Standing up to racism

Haydn Marriner is a Rotorua tourism operator and political junkie.

I have been putting off writing this column for almost two weeks. I wanted to give the National Party’s new leadership time to bed in and reflect on that. 

I had nearly completed the column when the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, USA hit the media. 

The heartbreaking video of his death was blasted around the world and instantly created a rush of feelings. Sadness, frustration and anger. 

A police officer, arresting him, placed his knee on his neck for nine minutes. Long enough to, at best be a contributing factor to his death, at worst the direct cause. 

People of colour in the United States took to social media and expressed their feelings, those feelings making their way to our social media feeds in New Zealand. 

Outrage burst onto our screens, with a depth of despair and sadness that is born from years and years of enduring this kind of treatment at the hands of the institutions that are supposed to be there to protect them. The protest marches morphed into riots and suddenly it was “when the looting starts the shooting starts”, and it did. 

Even media were being shot, especially those media of colour. White media correspondents are documented as having to stand in front of coloured media to protect them. 

White people were using their bodies to protect African American protestors, knowing that law enforcement won’t fire on them because of their skin colour. 

But what does that have to do with us in Rotorua, in Aotearoa? 

It doesn’t affect us directly right now. But if we are going to comment on social media about it, then we are in for a penny and in for a pound. 

Many white New Zealanders have made comments to the effect of, while the death of a man at the hands of police should be condemned, why can’t they protest peacefully? 

Rioting is destroying other people's lives, rioting takes away from the death of this man. It's not just black lives that matter - its all lives that matter. 

For any person of colour who has been discriminated against racially, these lines are trotted out every single time to minimise the long term systemic racism that is enshrined in these organisations. 

What does protest peacefully mean? When coming from white people, it comes across as protest quietly, out of my sight, so you don’t disturb my life. 

Kinda defeats the purpose of protesting if that's how you want to do it. If you don’t think white privilege is real, then ask the question why are white people standing between people of colour and police?

What happens when that white line isn’t there? How can all lives matter, when clearly black lives don’t? 

In New Zealand, National's Judith Collins, who is trying to promo the release of her “tell-all” went down the skin colour path in parliament, demanding to know what was wrong with her being white? 

Short answer - nothing. 

But the fact is, even in Aotearoa, the best skin colour to be is white. 

You’ll live longer, get better jobs, go to better schools, travel more, buy more stuff and will get at least a seven times weaker sentence for any crime you commit. 

Judith, trust me when I say any person of colour would love those advantages you have because you are white. As a person of colour, I can say that growing up in Rotorua I really had no idea what racial discrimination was. 

The skin tone of my family and friends were a mix and it simply wasn’t an issue. Maori were hypervisible, the superstars of my world, except my favourite All Blacks were Mike Brewer and Sean Fitzpatrick, both very pakeha, and that was normal for me in Rotorua. 

It wasn’t until I moved away, that I realised my skin complexion was an issue for some people. