I was helping the friendly old man at reception to confirm his bus timetable to Christchurch. Waiting for the call centre human to speak, we filled in time, listening to numerous automated messages and music concerts, chuckling every time we heard: Your call is important to us. We talked for several minutes about the cold weather, the Christchurch and Kāikoura earthquakes, and the upcoming All Blacks test.
Then the conversation suddenly changed. He looked at me and said:
“Gee, there are a lot of darkies in this town.”
“Darkies, you know.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, I can’t say blacks, can I?”
“No — and you shouldn’t call people darkies either. I think you’ll find they’re vineyard workers from Vanuatu or other Pacific Islands.”
Silence descended. Awkwardness and discomfort grew. Eye contact was lost. He spent the remaining time staring at his shoes and the tiles on the floor.
The human from the call centre intervened, and the old man’s travel arrangements were sorted. He was grateful for my help. We smiled at each other, and, as we said goodbye, I wished him safe travels.
The decision to respond to racism feels challenging because of the inevitably difficult dialogue that follows and the risk to relationships.
If I say nothing, I collude. If I say something, I collide.
Saying nothing leads the speaker to think I agree with their view, their joke, or their comment. My silence or awkward smile is interpreted as reinforcing an opinion I disagree strongly with.
Almost 25 years ago, I visited a café with a colleague, and caught my son wagging his seventh form class with a mate and two female students. We had an interesting mother-son discussion.
Then, as my colleague and I waited for our lattes at the counter, she whispered in my ear: “Gorgeous girls. Shame about the colour, though.”
I was shocked. I wanted to cry. I said nothing.
Twenty-five years later, I still feel mute and ashamed of this moment when I colluded by saying nothing.
Saying something risks my relationship with other human beings, even if they’re strangers. It’s even riskier when they’re my work colleagues or family members, because our relationship is affected. We collide.
I’ve called people racist in the past and wonder if our relationship would’ve been less affected if I’d called their comment racist, rather than them as a person?
When I see racism, I feel it like a visceral kick in the gut, or a stab in my heart. I learned this empathy and value from my mother, Tui. I recognise my own racism these days when my unconscious bias becomes conscious, and when my comfortable white privilege is uncomfortable for me.
I sit beside Māori friends and hear their experiences of trying to rent accommodation. Of their humiliation at being asked in shops to show the contents of their bags. And of the overwhelming numbers of their whānau with mental health challenges, or in prison, or both.
The cleaner at one DHB tells me a complaint was made to HR because she sang her waiata softly as she worked. The maitre d’ at a hotel restaurant informs a whānau that he has had a complaint from a fellow diner about the noisy waiata they sang after a 21st birthday speech. And a landlord confirms the rental with my colleague but, when she brings her Māori partner to meet him and sign the agreement, it’s suddenly no longer available.
I live and work beside people who don’t collude. My grandchildren correct our reo pronunciation. Whanganui is being spelled correctly. The name of my maunga, Taranaki, has been reclaimed. Preschoolers know their pepeha. A patient is surprised and delighted that, between the carpark and his outpatient clinic, four different people say Kia ora.
It seems to me, too, that our country is edging closer to providing some action to deal with the inequity in our justice, health, and education systems.
Then came Friday, March 15, 2019.
Now, just over a week later, the responses from within Aotearoa New Zealand continue to be significant. There’s compassion and education. There have been written words and spoken kōrero in many kitchens, classrooms and offices this week. Prayers and passages from the Qur’an are being shared in corporate offices and parliament. The Crusader rugby franchise will meet with the Muslim community about their team name. The Mongrel Mob, offering to guard the Hamilton mosque at prayer time, were invited inside to pray.
And, like others, I’ve been learning more about tolerance — about accepting another’s belief or culture even if it differs from mine. And especially when it differs from mine.
For some people, tolerance can stop at tolerating — the much less generous state of putting up with something. But for me, true tolerance must go beyond that. It’s an active verb, a “doing word”. It calls on us to learn, to accept, to include, to stand for, hear, give, receive, sanction, embrace, sustain, to live with and love.
Welcoming people with aroha and sharing whanaungatanga, manaakitanga and wairuatanga is a rich pathway in our land that we can all walk together.
Joanne Doherty is a Taranaki born, Wellington-based independent health advisor and researcher. She is a writer and belongs to Te Wakaiti, a small, bicultural marae close to Featherston in the South Wairarapa. Joanne is also on the Wellington Cancer Society Board and Te Roopu Tautoko and was appointed to Hei Ahuru Mowai, the Māori Cancer Leadership Board in 2016.
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