"It's hard to find the answers when you don't understand the question. Racism is learnt in the environment through which we are taught, work and live."
When people have not experienced racism, they may find it hard to understand why the #blacklivesmatter movement has been so vocal. The reality is that racism is also alive in well in New Zealand - and if you do not think that is the case then take a moment and lend me your ear. I have been a victim of racism for as long as i can remember but it wasn't until i was older that I understood there is a great many people out there who don't like people like me for no other reason than my colour and my ethnicity.
When I was little boy I was teased for having a flat nose. Yes, many Maori would know that experience. It got so bad one day i lied about being sick and stayed home from school - with duct tape and two ice block sticks i created a brace for my nose so it would not be so flat - a stick on either side of my face. Yes, kids can be vicious. In my teenage years i was called any number of names and when i first applied for jobs i was told by one respondent that "we do not employ Maori's unless you can commit to not taking days off unnecessarily".
As i got through life it was always present including when i first went to Australia. A story i have never told is being homeless for three weeks in Sydney after i had first arrived. At the beginning i had a place to stay at the Crown Street Motel in Surrey Hills while i found a job at got settled. But, try as I would (and my money was running out) i just could not get a bedroom let alone a flat. So, for three weeks home was the Central Station and Belmore Park. I still had my big yellow backpack with me and what little possessions i had. I saw first-hand how people would treat the mainly Indigenous inhabitants that called the park home. The cursing, the racist jack calling. I was lucky. I secured a job and a home. But I will never forget going to view a room at a flat in Paddington (Sydney) only to be told “Maori’s need not have applied – you steal“.
I was always determined to ensure that racism never got the better of me. But of course, it never stopped - and often even I found me hurling insults back.
But it was not until I came home to New Zealand that i realized just how bad things were. Sure, i experienced it when I was young not knowing what it all meant. But this time i had returned after twenty years and recognized exactly what it was. In 2019 I took on Hobson’s Pledge, a group well known for their views on all things Maori. I made it clear that much of they were doing was racist particularly by focusing in on a single ethnic group. After a report appeared in the media and through online social media platforms the racism was very clear: "I'm a supporter of Hobson's Pledge and I just think you're a black dog, “and "You're a middle-aged overweight Maori who's on the take, what would you know?" were to name but a few.
My experience is tame compared to many people of colour in New Zealand but the truth is, when it comes to Maori all you need to do is look at both the data and stories of those with a lived experience – experience of the police and criminal justice system, of education and the social services provided by Government and its agencies to know we have a problem. From the stories of how children of colour are sometimes treated in the classroom to those of racial profiling where some police officers see a car of brown kids compared to white kids – the brown kids get pulled over because apparently they are the ones out one night stealing. Then there is the story of the 15-year-old Maori teenage boy who had taken a drug overdose and ended up in A&E – I tell this story often. He took drugs to end his life and had no history of drug taking up until that evening. He was attempting to take his life because he did not want his Father to know he was gay. It was a call for help. But he was treated like just another brown kid with a drug problem.
Online over the last few days, whether it has been Facebook, LinkedIn or other platforms right through to a lot of news outlets, a whole lot of people have pushed back about how New Zealand is not a racist country. The Police Minister even said it himself about his own officers. The Prime Minister and other politicians also called it irresponsible to March in support of what was happening in the United States. And yet none of them really looked at the perennial question of who’s system bought this whole sad state of affairs to bare.
You see the largest problem we are yet to confront is the need to change the very system through which this behaviour is learnt. You are not born racist but you certainly collect the behaviour as a result of living, working and playing within a system that encouraged you but denigrated us. A system that locked us up and let you walk free. A system where our health is lesser than yours, where many cannot afford a home or will never rise above unskilled labour. So when you comment about racism not being a thing in New Zealand – ask yourself the question – how did it all get to this and what can you do to change it.