Many New Zealanders probably think of anti-Black racism as something that happens in other countries — especially in the US. Certainly nothing we need to be concerned about in Aotearoa.
But that’s not the reality for the small but increasingly visible Black community living in Aotearoa — around 13,000 at the 2018 census.
As Guled Mire, Rita Wakefield and Mazbou Q explain in this piece, some of the racist attitudes they’ve encountered come from surprising quarters.
Guled is an award-winning creative, community advocate and policy adviser who is now studying in the US as a Fulbright scholar at Cornell University. He was born in Somalia and his family came to New Zealand in the late 1990s, as refugees.
Rita is a researcher and writer based in Sydney, Australia. Her work explores the identity and belonging for women of mixed African descent in Aotearoa New Zealand. She’s of Sierra Leonean and Channel Islander descent. Her parents immigrated to New Zealand from the UK in the late 1980s, and she was born in Auckland, New Zealand.
Mazbou is an artist, producer, teacher and youth mentor based in Auckland. He is of Nigerian descent and immigrated to New Zealand in the early 1990s from the UK where he was born.
This is their combined account of their views and experiences.
Last month, Guled went to a concert in the US where he noticed that non-Black people were making a point of not rapping the N-word whenever it came up.
This wasn’t something that he (or we) had experienced before — certainly not at music gigs in New Zealand.
It was a kind of silent but deliberate agreement from non-Black people that saying the N-word was wrong, even as part of popular music.
To Guled, it felt like a show of solidarity to the Black community. It was as if the non-Black people in the crowd were saying: “Hey, I get what that term means and how it’s still weaponised against you. It’s wrong and I won’t be using music to justify its use.”
Of course, Guled tweeted about it. He raved about how positive it was — and he said that he wouldn’t be attending another concert in New Zealand until people who weren’t Black came to a similar understanding and stopped rapping or singing the N-word.
The Twitter storm that followed Guled’s tweet was a reminder that many people in this country still seem to hold the belief that anti-Black racism is a uniquely African American issue — and not something that needs to be unpacked and addressed in the context of Aotearoa.
The heated exchanges swirled around the use of the N-word, the origins of hip hop, and the broader issue of anti-Blackness in Aotearoa.
And in the midst of that, all three of us found ourselves at the receiving end of anti-Black vitriol and threats. Wāhine Māori and Pacific who supported us online also received abuse.
Sadly, we’ve seen this type of vitriol all too often whenever we’ve spoken out about anti-Black racism in Aotearoa.
And while it’s easy to dismiss these responses as just online trolling, the reality is that they conform to a pattern of racist and xenophobic experiences that each of us has faced growing up in Aotearoa.
All three of us can recall instances of being told to “go back home” from a young age, so when we received similar comments after Guled’s tweet, it triggered an all too familiar trauma experienced by Black New Zealanders — the perpetual struggle to find a sense of belonging and a place to call home.
It was especially disappointing when Aotearoa hip hop veteran DJ Sir-Vere endorsed one of the “don’t come home” tweets by liking it.
We felt that, as someone who’d built a career in hip hop — a music genre born out of the urban Black communities of New York in the 1970s — he of all people had a heightened duty to respect Black people, and to speak out against anti-Black sentiments.
DJ Sir-Vere soon apologised, and others have also taken a step forward and acknowledged that this had made them rethink their use of the N-word.
So, although the initial exchanges were painful and triggering for us, it’s also undoubtedly led to more discussion — and we hope, eventually, understanding — about several issues that continue to blight our experience as Black New Zealanders.
What’s painfully clear from this and other experiences, however, is the underlying ignorance around the Black experience in New Zealand — and how that feeds into anti-Black racism from different parts of society.
Who should and should not use the N-word?
Let’s start with the use of the N-word.
It feels to us as though the conversation in Aotearoa around who should and should not use the N-word is a recurring one, with not much progress being made.
To put it simply, when the N-word is used by non-Black people, it’s a form of anti-Black racism — and it needs to be pointed out.
What is startling to us is the fierce pushback we tend to receive from some people, and the clear defensiveness around the discussion.
Overwhelmingly, this comes from Māori and Pasifika, who have their own experiences of racism and express an affinity with the discrimination experienced by Black people.
Many of them say they’ve also been called the word by racist white people. Their argument goes like this: “Because Māori and Pasifika have experienced harm from the N-word, doesn’t that give us a right to use it?”
It really doesn’t.
