Wiremu's accounts of casual racism strike a chord as Kiwis are urged to call out prejudice

The story of a Maori boy who achieved excellence grades but was enrolled in woodwork anyway has hit a chord.

Wiremu's account of his experience of "casual racism" at school is one of many finding an audience in New Zealand's first nationwide digital campaign against racism and prejudice.

The campaign has reached more than half a million people since its launch last month.

"We pay tribute to those New Zealanders who have begun to talk openly about racial prejudice they have faced in their lives," said Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy.

"By raising their voices we are slowly helping to replace generations of silence with the stories of racial prejudice faced by everyday New Zealanders."

Ignoring and playing down racist encounters has been a common theme, with former New Plymouth Mayor Andrew Judd recently noting that "we are polite with our racism".

In this video, published today, Dame Susan calls on New Zealanders to recognise prejudice and to call it out.

The That's Us digital campaign has reached nearly 580,000 people, with 157,000 engaging through likes, shares, comments and visits to the new That's Us website that shares New Zealanders stories of racial prejudice.

The Commission has reached more than 1.5 million people across all work streams in the past month. Hundreds of people have already shared their stories of prejudice, while not all will be presented online, all will help inform the Commission's ongoing work.

Dame Susan says the campaign has only just begun and encouraged New Zealanders to stand up for one another and to keep talking about prejudice and discrimination. One of the most ethnically diverse nations on earth, New Zealand's huge demographic change has taken place in less than a generation.

"Racial prejudice is something the entire planet is grappling with and we have the opportunity to get it right and that starts by acknowledging that there is a problem," said Dame Susan.

"Everyday racism can only be defeated by everyday New Zealanders: however I have huge faith in younger Kiwis to lead the way forward."

Wiremu's story

Wiremu, 18, Maori, university student

I was 9 and it was the middle of RE (Religious Education) at our state primary school when a lady told our class that God didn't love the Tuhoe people because they were terrorists. I wanted to cry I was so angry. I knew she was lying.

I played rugby for our town and there were some boys in my team who'd call us racist names. One day at training a boy called me a dumb n***** and I had had enough and ran at him and punched him. Well I got in huge trouble. The coach had heard it all but told me it was all my fault for reacting and I need to just ignore it, as usual he never told off the boys who said racist things.

It was around this time me and my cousin used to be picked on by a group of boys at our school. They'd say racist things about us and we refused to take it, we fought back.

Teachers didn't really do much, we were told to ignore it but it's hard to ignore someone giving you a hiding. At lunch they'd just chase us and fight us, sometimes 10 to 2 so it was never a fair fight. One day my cousin left some 4 x 2s in the bushes. At lunch when they were all chasing us he shouted at me to follow him to the bushes. We ran out of the bushes with these pieces of wood and all the boys who'd been about to bash us started screaming and running away. They were very fast and we didn't even hit any of them. We ended up in the principal's office and we were the ones in big trouble.

When I started college I didn't know why but I kept getting put into woodwork and metalwork option courses that I'd never signed up for. I had won an academic scholarship in Year 9 and ended up getting excellence in NCEA 1, 2 and 3, but for a while someone there decided I needed to do a trade. There is nothing wrong with tradie work, I actually love it - that's what I do during the holidays - but it's unfair to look at me and decide: "Oh yeah OK, that brown kid he can do woodwork even though he asked to do financial management."

After I got excellence in Year 11, me and a mate got an invite to start going to meetings for excellence students. Well, we turned up and the lady asked us what we were doing there because this was a meeting for excellence students.

Over the years I'd get used to having to defend everything Maori, during class discussions other kids would argue that the Treaty is racist or that Maori scholarships are racist. Once I got up to say that my scholarship came from my tribe not from the Government and someone shouted out "Hone Harawira" from the back of the class.

Being a Maori kid in a mostly Pakeha world, yeah. You're often put on the spot whether you like it or not. One minute you're defending your tribe in class. Nek Minnit you get told to lead the haka or speak at a powhiri for the school.

I was in Year 13 and went to the local university open night with a mate. One of the things we noticed was that we were the only brown kids there that night ... Every university department had a desk set up in a big room so we started walking towards the desk with information about the course I wanted to take the next year. There was an older Pakeha lady standing behind the desk and I got a bad feeling as we approached her desk because the moment she saw me and my friend she turned and looked away. We were standing right in front of her for ages, not sure what pamphlets to get. Eventually I asked her politely what pamphlets we needed and without even talking or looking at us nicely, she handed us both a folder. And then turned away. I felt really embarrassed and at first my friend said, nah bro she's probably just grumpy.

But I didn't think she was just grumpy so I went and stood by the wall and waited until the next group of people went to her desk. They were some Pakeha boys I knew and they hadn't even made it to her desk when she started smiling at them. She asked them if they'd travelled far, what schools they went to, what courses they were interested in. As she was standing there nodding and talking nicely to the other boys I felt stink.

Just last weekend I went into a supermarket. As soon as I walked in I noticed an older lady who worked there staring at me quite angrily. I tried to smile at her but she kept staring. As I walked through the store I realised she was following me ... and at one stage she was talking to someone on her walkie talkie. When I got to checkout I paid for my lollies and water bottle and she was still right behind me and as I started walking out she screamed out: "Hey! Hey! Stop!"

She was shouting at me and saying I'd made the scanner beep or something like that. I felt so ashamed. Everybody was staring at me and I am sure they all think I am a thief now. I am not a thief ... She made me walk through the scanner and nothing beeped. Then again, lots of times. I was dressed tidily, I didn't have a gang patch or anything like that. Neither had I ever had a run-in with people at that store. That lady just took one look at me - young Maori guy - and decided that I was a thief and let everyone in the supermarket know that she thought I was a thief.

Later the supermarket told us that their staff felt they were "amicable" to me and that I had misinterpreted what happened. They said I looked like one of their regular shoplifters. I thought that was an ironic thing to say.

- NZ Herald

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