We need to talk about racism – and if not now, when?

Don’t talk to me in that tone of voice!

How many of you heard that reproach growing up. Sullen teenagers, you tried to stick up for your rights, object when some injustice was being forced upon you, or just emit a barbaric yawp when you felt your opinion or feelings weren’t being heard. But the entire substance and spirit of your protest would be invalidated because you hadn’t raised it in the “right way”.

What that right way was escaped me then, and remains stubbornly out of reach now. Should it have been deferential, respectful, playing the ball not the man, sufficiently couched in non-blaming language to not rile your elders while still getting your point across?

Given the emotional illiteracy of the 1980s, it is a wonder that any of us found voice to express ourselves at all, when so many of us turned inwards and transmuted those unwelcome feelings into self-loathing. We were teenagers – how could we be expected to have the tools to express our feelings in exactly the right way, when there was nowhere to learn them?

I feel like the burgeoning discussion around racism in New Zealand is heading much the same way. What I am seeing online and also reflected in the reactions to the Auckland vigil speeches, seems to be “it’s too soon to talk about it”, it’s not appropriate, not now, not here – and that old online standby, not in that tone of voice. Beneath this I feel an undercurrent of tension between the shock and grief at happened in Christchurch and guilt that somehow our own behaviour is to blame.

I acknowledge the deep grief and shock that most of New Zealand are feeling following the Christchurch mosque attacks. And my heart goes out to those family and friends who have lost loved ones, the injured still in hospital, those who witnessed the attacks and escaped unscathed, and every member of the Muslim community in New Zealand. So much of the conversation has been about providing comfort and support, giving you the space to mourn your dead and wrapping you in a blanket of love.

Our deep tradition of hospitality leads us to revolt against the idea that both New Zealanders and tourists visiting our country could be attacked en masse, and what’s more in a place of worship, usually a place of sanctuary and contemplation. But on the face of us, some Pakeha are struggling to make the connection between this and racism. What does one white Australian male, recently arrived in New Zealand, have to do with our culture and attitudes to all other ethnic groups who don’t identify as Pakeha?

We can talk about his and some New Zealanders’ participation in online communities that foster far-right extremist sentiments. We can talk about skinheads in Christchurch. But I think that the deep-rooted unease that some people feel is that calling out casual racism at this time is somehow pointing the finger at them, that their behaviour somehow caused the attacks.

I sympathise with the people whose immediate reaction to the attacks was to tweet #givenothingtoracism. My time with the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, hearing the voices of children through their work, talking to Maori and Pacific Islander colleagues, and other observations from 20 years in the workforce, has shown me that racism exists in New Zealand, towards indigenous as well as immigrant populations, and I strongly believe as a Pakeha that we are not doing enough to eradicate it. But how?

Wrinkling your nose at a woman in a hijab, or prioritising a Western-sounding name in a job application, didn’t make anyone pick up a gun on Friday 15 March. But on the other hand, all those little oversights or micro-aggressions make life harder for anyone who belongs to an ethnic minority, or who is different in any way. We should have been removing them from our daily lives well before now, but if we really care about the victims and wellbeing of the wider Muslim community beyond 15 March, we need to redouble our efforts. To make sure that they feel safer walking down the street, or applying for a job, than they did before. Let that be the legacy of these attacks.

I am stepping sideways from a project on climate change to write this, because I have found it impossible to separate caring about the future of the planet from caring about how New Zealanders are with each other this week. As Rebecca Solnit put it so beautifully, “Behind the urgency of climate action is the understanding that everything is connected; behind white supremacy is an ideology of separation.”

White supremacy is the extreme iteration of a viewpoint that starts by seeing people as “other”. And that is why every denigrating comment I hear about Maori, Pacific Islanders, immigrants and refugees makes me wince, because at the core of it is the label “other”. When now more than ever, I want to be “us”, tatou tatou e.

I read about Muslim women who have been too scared to leave the house since the attacks, not venturing out until they hear that non-Muslim women are donning the hijab so it won’t be as remarkable to see them on the street. These women weren’t afraid of having a gun pointed at them. They were afraid of the catcalls, the shouts, the pointed stares that they have learned to expect. After the attacks, it may have just all been too much for them to bear, to be singled out as “other” in the place they now call home.

Then there’s the problem of how we do it. What will be the right way to call out the racism, not ignore the passing comment, while not giving offence to the suddenly very fragile people whose behaviour you are calling out? Picking your way through this emotional minefield is exhausting, even if you haven’t been trained like Pavlov’s Dog from infancy to avoid conflict.

Finding the right tone of voice to call something out that you see as wrong, when not just the content upsets you but also the fact that those exhibiting the behaviour see themselves as inherently right, seems like more of a mountain to climb than is possible. Can we defuse these words with kinder words of our own?

Jacinda Ardern is showing us by example how to combine gentleness and great strength, but we are not all as poised, as ready with the right thing to say in the moment that it needs to be said. Sometimes we are incoherent and angry.

And if it upsets me as Pakeha, then it is no surprise that the groups who bear the brunt of this behaviour may express their anger, especially once they have exhausted the polite options, tried asking “the right way” and still no-one is listening.

I’m not surprised that the speakers called out colonisation and racism in the Domain on Friday. Based on their experiences and knowledge, they are inextricably linked to the attacks. To justify white settlers taking over this country, it has been convenient to marginalise Maori culture and language, their social structures and their community structures.

This has had a knock on effect of regarding Pakeha voices as “normal” and everyone else as “other”, regardless of when they arrived.

If we redressed the balance, it does not become about oppressing Pakeha. It will make New Zealand a kinder, better place for all of us.

I am still thinking and searching for the ways to have these conversations, in my immediate network and in the wider exchange. Muslim, Māori, Pacific Islanders and other communities need the support of those who don’t suffer directly from racism and who benefit from our privilege, to acknowledge their concerns, amplify their voices and to roll up our sleeves and do the mahi to make things better. 

It was refreshing to hear from someone who spoke to the Herald on Friday:
Auckland man Jake Law said he stayed until the end, and as Pākehā he needed to listen to the voices of those directly affected by racism.

“This is the reality facing minorities, immigrants, Māori and people of colour in New Zealand. White people need to shut up, and listen to the voices of those who are directly affected.”

We are all figuring this out as we go. We could always use a dollop more kindness and grace in the discussion. But also, perhaps everyone who’s uncomfortable talking about racism could perhaps shut up for a while, and listen.

Published by Catherine Jeffcoat

Wellington-based communications manager.