It's very easy to say, "I'm not racist". It's almost as easy as pretending not to hear a friend or family member when they say something racist. When racism is never directed towards you, you can have the luxury of "not seeing colour". When you're white, racism doesn't really exist.

I get it. I have a white face, even though I have Māori whakapapa. If you saw me on the street and knew nothing about me, you'd absolutely peg me as a Pākehā. If I wanted to, I could easily pretend that there is no racism in New Zealand, because it doesn't disadvantage me.

But in my heart of hearts, even if I had fully given myself over to feigned ignorance, I would know that it was a lie.

Growing up in a Pākehā environment, racism was all around me. When I was a child, my Pākehā grandfather would to rant about the "bloody maaris". Teachers would mispronounce my Māori classmates' names. We grew up saying that we came from "Row-tah-rua". And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

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The thing about racism is that if you really listen out for it, you'll find it in the most innocuous places.

If you allow yourself to consider that New Zealand might be a racist place, and open your heart and mind to the possibility, you will realise that it's everywhere.

It's in the stubborn mispronunciation of the Māori language. It's in the throwaway smears about Asian and Indian drivers. It's in words and phrases like "all hui, no do-ey" and "Chowick".

It's in the idea that it's "racist" to refer to someone as "white" or "Pākehā", forgetting that it's common to refer to someone as "Māori". It's in the astounding statistic from a Victoria University study that 31 per cent of 700 NZ police officers said that they were more likely to suspect a Māori person of committing a crime.

So why do we feel so uncomfortable when someone points it out – particularly if that person has a brown face? Why is it such a shock to us when someone highlights the obvious?

Taika Waititi is a brave man. It takes courage to start a conversation about race in New Zealand. It takes serious nerve to have that conversation on the world stage. Particularly when you're that tallest of poppies – a New Zealander of the Year.

Which raises the question: what do we want in a New Zealander of the Year? A yes man? A mindless lemming who blindly sings New Zealand's praises while determinedly looking away from our ugly, embarrassing bits? A sycophantic nationalist who peers through rose-tinted glasses, regurgitating tourism slogans and bland platitudes?

Or do we want a New Zealander with a moral compass and a fierce dedication to our nation? Someone who will take the personal risk of saying something unpopular in order to try to make New Zealand a better place?

Waititi has given his time, talents and energy to the battle to expose and eradicate racism in New Zealand. He has runs on the board. He's been the face of campaigns, he's made films that have shone a light on the darker aspects of our society, and he's been a tireless advocate for people less fortunate than him, using his powerful voice to speak for the voiceless.

He, like many other Māori, has grown up in a New Zealand where the Pākehā way is the default. Pākehā have controlled the narrative, the power, the resources. They still do.

It really hit home for me while I was watching a clip of a discussion on The AM Show in which Duncan Garner, Mark Richardson and Amanda Gillies – three Pākehā television hosts – debated whether or not New Zealand was a racist place.

When Garner argued that New Zealand is not "as racist as f***" because "that was South Africa under apartheid, New Zealand is not as racist as that", I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

If not being as racist as apartheid is the barometer we are using to measure ourselves, the bar is so low that you could trip over it.

The truth is that New Zealand is racist. Take place names as a microcosm, and reflect for a moment. Do you pronounce Māori place names correctly? Do you make an effort? Or do you refuse to? If you refuse, why is that? What is it that makes you feel that it's acceptable to mangle them?

Taika pointed out the refusal of many New Zealanders to pronounce place names correctly as an example of racism, and it's hard to argue with him. Especially when the English names given to many of our largest centres were plastered over Māori names that had been in existence for centuries.

Auckland whitewashed Tāmaki-Makaurau. Wellington violated the mana of Te Whanganui-A-Tara. Christchurch paved over Ōtautahi, while Dunedin ran roughshod over Ōtepoti.

Correctly pronouncing the names of the places that retained their Māori titles is the least we can do, and yet suggesting it brings about a resistance that has its roots in some of our deepest insecurities.

Those insecurities have been on display for all to see this week. Our kneejerk defensiveness and fragility has been something to behold. I suspect the ridiculous reaction may indicate that, deep down, we know that Waititi is right.

The debate over whether New Zealand is racist or not is a distraction. While we're busy arguing about that, we're not talking about how fix our racist society. We're not taking an honest look at ourselves. We're not making progress.

We can't continue to comfort ourselves with the idea that we're less racist than South Africa or Australia, expecting a medal for being less terrible than other places.

The truth hurts. It will also set us free. But first, it will piss us off.