Updated: Sep 5, 2019
On 15th March, 2019 Christchurch became the focus of national attention when a lone gunman shot down 50 innocent people while they prayed in 2 mosques. In addressing the media after the incident, prime minister Jacinda Ardern said (of the attacks) “this is not who we are” (1), but judging by the response of many immigrants who, for the first time, felt able to openly express their experience of racial intolerance in this country, maybe this is who we are?
As New Zealanders we like to consider ourselves as being friendly, easy-going and hospitable, but just how open are we to accepting and embracing people from different cultures?
Racially derogatory comments about another person or group of people can be heard on a daily basis – whether it be at work, on talkback radio, on social media or in our homes. The fact that such comments are not only spoken but viewed by many as being acceptable to say, reflects the level of racism that has now been normalized in New Zealand society. Even comments spoken in jest may still have racial undertones.
The person accused of committing the massacre in Christchurch was driven by an ideology of white supremacy and many New Zealanders were disturbed to learn that such views are held by citizens of New Zealand. But should we be surprised at the existence of such views when we look at the colonization of this country? Many settlers came to New Zealand under the illusion that the Maori were tribal savages who were uncivilized and that they required the help of the colonials to establish a civil society. Such a patronizing view allowed for an attitude of arrogance and superiority to develop without any Maori tribal customs being acknowledged and included in constitutional structures.
Looking back, the signing of the treaty of Waitangi was supposed to bring equality and respect between Maori and the Crown but for many years Maori people were marginalized and not treated as equals. Colonials often came to New Zealand under the impression that the treaty gave them sovereignty over the Maori, and they were entitled to just take what they wanted from them. Such historic views on sovereignty were echoed when the Colonial Office told Governor Hobson that Maori did not have ‘real’ sovereignty because they only lived in ‘petty tribes’. (2)
These attitudes highlight that the Maori were not viewed as equal partners in the Treaty thereby allowing colonials to further impose their way of living on them and for varying forms of discrimination to continue up to the present day.
Most New Zealanders would not consider themselves to be racist but such is the destructive power of racism that it’s insidious strands can weave their way deep into our sub-conscious. Our unspoken thoughts are just as damaging as the spoken – the casual assumptions and judgements made, the dismissal of another’s opinion because we have trouble understanding their accent all stem from not truly accepting another as an equal.
Discrimination can also be experienced by people who have lived in New Zealand for several generations and consider themselves Kiwis, but due to their appearance they are subjected to racial taunts and bullying. The tragedy at the mosques in Christchurch has drawn attention to the Muslim community, in particular the discrimination and racism many of them are subjected to on a daily basis. There has been a huge increase in Islamophobia worldwide in recent years that has been fueled by overseas events such as 9/11 and various terrorist attacks carried out by groups such as ISIS. We naively assumed that such acts would not happen in “Gods own” and have ignored the underbelly of hatred that has developed in New Zealand.
Dame Susan Devoy, a former New Zealand Race Relations Commissioner, commented in a Morning Report (3) interview that “Fourth generation New Zealanders are still telling me that they are the butt of racist jokes or being told to go home”.
This discrimination highlights the judgements we make of others based on appearance or their accent. It is unfortunate that it takes an act of terror for New Zealanders to override their differences and come together to show their love, compassion and care for one another, even though for some this may be temporary. While the events of 15th March may remain vivid in the memory of those involved for years to come, we must not close our eyes to the level of racism it has exposed in this country, for that will only create an environment in which this evil will continue to fester.
The following quote is from a Chinese immigrant to New Zealand and perhaps demonstrates what could be the missing link:
“I never really tried to become a Kiwi. I never really tried to become Chinese. I think what we do now is we try to be just a person.” (4)
This is a great reminder of the need to just be who we are as a person and perhaps if we were to appreciate our inner qualities in each other we would welcome people as people. Race, ethnicity, background and history would not be relevant. It would be the person that mattered. Perhaps this is a way forward and an opportunity for us to live more harmoniously as a society, a society made up of many different cultures, a society composed of people.
1. Newshub (15/3 2019), Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern fiercely condemns Christchurch ‘terrorist attack’.
2. Jackson, M. (2018) Understanding Racism in this Country.
3. RNZ (2017, June 15, 10.26am) New Zealanders ‘suffering in silence’ from racism. https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/333077/new-zealanders-suffering-in-silence-from-racism
4. Robertson, S. (2007) ‘When do I become a Kiwi?’ A qualitative account of New Migrants Experiences in New Zealand. Honours Thesis, Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand. https://www.victoria.ac.nz/cacr/research/migration/When-do-I-become-a-Kiwi.pdf