I’m beginning to wonder if New Zealand has overtaken Australia in racism. Or is it just the case that the racists in New Zealand have become bolder and are more visible now?
Australia set the racist bar fairly high with its White Australia immigration policy, which was in place from 1901 all the way to 1973. And it wasn’t until 1967 that they voted to include Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in the census — which meant Indigenous Australians literally weren’t counted until 1971, the year of the next census.
I’ve spent a good deal of time in both countries. I was a student in Auckland in the mid-1970s, and I’ve visited New Zealand frequently. Five years ago, I moved here with my wife, after living in Australia for 18 years.
In New Zealand, there were, of course, the infamous immigration Dawn Raids of Pasifika in the 1970s. But those were by government agents, so perhaps we should excuse the general Pālagi public from that shameful bit of New Zealand history.
I don’t doubt that through the years there’ve been racist remarks directed by Pālagi towards Pasifika migrants.
But I can’t remember ever hearing a person using a privileged position in the media to vilify us. Nor had I ever come face to face with the face of hate. And both happened just over a week ago.
That week began with the South African-born broadcaster Heather du Plessis-Allan’s careless and deeply offensive “leeches” comments on her radio programme.
And it ended, the following Saturday evening, at an Auckland restaurant in Mission Bay, where I was confronted by a very angry man verbally abusing me.
My wife is disabled and has a disabled parking permit. And when she’s a passenger, as she was on our outing to the restaurant, I make life more manageable for her by using and displaying the permit.
But all the angry diner saw was an abled-bodied brown driver breaking the law by pretending he was disabled and parking right in front of the restaurant.
I tried to explain the situation, but he wasn’t interested. For him, the evidence was clear enough. A big brown guy parking illegally — “just like all the other Pacific Islanders who break the law”.
So we asked for a new table and were moved to one in a far corner. But that didn’t deter him. He came over to us and continued the attack. So we got up and left.
It was ugly and scary. I was shaken by the experience, and my wife was distraught.
Later on, however, I found some normality. I had to. I had a church service the following morning.
And now that I’ve had time to reflect on it, there are two questions I’d like to ask.
What can New Zealand do to combat this disease?
And what should you do when someone racially abuses you in the face?
As a biologist, I see racist tendencies as part of the evolutionary process — as part of the struggle to be the fittest to survive. We recognise those tendencies and we try to modify or eradicate them through education and legislation. But I’m not convinced that either actually works.
Education may not do much more than provide information. It does little to change a person’s worldview and heart.
Even if Heather du Plessis-Allan had learned something at school about the relationship between New Zealand and the Pacific — and, surely, in her research reading since, as someone who once worked as a journalist and feels qualified to comment on the Pacific — it’s clear she’s used only the information that supports her views about Pacific countries and people taking advantage of New Zealand’s “generosity”.
It was the same with the man who abused me in Mission Bay. Whatever he’s learned, he’s been able to select the bits to confirm his prejudices about law-breaking brown people.
As for legislation, I fear that it only drives the racists underground and will do little to help alleviate the problem. And I don’t believe prohibition ever works.
Perhaps the sociologists, psychologists, and social workers have an answer to this racism.
My response to the Mission Bay incident was to walk away. I believe it’s what Jesus would have done.
There’s no point in arguing with people full of hatred. You can’t even explain anything to them when their minds have been made up. No amount of logic will get through. And an argument can easily end up in a fight — so, in the end, you lose and the bigots achieve their goal.
I thought Luamanuvao Winnie Laban was right on target when, on Tagata Pasifika last week, she was asked about Heather’s ugly outburst. She said: “Don’t go down into the gutter with them.”
These people like confrontation. So if that avenue of energy is cut off, there’s a good chance they will just fizzle away. I’d read a number of the reactions to Heather’s vitriol, and I was saddened by some equally vicious remarks from her critics. That’s what happens when we don’t give ourselves time to cool down and get our minds to normal.
But there’s another helpful move you can make besides walking away. You can pray for the person, when you’re in a state of mind and heart to do so.
That’s what I did. And, as I read through my liturgy and my sermon, I felt the peace of Christ, descending upon my heart. It was then that I prayed for Ms du Plessis-Allan and our Mission Bay friend — and all people like them, both on the right and the left.
The racists need our prayers. Many have grown up in toxic environments and their hearts are full of hate and venom.
This is a heavy burden that has to be unloaded somewhere, somehow. They are the ones that Jesus is referring to when he says: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens . . .” (Matthew 11:28).
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