What happens when you're asked to write about racism in New Zealand, only to find some people feel the debate points straight back at your newsroom? Teuila Fuatai found out the hard way.
Some stories have an uncanny ability to force reflection of your own journalistic values and aptitude. This is one of those. It began as a request for a news feature on racism in New Zealand. Over a week, it evolved into a conversation on the difficulties of discussing racism in one's workplace.
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The starting point was a failed interview with a co-leader of Black Lives Matter Auckland, a week after the first round of protest marches in New Zealand. Although the group agreed to meet, it appeared the fact I was writing for the New Zealand Herald had been lost in the messages organising a time and location.
"I wish I had known because we have already agreed as a team to not speak to the Herald, along with a bunch of other mainstream outlets," the BLM Auckland representative said after I introduced myself.
The official explanation: "Our declining to participate in an interview is because of the biased view that the Herald chooses to cover race-related issues and how this upholds white supremacy".
I tried to ask for more information and was told the Herald should do its own due diligence.
"It's not for us to educate the Herald through show-and-tell of examples of racism in its coverage."
An establishment of its stature has ample resources to audit its own coverage, the group said.
Interview refusals are not a novel experience. What set this interaction apart was the context of the story. Essentially, the local arm of an international movement organising against deep-seated discrimination and danger for black people in the US was calling out this publication for racism while I was trying to craft a piece on it. It was embarrassing and confronting, but I also saw merit in their call for a stocktake of our own house first.
Less straightforward, and infinitely more fraught was articulating that idea to my editors – nearly all of whom are Pākehā. I was acutely aware that for an organisation to see value in being audited for racist practices and outcomes, it had to acknowledge the need for it. Raising that as a reporter pits you against your superiors, who set the culture and tone of the workplace, and the Herald's news agenda. Inevitably, requests for examples of racism would be made, which would require me to show bias and prejudice existed. Intertwined in that is the ever-present threat of being labelled "difficult" by bosses for highlighting problems.
It is probably here the premise of the piece began to shift. I began to unpick my own role as a journalist who had tackled stories around racism before for the Herald. What had made that okay prior to today? Why had I been happy to use it as a platform to examine how racism operated in New Zealand in the past?
Truthfully, there is no one explanation. It is wrapped up in myriad reasons around enjoying my job, needing an income source, and feeling my voice offered a unique perspective on issues like racism. Perhaps more important is the dynamic that played out because of those. When confronted with shortfalls in the organisation's approach to stories related to racism and minority communities, including tangata whenua, I would perform a type of balancing act to effectively "carry on".
The last column I wrote was an example of that. I looked into the case of Auckland cafe Circus Circus and its "English to be spoken at all times" sign, calling out those who took aim at the restaurant via social media after asking my own questions of the establishment. In truth, I only looked into the story because I believed the reporting on it failed to fairly examine what was going on. I never raised the initial reporting gaps because I did not feel comfortable highlighting problems for a story on racism with editors. The thought process: "Who actually wants to hear you point that out? Just do it yourself and leave it at that."
Notably, those exact thoughts repeated in the pursuit of this story. Only this time I had serious misgivings about continuing and the direction it was heading. I decided to seek clarity through interviews.
Anjum Rahman, a long-time Muslim and ethnic communities advocate, talked about the need for individuals and groups with the ability to address racism at a systemic level to step up. A founding member of the Islamic Women's Council, she recounted interactions the council had with authorities about anti-Muslim racism dating back to 2014.
"We said: 'Here are the problems we're seeing, and our women are reporting. Here are some of the things that would fix it. Here's what we can offer and here's what you need to take on'," Rahman said.
"Because one of the things about racism is that the burden of fixing racism is placed on people who are victims of it. When it totally shouldn't be. The burden of fixing it should sit with the communities that are perpetrating it.
"Structurally, we can't do it on our own. We don't have the resources; we don't have the power to fix things. So, for people that are sitting in those positions of power and positions of influence, and making decisions about where resources go, those are the people that need to be trying to fix this stuff."
I also spoke to Wellington City Councillor Tamatha Paul. Paul's journey to council is its own story of correcting a lack of access and information for Māori and young people.
"I kind of just looked at them and thought none of you know at all what we're going through, what our experiences are and none of you really care because you don't think we vote," she said.
Now, with a seat at the table, Paul was determined to ensure Te Tiriti principles were honoured in council business. She pointed to the recent vote to introduce a bylaw regulating the city's nail, tattoo, and beauty parlours as an example.
"One of the key things that was in that was there was a full-page acknowledgement that Tā Moko is protected under Te Tiriti o Waitangi and therefore Tā Moko practitioners will not have to pay the licensing and practitioner fee.
"That's a practical example of just relentless banging on that drum and saying: 'Hey, have you considered this. If not, why? Are your staff not culturally competent? If not, are we going to get them into courses to understand?'"
Both women's commitment to challenging racism within their immediate environment led me to reflect on my situation. It was time to examine my role within the Herald. This piece is an account of that. Through it, I have highlighted to my editors the difficulties of writing for an organisation that I feel is yet to properly examine how racism operates within its own walls. The discussion stemming from it has not been easy and is ongoing. There is a lot of work to do. However, it is a start, one which I am pleased to be part of.
Being accused of racism is a difficult pill to swallow.
But it would be reckless to dismiss it and say, 'not on our watch'. We accept the criticism and accept we must do better.
For this is the very point of Black Lives Matter. We all need to face confronting criticism and question ourselves and our role in a society that, globally and here in New Zealand, wears the stain of unequal opportunity.
Am I racist?
It is a question many have been asking in recent weeks. A question with no easy answer. One US scholar says if you have to ask, then you are. She also says, if you ask and the answer is no, then you are.
The issue is desperately nuanced; a ramshackle collection of stereotypes, prejudices and discriminatory behaviour built over years of ignorance. It's overt and covert and operates across an individual, group and societal level.
We cannot agree with Black Lives Matter's refusal to engage with Teuila Fuatai. For what hope is there without debate? What future without striving for a shared understanding?
But we can understand their insistence that it is not that group's responsibility to educate the Herald. No victim should carry that burden.
For many organisations in this country, the difficulty is unconscious bias. There's a school of thought that recognising this somehow absolves one of blame — but there is a wealth of research that supports its existence.
It is how racial stereotypes and assumptions infiltrate our subconscious. We can act and think in racist ways without knowing it. It is less conspicuous than the ignorant and appalling demand that "All Lives Matter" — but all the more insidious for that.
NZME, publisher of the Herald, formed a diversity and inclusion committee three years ago and through its Sustainability Commitment has committed to accountability on measurements relating to diversity of voice and policies and initiatives supporting diversity. The committee has created a backbone to drive diversity and inclusion strategies and to welcome and celebrate gender, ethnic, cultural and sexual diversity.
As I said, we accept the criticism and will do better. We hope we can be agents for change across society — a role the Herald has fulfilled for more than 150 years.
Instead of "Am I racist?" let's each ask ourselves, "What am I doing to stop the racism I see in the world?"
Murray Kirkness, Herald editor