I CLEARLY recall when I was first confronted by Whanganui's racist underbelly.

I'd spent several quiet years here, blithely unaware of the tension - until I read the comments on an online news story in 2012, about spelling Whanganui with the "H".

It's cliched to call out the behaviour of anonymous internet trolls; actually I was more disturbed by the number of people unselfconsciously signing their names to their racist rants.

There's been plenty to disturb my mind in recent weeks, following my last column reflecting on what has changed - and what hasn't - in the two years since the NZ Geographic Board ruled our district was called Whanganui.


It prompted me to go and have a cup of tea with David James and Jillian Wychel, who have been Treaty of Waitangi educators for three decades.

David has a gentle, grounded energy that makes a person breathe out and settle; Jillian has an illuminating clarity. I like them both a very great deal and have enormous regard for their contributions.

I arrived with several burning questions, the first being why some people are so angry about the "H" in Whanganui.

There are people, who often have lived here for a long time, said Jillian, who have a story in their hearts and minds: a story of how things are. There's a great security in holding to that story. And it will not change unless there is a viable alternative story that resonates with them.

Like me, Jillian is curious about why this story about "Wanganui" is so deeply wound into people's thinking - indeed, their very identity.

David suggested it's part of the same phenomena that brought Trump to power: people who are feeling left behind, who feel under threat by the changing economy and culture. They're looking for explanations, and for scapegoats to blame for their circumstances.

It seems to me that the "Wanganui" of these people's story is changing and that's not comfortable.

The backlash isn't just about how we spell Whanganui, it's about how we say it, and how we hear it - especially by people who don't live here (like the newsreaders and weather forecasters). That raises interesting and nuanced issues about dialect and diversity among different iwi.


But more than the name is changing. There's a rising visibility of Maori organisations and formal iwi involvement in decision-making; and David and Jillian agree that this will become more pronounced and vibrant once the local Treaty settlement is finalised.

The pair have seen great shifts in people's thinking since the 1980s. But there's evidently a gulf between people who work for organisations that send them to Treaty workshops and people ... who don't. And who don't attend on their own volition. Because racists don't have any curiosity and don't want their views challenged, David reckons.

My other pressing question was the most skilful way to respond when confronted by racism. I've been blindsided several times - for instance when an acquaintance abruptly changed topic and went off on a diatribe about "those bloody Maoris". I'm not often lost for words but I was so shocked I didn't know what to say.

I appreciated Jillian's perspective on this, which is that an individual, isolated conversation is not a learning opportunity for people with rigid views - except to hear that I don't agree with them.

"Simply saying, 'That is not the way I see the world' is an invitation for the person to ask, 'Well, tell me how you do see it'. But that's not likely to come, so you leave it at that point," says David.

David and Jillian ran me through what they see as pivotal moments in Whanganui's race relations: the occupation of Pākaitore, the subsequent joint working group established to manage that site, the debate about the museum's constitution, the controversy over council support for the Whanganui iwi exhibition at Te Papa. And more recently, the recognition of the river's legal personhood.

It's here that things can change, that people's curiosity can be kindled and the grip on old stories loosened. One-off encounters don't change people's hearts and minds but prolonged exposure and ongoing relationships do.

David and Jillian talked about the substantial changes they witnessed in several people serving in official positions, who began with staunch opposition to listening to Maori concerns and perspectives. When you have to work together - for instance on joint working groups - relationships develop and conversations are ongoing. That's the fertile field for change.

In the end, Jillian says she's optimistic.

A different story will emerge. It might be a long, long time in coming but racism will have an end eventually.

I asked what they thought would bring that about. There was a long pause.

They place their hope in an emerging post-settlement environment, in which Maori institutions will play a major role in local economies and societies. And in the creation of local identity, adds Jillian. People will see the benefits of working together.

She says, "For those who don't like it, they will just need to live with their discomfort basically. Because nothing stays the same, does it?"

■Rachel Rose is a writer and editor who has chosen to make her home in Whanganui since 2010. An extended version of this piece is online at www.facebook.com/rachelrose.writer