Last week, I was at home finishing off a paper for a conference when I heard a hacking smoker’s cough, and the smell of tobacco drifted through my open window.
Over the fence, my elderly neighbour stood at his kitchen door lighting his last cigarette of the day. Playing at full volume on his stereo was Billie Holiday’s searing rendition of Strange Fruit — a song about racial hatred in the American South.
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
My neighbour regularly treats us to extended musical interludes from the Big Band era — Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and others. I enjoy these late afternoon jazz sessions, but often hear windows bang shut in houses nearby. On that particular day, the stereo was especially loud.
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
The music spilled over the backyard and down the street. It was an intriguing serenade in an area where people chatter over Harrods-blend tea about the Queen of England and her family. This is a suburb where waving the Union Jack is not an ironic gesture. In election years, the figures for our local polling booth show that only two voters on the Māori electoral roll cast their votes there. I always wonder who the other person is.
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Billie Holiday first sang Strange Fruit in the springtime of 1939, when she was working in a New York nightclub. The song was a protest about what was happening in the southern states, where mob violence against Black men, women and children often ended in hangings, torture and rape. It spurred many activists in the north to join the growing anti-lynching movement and, later, the nationwide civil rights movement.
Most young people in New Zealand know a fair amount about the American Civil Rights Movement. According to research, it’s a subject taught more widely than New Zealand history.
Senior school students are more likely to learn about the American Civil War, or even the Wars of the Roses, than the New Zealand Wars. At some point, they’ll probably be told about the demonstrations led by Martin Luther King, but not about Dame Whina Cooper leading the 1975 Land March.
Research also shows that many teachers avoid teaching about controversial or contested topics close to home — like colonial injustice in New Zealand or Māori resistance movements. By the end of their schooling, students might know something about the Black Panthers but less about Ngā Tamatoa or the Polynesian Panthers. They will have heard about the Gallipoli campaign but little or nothing about the battle at Ōrākau.
Many of them also believe that racism happens most often in America. And that it involves a history of slavery and segregation and Jim Crow laws. They don’t see it as being about Dawn Raids in Auckland or armed police raids in Te Urewera or Te Kooti or Rua Kēnana or Kereopa Te Rau. Or about land confiscations, or military invasions of Māori settlements, or the Crown land grab.
They don’t see racism as being about us.
I have students in my classes who believe that the American Civil Rights movement ended racism. They believe that bad people commit racist acts — and that racists are crazed loners with steel-capped boots and swastikas tattooed on their forearms. Not ordinary people who work hard, love their families, and pay their taxes.
Many don’t consider, or aren’t aware, of the structures that incarcerate Māori in disproportionate numbers, or the health and education systems that eject us before we are healthy or qualified or employed.
They’ve been taught that racism is not you — or me. It is always someone else.
I don’t blame them or their teachers. New Zealanders are often more comfortable talking about racism off-shore. During the 1981 Springbok Tour, I recall the hostility expressed towards members of the Patu Squad — a Māori protest group that opposed the tour but also drew attention to settler-colonial racism in New Zealand. When Ripeka Evans spoke about mana motuhake, I remember many anti-apartheid activists walked out of the room in anger.
In the last few weeks, we’ve heard angry voices raised against Te Reo Māori being spoken on Radio New Zealand (Dave Witherow and Don Brash) and the validity of the Treaty of Waitangi (Sir William Gallagher).
These are individuals who attract public attention and express negative views. But individual bigotry is not the same as institutional racism, which sits inside the systems and processes of government and the state, and is more covert and widespread. It’s not a story with happy endings — statistics show that Māori earn less, die younger, leave school earlier and are incarcerated more often than Pākehā.
Yet when I speak with Māori young people in the course of my own research, I often watch them struggle to find words for their experiences of growing up in divided communities or living inside systems and structures that don’t serve them well. Many of them simply don’t have a frame of reference to tell those stories, or to speak back to the angry white men they see on the local news.
Racism takes different forms in different places at different times. If we are to combat it, we need to understand it in its local manifestations — uncomfortable as that may be.
People often fear that they’ll feel guilty or ashamed if we talk openly about racism in New Zealand. Yet no one dies from embarrassment or unease. But people do die each year as a result of systemic injustice and discrimination.
I suspect that until we can have those kinds of conversations about our own small and often very troubled country, then, to paraphrase Billie Holiday, we will continue to reap this strange and bitter harvest.