I can think of many words to describe a grown man verbally abusing a teenaged girl on the basis of race at her place of work. I doubt, however, that many of them would be printable, so I'll have to make do with the somewhat sanitised vocabulary that remains at my disposal. When they go low, we go high, etc.
The man who hurled racist abuse at Auckland teenager Mia Griffiths as she served his table at a Viaduct restaurant last weekend sounds like an absolute tosser. A prize tosser, in fact. If there was an award going for excellence in being a tosser, he'd be a strong contender. It takes quite some skill to simultaneously belittle and humiliate a young woman, insult her family, call upon racist and classist tropes, mangle the Māori language, make someone feel unsafe at work, drop your partner in hot water with her employers, expose a culture of apparent tolerance of racism within a senior leadership team and sully the reputation of an international brand. Top marks, dickhead.
And as for his dining companions – supposedly senior leaders at building materials company James Hardie – who laughed along, compounding his victim's embarrassment; if at a table of "leaders", not one person spoke up to defend a teenager just trying to do her job, what exactly does that say about their fitness to lead?
Racism doesn't generally thrive in isolation. Like a virus, it mutates, infecting those exposed to it in the right conditions. Acceptance and tolerance of racist behaviour strengthens its potency, and enables it to spread. If one person in a group says something racist, the others laugh and no one says anything to counter the racism, not only has the original racist had their discriminative worldview reinforced (rewarded by laughter), the rest of the group has absorbed that racism without challenging it. Even if a member of the group felt uncomfortable, but played along so as not to stand out, the social "reward" of not rocking the boat and therefore avoiding having to deal with the displeasure of their peers reinforces their complicit behaviour. It's basic operant conditioning – we learn by having our behaviour reinforced or punished.
Questions must then be asked about the culture within the senior leadership team at James Hardie New Zealand, and the flow-on effects it has on the James Hardie workforce as a whole. If racism goes unchallenged, tacitly endorsed and in fact rewarded (by laughter), within a team of senior leaders, what kind of example does that set for employees further down the chain of command? What kind of message does that send to Māori employees? If I were the James Hardie chief executive, I'd be asking serious questions of my senior staff, and commencing an internal review into company culture.
While the CEO wrote to apologise to the restaurant, no apology has yet been forthcoming from the man who made fun of Mia's culture while his mates laughed, or from his partner – a James Hardie employee. No doubt sensing the damage the scandal was wreaking upon the James Hardie brand, the company finally offered to facilitate a meeting between Mia and her whānau and the man who abused her. I hope that appropriate safeguards have been put in place for that meeting. The last thing that brave young woman needs is a sorry not sorry, "I apologise if you were offended" situation. A box-ticking, face-saving exercise without true contrition would make the situation only worse.
People can of course learn and change, however. As human beings, we possess the capacity to adapt and evolve – if we want to. Will this man, his partner, and her colleagues take this moment of reckoning as an opportunity to grow and make positive changes, or will they instead cast themselves as victims of "PC gone mad"? Do they actually understand the problem with their racism? Or are they living in an echo chamber in which racially abusing a young woman is just a bit of a laugh?
Although I'm sure that the publicity surrounding this incident has been uncomfortable for the people who sat around the table laughing that night, in the absence of any concrete consequences or actions to challenge their worldviews, change may be unlikely. Conditioning is at play here too: if nothing particularly bad happens as a result of this scandal, and there's no compelling incentive to change for the better, why would they bother? People have to be motivated to change. One way or another, it's up to the top brass at James Hardie to provide that motivation.
Whether or not the senior leadership team at James Hardie is yet ready for the personal development that comes with accepting responsibility for one's actions, one thing that should be abundantly clear to all senior leaders, chief executives, directors and companies watching this scandal unfold in the national media is that racism is bad for business. Given the choice of whether or not to purchase materials from James Hardie, I know I would take my consumer power elsewhere. Although the man who abused Mia wasn't a James Hardie employee, the senior leaders dining with him seemed totally unperturbed by his behaviour. That was enough to set alarm bells ringing in my mind.
Another alarming aspect of this incident was the brazenness of it. It's clear that all those around the table thought they'd get away with their behaviour that night. It's thanks entirely to a brave 17-year-old that they didn't. Had she not spoken out, how many other young Māori waitresses would have experienced similar treatment? Mia showed more leadership than an entire table of "senior leaders", and for that she deserves our support and respect. Don't ever stop speaking up for what's right, Mia. Kia manawanui, kia maia, kia kaha, e hine.