A confronting new anti-racism campaign places New Zealanders in the shoes of people while they are being abused.

The second phase of the Give Nothing to Racism campaign, launched today by the Human Rights Commission, features filmmaker Taika Waititi.

The initiative centres on a virtual online experience called Voice of Racism in which a disembodied face - voiced by Waititi - relays real-life experiences of racism.

The comments include what the commission calls unconscious racism ("Can I touch your hair", "There are some cheaper menu items on the back"), assumptions about nationality ("That's your son? No way") and verbal and physical abuse ("Go back to your own country").

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The website explains why each comment is racist and how people can behave differently.

Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon said he hoped it would prompt New Zealanders to reflect on their own words and the harm they could cause.

"People can get the overt comments very clearly, but there are a lot of subtle messages that people don't recognise - assumptions about nationality, ignoring ability, internalised racism, subliminal things that people say and that they're not aware of," he told the Herald.

"They will hear some of these comments and hopefully say 'That could be me'. Or 'that is me'. And hopefully there will be self-correction but also when they go to the workplace, if they hear colleagues making these comments, and they will tell that person to listen to the voice of racism."

Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon said subtle or more nuanced racism was often harder to combat. A new campaign aimed to highlight its impact - and provoke change.
Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon said subtle or more nuanced racism was often harder to combat. A new campaign aimed to highlight its impact - and provoke change.

Foon said the Christchurch mosque attacks and the Black Lives Matter protests had prompted New Zealanders to reflect on their contribution to every day or structural racism. He wanted them to go further, correcting their own behaviour and speaking up for victims.

"Yep, you've done that, fantastic, you feel good that you've marched. So what is your next step? I would love people to continue that journey in the workplace, in schools, wherever they go in society, that they actually work hard with their colleagues and friends to call out racism."

One of the campaign's aims was to highlight that jokes or stereotypes which people thought were trivial had a cumulative effect.

That effect was underlined by Katherine Walsh, who is of Maori and European descent and contributed to the campaign.

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Walsh, from the North Shore, said she was constantly corrected and undermined throughout her youth, often by people in positions of power.

"I was doing geography at intermediate school and I said Lake Taupo [with correct pronunciation]. And the teacher stood me up in the class and told me to say it properly. We're talking 2004, this is in the 80s or 90s. Basically until I said 'Towel-po' I was ridiculed in front of the classroom."

That was part of a pattern of racist treatment. Walsh said she looked different from her mother, and a doctor once expressed surprise during an appointment: "Are you her biological mother?"

Subtle assumptions and behaviours were more harmful than overtly racist comments, Walsh said.

"Now I have this default position that I must be in the wrong. Even in a work environment or generally, if someone corrects me I say 'Oh sorry'.

"It's just learned behaviour because I was always made to feel like I was wrong. I have this anxious need to give credentials for everyone I am saying to validate it, because I expect people not to believe me or question me."

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Walsh said the campaign was powerful because it was based on real-life experiences and not what someone imagined to be racism. She was often told what racism was and wasn't rather than being asked about her experience.

"The fact that people can deny racism exists - that's their privilege. I don't get that luxury, I don't get to say this isn't real - I've lived it."

The $1.3 million campaign was part of a broader anti-racism response which was prompted by the Christchurch mosque attacks last year.

The commission is working with the Ministry of Justice on a national action plan against racism.

That plan was announced to the United Nations after the Christchurch terrorism attack, but is yet to be released.

*See the Voice of Racism interactive here

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