The makers of the documentary web series Land of the Long White Cloud hoped to spark an “anti-racism conversation” among Pākehā. They were taken aback by the backlash. Simone Kaho breaks down the response.
In 2014, I had slowly crystallising plans to travel with my dad (my mother being firmly resistant to the idea). I wanted to go to Tonga to visit his birthplace again, and to Israel to walk in the steps of Jesus, and to Italy to eat pasta and because Dad loved history.
We talked about it on the way to the airport, when I dropped him and Mum off on their way to visit my sister and her family who were living in the Cook Islands.
“We have to travel while you’re fit and strong,” I said.
In just over a year, he was no longer with us.
Something unexpected happened when Dad died. I stopped feeling like a New Zealander. I knew that, living here, Dad had been subjected to ongoing racism. Naked and unapologetic discrimination that I haven’t had to go through as a New Zealand-born Tongan with a Pākehā mum. The racism I’ve experienced has mostly been coded and covert.
My mother told me that, as a boy in Tonga, Dad had idealised the idea of New Zealand, as a place of education, enlightenment, rational thinking, and opportunity. Coming to New Zealand in the 1950s, he told me, “you could count the Islanders here on your fingers”.
Dad spoke excellent English but his accent was sometimes mistaken for Dutch on the phone, which meant that when he turned up to meet landlords, their flats were suddenly no longer available. In the 1970s, he advocated for Pacific Islanders caught up by the Dawn Raids because he understood law and history and politics, and he knew what was happening was racist.
He told me how the police took Alsatian dogs with them on those raids, and pulled people, including pregnant women, out of their homes in front of their children. These experiences, and many others, destroyed the dream.
So when my dad died, in a way, I blamed racism in New Zealand, for the pain of it, the unfinished feeling.
It wasn’t until I watched the documentary web series Land of the Long White Cloud, which was launched on the New Zealand Herald website in October this year, that I realised why home had felt so foreign since Dad died.
My cousin Karlo Mila, a poet and sociologist, had shared Episode 4 on her Facebook page. It features Jen Margaret, a Treaty educator, explaining white privilege. Karlo wrote:
Watch this! Watch this! Watch this! It’s so important. It’s so clear. It’s beautiful and has integrity and courage.
So I did.
Land of the Long White Cloud is a series about Pākehā, for Pākehā, and by Pākehā. It’s committed to honouring Pākehā identity, as a partner of Māori under the Treaty of Waitangi. The producers described it as “an anti-racism conversation” that
. . . tells the stories of New Zealanders who are reflecting on their colonial heritage and white guilt, and the ways they push through to find a more healthy Pākehā identity.
It’s based on the reflections of eight Pākehā, about personal responsibility and taking action to address the racism and inequalities in contemporary New Zealand that have stemmed from colonisation. It’s not unusual to find stories like this here in E-Tangata, but it’s rare on a mainstream platform.
When I saw it, it felt like a fresh breeze had blown through the Herald, similar to what I feel when I visit Ihumātao.
I saw that each subject had gone through a process of deep reflection, as I have over the years since my dad’s death. Rebooting. Waking up to what it means to be a tauiwi.
Some of that process is education, learning basic New Zealand history and facts that I didn’t learn at school. It’s also about developing an understanding of colonisation and the impact it’s had on Māori. Of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and how it’s been breached. And, importantly, of our place in Aotearoa in relationship to this history — because we’re not taught, as New Zealanders, how to understand New Zealand as a colonial nation.
There’s another aspect of that, which is more to do with the heart and spirit: a cultural awakening. Kennedy Warne writes vividly about his experience of this, which began when he met Saana Murray, a poet and an elder of the Far North iwi Ngāti Kuri.
There’s no clear educational structure or end-point for this process. It’s somewhere between voluntary and involuntary. It’s multidimensional and comes from a place of openness. As I’ve experienced it, it can be triggered by closeness to Māori, or by learning te reo, or by the loss of someone you love.
So I’d been processing, slowly, but without any hope that wider, Pākehā New Zealand would join me.
But, watching Land of the Long White Cloud, listening to eight Pākehā people talk about their journey, and recognising within it, my own journey, I felt I was witnessing the start of a cultural shift. I felt that racism in New Zealand had an end-point. That it was being challenged at the source, pierced by fierce insight and integrity — by Pākehā, speaking to other Pākehā, in the mainstream media.
It felt critically important, especially now, in the wake of the white supremacist Christchurch terror attacks, and as the collective spirit of Ihumātao blazes on, that this sort of honest conversation takes place.
Finally! I thought.
So I messaged Kathleen Winter, the director, to thank and congratulate her.
“Thanks so much for this message,” she replied. “We’ve been a little overwhelmed by the racist backlash since the series release.”
Much of the response to Land of the Long White Cloud came through social media, with hundreds of comments on the Herald Facebook posts. It spilled into messages sent directly to Kathleen and other subjects, prompting them to take their contact details offline.
Sean Plunket interviewed Kathleen about the series on Magic Talk radio. He said he hadn’t watched the series, but felt confident to discuss it and determine that Kathleen was incapable of journalistic impartiality. He also interviewed Elliot Ikilei, the New Conservative Party deputy leader, who hadn’t seen the series either, and was calling for it to be immediately cancelled.
Chris Trotter on The Daily Blog suggested the series-makers were either “naïve and innocent of political reality” or “deliberate inciters of hatred and division between Pākehā and Māori — to the point of risking full-scale civil war.” A YouTube vlogger called them self-loathing, sycophantic, guilt-ridden white appeasers who hate their own ancestors.