There’s a legacy of racial violence around the N-word, which is particularly important in the context of North America, but also relevant to the wider Black diaspora. Failing to listen when we point that out, upholds the trauma and oppression Black people are working against today.
And no, you don’t get a pass just because you’re Māori or Pasifika.
Alongside that, like many Black New Zealanders, we know what it’s like to be among Pasifika and Māori friends and go from “what’s up my n***a?” to “fuck you n***er” in the heat of a disagreement. On these occasions, the term quickly switches from one of camaraderie to racist insult and is weaponised against Black people.
Understanding the imbalance in that setup, and the fact that Black people simply can’t throw back the N-word as a derogatory insult, shows how wrong it is for people who aren’t Black to use it — in any setting.
These aren’t easy conversations. They challenge long-held beliefs we have around our own behaviours, interactions, and culture.
Even Guled, who’s now in his 30s, admits that he’s still learning about the different ways racism is expressed and how to combat it. “Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been fazed by the so-called friendly use of the N-word by someone who wasn’t Black. But, like a lot of people, I know better now.”
Hip hop in Aotearoa
Let’s look at what hip hop represents — for African Americans, the African diaspora, and in Aotearoa.
Its mass global appeal reflects just how cool it is, and by extension, the culture it comes from.
In reality, it’s much more than a genre of music. Hip hop is a Ghetto culture, a multifaceted way of life born from the oppressed minorities in the streets of the South Bronx during the 1970s.
This was a particularly tumultuous time for African Americans. Fresh off the back of the Civil Rights Movement, hip hop evolved as a new form of resistance for these communities. The angsty voice chronicling the realities of Black life in the streets.
Also significant, and in keeping with its origins, hip hop is particularly important to marginalised communities.
In New Zealand, it has inspired a generation of Māori and Pasifika artists. It has also provided solace for Black New Zealand artists, who have a unique and special relationship with the genre. While it came from the US, hip hop’s rhythms and beats trace back through our shared African lineage.
Despite that, there’s been little space for local Black artists in the Aotearoa music scene.
For example, artists Raiza Biza, Eleven7four, KVKA, Gino October, Blaze the Emperor, Jane Deezy and Phodiso have been active for several years. Some even have label and distribution deals, and discographies stretching back almost a decade. But compared to their Māori and Pasifika counterparts, they’ve had little exposure or recognition on radio, in music festivals and other forms of music media.
The recent documentary A Reason to Rhyme, which was screened on Māori TV on Waitangi Day, is an example of this.
It focuses exclusively on the relationship Māori and Pasifika communities have to hip hop. Unfortunately, it ignores the musical and cultural contributions of a growing Black African community in Aotearoa.
In doing that, the documentary, and the raft of prominent musicians who took part — including DLT, Che Fu, Scribe and Ladi 6 — effectively sidelined the Black experience and voice in New Zealand.
We couldn’t help but think how wrong this was, given hip hop is fundamentally an artform and expression of culture which belongs to Black people, specifically African Americans.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, when we highlighted this, our concerns were dismissed. We were accused of misrepresenting the documentary, being disrespectful, and pursuing our own personal agendas.
But with all that said, what’s been helpful in the past month is people’s willingness to learn about the origins of hip hop and what it represents for the communities it came from. It’s led to a more even footing for conversations around how artists and fans in New Zealand can appropriately acknowledge it.
Aotearoa has an anti-Black racism problem
The reality is that New Zealand has an anti-Black racism problem. It is present within all communities — and unfortunately, some of the most harmful attitudes and beliefs exist within Māori and Pasifika communities.
We as a country need to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge this as a first step.
When we encounter racism from communities of colour, it’s harder for us to understand and reconcile — and sometimes it hurts more, because many of us have found solace among brown faces in the absence of Black ones.
Given the ways in which white supremacy works to harm our communities, we’re supposed to be connected and aligned with one another’s experiences.
But often this isn’t the case. It’s even harder to navigate this knowing that the racism is coming from communities that have drawn so much from Black culture, scholarship, and activism.
Let’s be clear. Dismantling white supremacy shouldn’t be a competition between Māori, Pasifika, and Black communities in Aotearoa. The racism between us is a distraction, and addressing it is an ongoing challenge.
Our hope is that we can finally begin to have these necessary but important conversations and tackle the anti-Blackness prevalent in our communities and in Aotearoa. It’s only by doing this that we will be able to achieve more genuine unity.
As told to Teuila Fuatai. This piece was made possible by NZ On Air, through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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