freedom and justice for all, I'd be one very happy bleeding heart millennial.

But it's not. And whether we want to acknowledge it or not, the conversation about race will not go away.

It emerged front and centre during this week's presidential debate. Against a backdrop of the enduring #BlackLivesMatter movement, the continued police killings of unarmed black people, and a highly defensive police force, Hillary Clinton was asked whether she thought the police were implicitly biased against black people.

Her response? "I think implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police."

She was ironically vindicated by her blustering opponent who asserted that he had "nothing" to say to black Americans about his long-held but recently disavowed allegation that the first ever black president was born outside of the United States and thus ineligible to hold the office of president.

Attempting to undermine the legitimacy of a man who represents a community that has been invalidated and oppressed for generations seems to be no big deal to Donald Trump, who in fact believes that he "did a great job and a great service not only for the country, but even for the president, in getting him to produce his birth certificate".

So, to clarify, a white man with a huge platform who spent years using his powerful position to try to discredit one of the greatest black leaders in living memory believes he actually did Barack Obama a favour. It's difficult to establish whether such a fallacy is indicative of implicit bias or utter delusion, but thankfully Hillary Clinton was there to set the record straight, calling Trump's birther conspiracy a "racist lie".

"When they go low, we go high," Clinton said, recalling Michelle Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention. "And Barack Obama went high, despite Donald Trump's best efforts to bring him down."

Going high when others go low has been a theme of the protest movements of people of colour, from Martin Luther King Jr to Nelson Mandela to our own Dame Whina Cooper. As those formidable leaders have demonstrated, however, peaceful resistance must be combined with courageous refutations of racist narratives.

One such bold initiative here in New Zealand is the Human Rights Commission's 'That's Us' campaign. I was fortunate to be in the room the day the campaign was launched at the New Zealand Diversity Forum in Wellington. The basic goal of the project is to encourage New Zealanders to think about what it means to be a Kiwi. 'That's Us' challenges us to think about racial discrimination in our own backyard. The basic gist? Racism - that's not us.

Why do we need such a campaign? Because implicit biases, overt racism and structural discrimination are sadly still factors of modern Kiwi society. Take a look at Don Brash's recent vile newspaper ads if you don't believe me.

It takes great bravery to address such highly-charged societal problems. Thankfully our Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy has guts in spades.

Race Relations Conciliator Dame Susan Devoy. Picture / Dean Purcell
Race Relations Conciliator Dame Susan Devoy. Picture / Dean Purcell

When I read media reports this week claiming that Real Housewife Julia Sloane wants Dame Susan to apologise to her, I marvelled at the audacity. Sloane has since denied asking for an apology and as her public relations representative tells us, is apparently the real victim - "vilified" by Dame Susan (what a meanie) just because she said one tiny very bad word on television.

The spin is masterful. Poor Julia, the narrative goes. She's just a light-hearted author of children's books that use a few Māori words who drinks with the local [brown] people in Rarotonga who made one silly 'joke'. Māori words. Locals of Rarotonga. And everyone knows that "boat-n*****" is an "old boating term".

Unfortunately the term n***** alone has a raft of problematic connotations. It calls to my mind things like lynching, cotton plantations, segregation, Jim Crow laws and centuries of exploitation and subjugation.

The Broadcasting Standards Authority ranks it as the second most offensive term on its list of unacceptable words. The idea that such a word could somehow be acceptable as a joke is to my mind farcical, yet it illustrates exactly the kind of racial bias Dame Susan is tasked with stamping out.

While most people understand that the word n***** is reprehensible, a small group who've never had the slur used against them or their loved ones might be able to rationalise a situation in which it could be funny.

When you have faced racist discrimination personally, however, a word that evokes such a tragically exploitative and violent history has about as much comic potential as mass murder.

Asking our national advocate for victims of racism to apologise to a woman who used a racial slur on national television is, in my view, hilarious. And outrageous.

As discussions about identity and injustice come to the fore locally and globally we have important questions to ask.

Do we want to be the kind of society that minimises the severity of words like n*****, or considers electing people like Donald Trump?

What exactly do we want to spring to mind when we think to ourselves, "that's us"?

- NZ Herald

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