We like to consider ourselves a reasonably harmonious country but the reality is there is racial ignorance within yelling distance.

Ignorance that a little bit of understanding and education can hopefully quell.

At a meeting in Central Hawke's Bay this week, a Māori man stood in a public meeting to show his support for a planned rehabilitation programme for Māori women.

He was yelled at to "speak English" by members of the crowd as he began his mihi at Monday night's meeting in Otane.


Someone else yelled "we can't f****** understand you" and another person yelled "Well f***** hurry up then" when told the man would speak in English after his mihi.

The meeting was called by Te Taiwhenua o Heretaunga to discuss a planned residential programme for Māori women who have been in prison.

The person who spoke te reo at the meeting was JB Heperi Smith (senior advisor cultural competency) with Hawke's Bay's District Health Board, so it was entirely appropriate that a mihi was part of his kōrero.

The meeting was about a facility for Māori women, again a mihi isn't out of place.

A mihi is a greeting - sometimes speakers included elements of a pepiha within the mihi.

The pepiha can help give context to your words, by proving information about who you are and where you are from.

So Heperi Smith was saying hello in Māori, before doing the same in English.

To feel compelled to shout at someone speaking Māori, you have to be ignorant.

And that's ignorant in the sense that, as the word is defined, "lacking knowledge or awareness in general".

There is also a negative connotation to the word that suggests being "uneducated or unsophisticated".

The two definitions often ride side by side. But for the purpose of this argument, let's give the benefit of the doubt, show some tolerance and assume the shouters were in the "lacking knowledge or awareness in general".

Hopefully now, they have learned something - and next time someone rises to speak in te reo, they listen respectfully, wait for the translation and take in what the person is saying.

Heperi Smith has been gracious - he says he was not offended by the comments, and they are "birthing pains" as we grow toward a better nation.

People who shout from the floor at a public meeting aren't shy.

Perhaps the better contribution to the debate would be to lower their voices, rise to their feet and say something that contributes to the debate rather than pouring petrol on it.

And take a leaf from Heperi Smith's book and show some humility, grace and understanding.