The Steve Hansen controversy highlights how a lot of the racism which film director Taika Waititi so rightly and bravely pointed out exists in New Zealand could be classed as unthinking.

Shocking attitudes from the white ruling class towards Maori, for instance, were abhorrent and became inherent. Some of these racist attitudes found their way into State thinking thanks to patronising studies of Maori life, as those who do Treaty of Waitangi studies find out.

I don't say this as an excuse, but we still say the most cringy things without even realising it.

The general awareness of New Zealand's history, beyond cliches and stereotypes, is very poor. We have never widely embraced or focussed on the fascinating personalities who made us who we are. Hone Heke, a complex man, was turned into a caricature who kept cutting down a flag pole like something off a bad Disney movie.


Read more: All Blacks coach slammed on Twitter for refusing to say Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi's name in TV interview

Issues, incidents, and yes even atrocities have been glossed over to put it mildly. Some might say they have been deliberately obscured.

They include a New Zealand Rugby Union which shamefully permitted All Black teams to be selected on racist grounds at the behest of their South African counterparts. Imagine the hurt and damage to dreams that caused.

You still hear racist slurs, observe racist attitudes, all the time.

All Blacks coach Hansen wasn't trying to offend when he bypassed pronouncing Chiefs halfback Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi's name, using a nickname instead. But in the context of our history, and on reflection, he got it wrong.

On the pure racism scale, Hansen's blunder doesn't push the needle too far. On the unthinking scale, it's a 10 out of 10. The end result is unfortunate, and we have the great broadcaster Keith Quinn to thank for pointing it out.

Let's face it, many of us were unthinking because it took Quinn to turn it into a debate. He was bang on.

What Hansen was inadvertently saying is that the Maori language and the respect it carries is an afterthought, something to dabble with if you can be bothered, irrelevant to the core of our society.


This attitude is completely in step, unfortunately, with how a lot of people still see the situation. Many things in the rise of Maori pride — from what are actually paltry Waitangi settlements to the restoration of Te Reo — are accepted under sufferance by many. We all know what is said behind closed doors. Pat Maori culture on the head, use it for gain, and keep it in a corner.

Chiefs halfback Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi. Photosport
Chiefs halfback Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi. Photosport

It is partly a generational thing, but not really. The man who has so effectively pointed out where Hansen got it wrong is Quinn, always a worldly rugby man just as likely to fall in love with a Welsh rugby backwater as he was to ogle over an All Black's skills. He is also considerably older than Hansen.

For those of us brought up to either not use Maori or pronounce it poorly or even deliberately wrongly, it can be difficult to get the language right.

Sometimes, it seems to flow better than others and feel instinctive, natural. At other times, particularly when self-conscious, it feels as if it is coming out all wrong. I find it particularly difficult to pronounce places names from my past because the errors are embedded.

But our Te Reo teacher says what counts is the intent, the effort, the respect. I still don't feel very confident using it though. But it feels beautiful trying to speak a beautiful language.

I think there is more to it though. Learning and respecting the Maori language not only turns a tragic part of our history into something very exciting to learn, but it reveals what has been hidden and how we might forge ahead.

We all have a different take on it. Quinn, for example, may not agree with everything in this column, even though I regard his comments in a very positive light. Waititi may be furious at the way I've included him.

But this is certain: Maori have been swamped with how a ruling European class saw the world. They've had it rammed down their throat, in words and deeds. We are in a tricky but really interesting time of finding a new balance. Embracing and enjoying Te Reo can help take us beyond understanding how to pronounce Maori. It's about listening as much as speaking.

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