Hobson’s Pledge, unsurprisingly, chimed in with: “More propaganda from the Herald,” and “they’re all guilt ridden whities. Give us a break.” A campaign calling for complaints to NZ On Air was launched. Cries of “I don’t feel guilty” echoed and ricocheted across New Zealand’s high-speed cables and ethernets.
Strangely, perhaps, I wasn’t expecting it. Land of the Long White Cloud aligned so well with my personal truths, it was hard to imagine it could piss off so many other New Zealanders, so much.
The backlash exposed the oceanic gulf between the Pākehā in Land of the Long White Cloud and the Pākehā of Hobson’s Pledge and talkback New Zealand. How do we begin to have conversations about critical issues when we’re so far apart?
This is the reason I came to work at E-Tangata, because I could see E-T’s stories speaking into this divide, trying to bridge it.
E-Tangata readers want reasoned and analytical discussion about racism and attitudes to race in New Zealand. This is clear from the unusually extended lifecycle of Max Harris’s article on white defensiveness in Aotearoa. It was published in June 2018, surged after the Christchurch terror attacks, and is E-Tangata’s most read story of all time. At the time of writing, it’s still among the top 5 stories read each week.
Max’s piece looks at how white dominance and defensiveness operate in Aotearoa. In it, he identifies four different types of white defensiveness: Denial, Diversion, Detriment-centring, and Move On.
Denial is about the kneejerk responses that attempt to deny that there’s racism, rather than taking claims seriously or considering its roots.
Diversion attempts to derail conversations about the impact of colonisation through claims that Māori themselves are guilty of some other historical wrong — like tribal conflict, or sexism, or the genocide of Moriori, or that, anyway, Māori weren’t even here first so aren’t tangata whenua — or through allegations that Māori benefit from “reverse racism”.
Detriment-centring is about focusing on the disadvantages faced by Māori, without any acknowledgment of the advantages of being Pākehā.
And Move On describes the insistent demands that we stop talking about racism, forget the past, and look at Te Tiriti o Waitangi as a historical relic rather than a lasting basis for healthy relationships in Aotearoa.
I’ve often imagined readers of Max’s story using the four categories to help manage interactions at work and in social settings. There goes denial . . . oops, no, that’s diversion. That’s what I do.
What’s incredibly useful about these “types” or categories is being able to take murky sentiment, or “a backlash”, for instance, and sort it into something that can be interpreted and perhaps provide some insight.
So I decided to see if Max’s categories could be applied to the response to Land of the Long White Cloud. I took a sample of 188 comments from the Herald Facebook posts on the series, and found that:
- 56 percent of the comments were white defensiveness (they matched the categories identified by Max)
- 10 percent were outright racist (used negative stereotypes)
- 29 percent were attempts to counter the defensiveness and racism
- 4 percent were positive and/or solution-orientated.
Sifting through these comments was at times demoralising. (The series was also released on RNZ in November, and, interestingly, discussion there has been more balanced, perhaps reflecting the difference in audience.)
My biggest out-take was that most of the comments, and most of the backlash, was defensiveness. This actually makes sense to me, given not only the gaps we’ve had in our education system but also the lack of access and exposure that many Pākehā have to teachers or friends or relatives who are Māori, or who understand colonisation.
More than anything, this exercise highlighted the massive deficit in New Zealand — in our knowledge and understanding of biculturalism, of colonisation, of te ao Māori and Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and of structural inequality.
So many of the arguments repeated long-debunked myths, or denied the impact of colonisation, or expressed fears that just talking about colonisation creates division. At worst, the defensiveness was a clear-cut case of racism. On the milder side, it sounded like what it protests not to be: guilt.
This, too, makes sense to me given the psychology definition of defensiveness: Constantly protecting oneself from criticism, exposure of one’s shortcomings, or other real or perceived threats to the ego.
When I was a digital strategist, I spent many years facing defensiveness and resistance to the change and complexities that the internet brought. People thought they’d be exposed for their lack of knowledge, that they’d have to take on new and difficult tasks, or maybe face losing their jobs. I saw “early adopters” — young people who were confident with the new digital world and bursting with innovative, revolutionary ideas — get shut down by executives who didn’t get it.
You know how this ends. There was a slow and irrevocable shift, as “new media” became the more familiar world of “online” and then “digital”, and as smartphones and social media arrived. It became clear that digital wasn’t going away — and that, actually, it’s not that hard.
So I know defensiveness can be overcome, especially when a shift is seen as inevitable, and when people are supported to make the change — for instance in a workshop setting, with listening and discussion. But it needs dedicated and high-quality processes, people, and resources. And it needs vision and commitment from the top.
I asked Jen Margaret, the Treaty and social change facilitator from Episode 4, what would close that gap in understanding and help bring about the cultural shift we need. Jen has worked with other Pākehā for many years as an educator for Groundwork: Facilitating Change.
She told me: “It can be overwhelming, and deeply discomforting for Pākehā people when we learn about our history. As they start to see how ugly and destructive a force colonisation and racism is in our society right now, there’s an urge to want to distance themselves from it.”
It’s not a small shift in understanding — and yet, Jen says, most people manage to make it in only a day on her Treaty-education workshops. “The overwhelming feedback we get is people saying that everyone in New Zealand should come through these workshops, that it would really help race relations.”
Teaching New Zealand history in schools is a move in the right direction — but it’s not enough. Jen believes the government should also invest in a public education programme to teach all New Zealanders about our history. “This learning is needed across all generations,” she says.
I’d happily attend that programme and take my friends with me.
Land of the Long White Cloud is an important series, as is Max’s article about white defensiveness in Aotearoa. I hope we can continue to have these kinds of honest and searching conversations about racism and how we might start to move past it, not just among Pākehā, but among all New Zealanders.
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