Racism is more widespread than most of us would like to think. We cannot change the world by ourselves. Each of us can change how we behave and have some influence on family, friends and colleagues. Don’t forget strangers either!
“Nothing like a touch of racism to boost the ratings” or so the saying goes. Relax, this post is all about combating racism.
Today is Waitangi Day, when New Zealand commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, which was the foundation of New Zealand. It is fitting to reflect on what is means to be a New Zealander and the importance of embracing those who may have different heritage. This post has a distinct New Zealand flavour. The messages should be relevant regardless of creed, race or colour.
Racism can take many forms, ranging from the overt and intentional to the subconscious and unintended. Let’s start with an example of over racism, which is still talked about in New Zealand.
Late last year, when I happened to be on one of my overseas trips, a prominent TV presenter by the name of Paul Henry, interviewed our Prime Minister, John Key. The controversial question he posed was: “Are you going to choose a New Zealander who looks and sounds more like a New Zealander this time? Are we going to go for someone who looks and sounds more like a New Zealander this time”? I would like to stress that the repetition is verbatim. It is clear that this was part of Paul Henry’s script. It was intentional and not a “slip of the tongue”.
The Governor–General, Rt Hon Sir Anand Satyanand, is the personal representative of New Zealand’s Head of State, Queen Elizabeth II of New Zealand. He was born and raised in Auckland and happens to be of Indo-Fijian origin. I stress this last point because this was the reason for the provocative question to our Prime Minister. Sir Anand Satyanand is a former judge and sounds like a well-educated person. He is not overly posh, as we don’t really go in for that in New Zealand. His skin complexion is “a good tan” and he could be mistaken for a Maori.
Whilst on matters legal, our employment law bans discrimination on the grounds of race, religion or sex.
Back to the interview. The Prime Minister, to his discredit, did not deal firmly with the question at the time. There was an uproar and Paul Henry subsequently resigned from the state-owned broadcaster TV1.
So what does Henry mean by “looks and sounds more like a New Zealander”? The late historian Michael King argued in “Being Pakeha Now” that it is the interaction of Pakeha (those of us of European origin) with the indigenous Maori that makes us unique and distinctive as New Zealanders.
Let’s take one our most prominent living citizens and apply the “Henry New Zealander test”. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is an opera singer of world renown. She is a slightly lighter hue than Sir Anand Satyanand, so probably would pass the “colour chart” part. She does “speak a bit posh”, which makes passing the “sound” part less clear-cut. When she sings, she sounds nothing like a typical New Zealander, and she has rightly received world-wide celebrity status!
Now to an example of unintended, sub-conscious racism. This time by an equally well know TV presenter, Paul Holmes. The two have much in common. Paul Holmes once referred to the then Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, as a “cheeky darkie”.
We need to wind the clock back to 1998 and the opening of Te Papa, our national museum Wellington. Paul Holmes was being shown around the museum by of the guides. Holmes commented on the bi-lingual signs (English and Maori) and when he came to the lift, made the smart remark: ”I didn’t know the Maori had lifts”. The point here is the a “lift” is no more English than “ascenseur” is French or “Aufzug” is German. Each language devised its own new word to describe what at the time was a new invention. Maori has just as much right as any other language to find new words. These can be for inventions, abstract ideas or indeed any aspect of language.
We are a bi-cultural nation and we have further enriched by many more recent immigrant communities. We should not simply tolerate diversity, we should celebrate it with gusto, as I argued in “Remember, remember the fifth of November”.
So be vigilant. Watch the language that you use. Set a good example. See what gentle influence you can exert on those around you. A kind word to a stranger can be infectious, just like a smile or laughter.
Business to Markets Ltd