You know that feeling in the pit of your stomach that turns to white hot on the top of your cheeks when you realise that you have said or done something that was 100 per cent wrong?
Well, some people don't know they do these things and wander oblivious to the carnage they create, but that was the obvious experience of Mt View Lions of South Taranaki last Friday, when they decided it would be a true reflection of multi-culturalism to paint all their faces black and ride a float in the A and P Show Parade.
The theme was "multi-culturalism" and the music blaring out over their sound system was Michael Jackson's Black or White. The whole thread of the lyrics is pro-race relations, so it is obvious the intentions were honourable. But the execution was wrong, wrong, wrong.
Immediately social media were alerted, and — as expected — people took a stand against the float and the obvious racial overtone. The sight of the blackened faces and whitened lips in the style of the Black and White Minstrels completely drowned out the lyrics of Jackson's song. People rightly took offence at such an overt display of trite racist imagery.
Then explanation and defence leapt out. One response from Mt View Lions suggested those offended shouldn't be too "… precious and PC". Thankfully, this post was removed damned quickly, but not before it had been reposted by many as proof of the racism behind the whole idea of the float.
Eventually, and thankfully, with the high profile of leading two television channels' six o'clock news hours, came a very sober, sombre and humble apology.
The incident underlines the fact that racism is racism no matter how patronising, well-intentioned, or naively executed. The fact is that black faces and white lips and eyelids were never worn by people of colour be they brown or black. Only ever by white, so putting make-up on in the way it was, never would have added to a multi-cultural theme. As we say in the law, "ignorance is no excuse".
Over the past few weeks in meetings all around New Zealand we have been hearing so many witnesses bear testimony to the fact of unconscious bias and institutional racism.
The Commissioner of Police Mike Bush has made public statements admitting that his organisation has exhibited institutional racism. The Children's Commissioner, Judge Andrew Becroft, has pointed out stark examples of it across society.
Though those defending public practice and staff scream the negative, they rely on a mistaken belief that racism can only be where there is malicious intent. But that is patently wrong. We all witness racist speech and behaviour every day which sits on a continuum from blissful naivety through to rampant redneck malicious prejudice, but racist the comments or actions are, regardless.
It is not for the person making the communication to decide how their message will be received and the customer is always right. Keeping on digging by claiming indignation when somebody has taken offence will never rectify or justify making the statement in the first place. In fact, trying to become the victim in retaliation for the insult being labelled will make it 100 times worse.
New Zealand's record in race relations is bad and only looks "not so bad" in comparison to atrocities carried out in other jurisdictions. There is plenty to feel ashamed about in our current practice and our history.
The only way forward is to call it out for what it is, own it, and resolve to do better.
Chester Borrows served as Whanganui MP for 12 years and as a minister in the National Government
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