Paul Little: Race, It's for you to decide

Sir Peter Leitch. Photo / Doug Sherring
Sir Peter Leitch. Photo / Doug Sherring

It was all going so well.

Feelings that had been hurt could have been easily smoothed and it would all be put behind us.

An exchange had taken place between Sir Peter Leitch, a mad butcher, and Lara Wharepapa Bridger, who is that rare thing among Waiheke's inhabitants - someone who was born there.

Despite attempts by both parties to describe what took place, the exact details and nuances of this exchange can be known only to them and anyone else who might have been present.

Not in dispute is that offence was taken.

Wharepapa Bridger thought what Leitch said to her was racist.

He says it wasn't; it was nothing but light-hearted banter.

But it's easy to forget that it takes two to banter - it's not a solitary sport.

He apologised.

This could have been just a timely reminder at the beginning of a year we want to be different in oh-so-many ways from the last one, that we - especially we white males middle aged and over - need to be careful how we talk to others from our position of privilege.

And then - Michelle Boag.

She seemed to think, according to her conversation with a journalist, that Wharepapa Bridger was not eligible to be a victim of racism because of the shade of her skin, which Boag described as "barely coffee-coloured".

Which raises the question:

Exactly how coffee coloured do you have to be to be the victim of racism? Cappuccino? Latte? Double shot decaf with a twist of lemon?

And yes, I know Boag's remark was a joke - a piece of light-hearted banter, if you will.

But anyone who can take seriously the notion that race is a matter of the colour of your skin doesn't really get New Zealand.

Race is a matter of how you identify yourself based on your view of your own heritage.

It's for you to decide.

Other people don't get to tell you how Maori - or Pakeha or anything else - you are entitled to feel.

If that message is heard and understood Boag's careless remark may have performed a valuable service.

But it has also diverted attention from at least one other important issue raised by the whole affair, which is our feverish and dangerous enthusiasm to pile on for or against one side or another when we believe an error has been made.

As I've said, the rest of us can't know exactly what happened between Wharepapa Bridger and Leitch, but that hasn't stopped people developing forcefully expressed and almost certainly wrong opinions.

Social media had the benefit of hundreds if not thousands of ill-informed comments for and against both sides of this affair long before Boag distracted everyone.

These comments are almost always about the prejudices and preconceptions of those doing the commenting rather than the actual incident.

To those who presume to be able to see inside the soul of Sir Peter Leitch and Lara Wharepapa Bridger I would ask: were you there?

Do you know him? Or her? If so your opinion may have some value.

I wasn't there and wouldn't presume to judge the event one way or the other.

And perhaps this is the most valuable lesson to be learnt from this tawdry imbroglio.

As we launch ourselves into a year of international uncertainty bordering on dread it would be good to adopt the practice of getting all the facts we can before we rush to judgment and make bigger dicks of ourselves than we already are.

- Herald on Sunday

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