Let's talk about racism, specifically addressing it in New Zealand.
An Auckland cafe made news around the world last week for a sign in its kitchen reminding staff to speak English at all times "out of respect to your work colleagues".
Photographed by a customer, then posted on social media, it was picked up and picked over by hundreds.
The online saga resulted in the cafe removing the sign, and offering an explanation around health and safety protocols and all staff needing to understand instructions, as well as an apology.
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Reactions to the initial post and subsequent apology ranged from outrage and declarations of patronage withdrawal, to support and understanding. When I first saw the photo, I thought it was an example of a business stuck in the dark ages threatened by a few staff who did not speak English as a first language.
I was wrong.
Cafe manager Nixon Shrhan provided a bit of context to the situation when I stopped in. He talked about the range of backgrounds staff came from, and the realities of co-ordinating that in a commercial kitchen. He was also upfront about the controversy surrounding the sign, and what it meant for him and other staff members. Shrhan is of Nepalese descent and counts English as a second language. He is the one who has fronted the media response to the online fury.
"We thought it was blown out of proportion. It was way over-blown," Shrhan said.
"Me and the owner were sitting down here, and we just thought ... what's happening here? All of a sudden, it's got a little bit nasty, hasn't it?"
The sign was then removed, and, according to Shrhan, he and staff continued to serve customers as they would any other day. He also decided to remain on the floor through to the end of the week because he did not "want my team to feel bad because of what happened".
It led nicely to the next conversation point. Given the raging online debate, what has been said in person, I asked.
"No one has come inside and said anything [bad]," Shrhan said.
"I know, it's weird, but I don't know the answer to your question. I haven't come across anyone."
I am not exactly sure what I was expecting. However, after seeing more than a few furious public comments from self-declared long-time customers of the cafe, I did think at least a handful of direct queries would have been made.
Yes, it is uncomfortable (I know because I did it). But productively addressing racism and racist attitudes - as the sign has been labelled - is. Interestingly, as Shrhan and I discussed the gap between the online and offline reactions, it became increasingly hard to pinpoint exactly who had benefited from the social media finger-pointing and prompt sign removal.
While staff and customers no longer had to look at the sign, the online debate appeared to have been relatively removed from those who would have been most affected (cafe employees). Social media attention had also succeeded in banishing its existence, but is that really the same as addressing the unpalatable attitudes it conveyed? Further, did the author of the sign truly understand why, as Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon aptly surmised, it was in "bad taste"?
These questions are important because they reflect the ongoing difficulties of dealing with racism in New Zealand. Identifying it is just the first step. After that, it is about getting everyone to understand why the behaviour is wrong and discriminatory. That process involves delving into perceptions and beliefs people hold for a variety of reasons. Note: these are unfair and nonsensical, and unlikely to ever be resolved by an epiphany, removal of a sign and/or 15-minute conversation.
So, critical to this is finding an effective way of calling out racist attitudes that gives all parties an opportunity for productive conversation. Certainly, social media is one way of trying. However, it can, and has, often limited meaningful discussion.
Foon addressed the issue directly when interviewed about the cafe sign.
"It's been taken out of context obviously. Unfortunately, that's how social media works," he said.
"I think the guy that owns the restaurant ... needs to actually be a bit clearer in messaging ... but that's a hard thing when the horse has bolted."
When I fronted at the cafe, I expected a defensive and dismissive response. Shrhan was the opposite. He was to-the-point, apologised for "any offence caused" and endeavoured to explain how a cafe kitchen worked. I concluded that while the sign was unfortunate, I know what racist attitudes are and his is not one of them. It was also an important reminder that everyone is at a different starting point when it comes to understanding racism. And that patience, time and context is essential to identifying and addressing intolerant and prejudicial attitudes without further entrenchment. For those concerned enough to speak publicly, I would also recommend trying an in-person approach, or at least direct to the offending party, before broadcasting to the world wide web.