David Cooke is a student of Pt Chevalier

"It was just a joke." This is how we shrug off unpleasant remarks that get challenged. We've done it for years to justify off-hand comments about women, Maori, immigrants and working class people.

It's a way of not treating an issue seriously and that's what happening with the story swirling around Sir Peter Leitch. Much of the public and some media are determined to downplay Lara Wharepapa Bridger's complaints against Leitch.

But even though Bridger herself says it's a single incident in her life, it's a constant for racial and ethnic minorities in New Zealand.

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Minority groups regularly report a continuing stream of discriminatory remarks and actions that range from low-level to blatantly aggressive abuse.

In response, a group of Auckland University students put together a video, I too am Auckland, to chronicle their experience.

Amongst various striking examples, one especially stands out. A white woman at the front of the bus announces that she wished the Polynesian residents would "just fall off a cliff."

And that's a second key element of this story - white entitlement.

Taking Bridger's story at face value, a highly successful white businessman, trailing a title, feels entitled to lecture a stranger in a racial frame ( "This is a white man's island" ).

He claims it was only "light-hearted banter" - just a joke. Bridger and her family took it as a direct affront.

The public outcome is to rush to defend the "knight of the realm," downplay the incident, and miss the point of discrimination.

Commentators complain that mass media shouldn't have covered the matter, that Bridger's response is way too precious, that New Zealand is just too PC over criticism, that Leitch is after all a genuine guy.

And that's a third distraction, the claim that Leitch is not a racist. We have to address such evasion. The issue is not that he's a racist, but that the conversation constituted a racist incident.

We need to recognise that while the speaker may or may not be racist, the remarks can engender racism.

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Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy initially fell into the trap of defending Leitch on the grounds that he was a good man and not a racist, until she issued a statement defining the event as casual racism.

As a nation, we've got to come to grips with the existence of endemic racist expression against Maori, Polynesian and other ethnicities.

It's just hopeless for people to claim "they should get over it," or "they should just suck it up." In other words, that it's their problem, and the other who suffers insult should put up with it.

This is all the more so when high-profile Kiwis figure they can get away with racially dismissive remarks, especially when they are successful white males, in positions of power and influence.

We need to recognise that while the speaker may or may not be racist, the remarks can engender racism.

Think Paul Holmes' "cheeky darkie" comments; or Don Brash's Orewa speech; or Winston Peters' tirades against immigrants, including his "joke" about Chinese home buyers, "Two Wongs don't make a white."

Part of defending Leitch has involved denigrating Bridger in a torrent of vitriol, especially on talkback radio.

Michelle Boag isn't content with describing Bridger as "barely coffee-coloured," but has to add that Bridger was seeking fame through her Facebook post.

This then is a story of denial and dismissal, sometimes covered up under the old ditty, "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."

The reality is that words can hurt. They should be taken seriously and so should this story. It is not a joke.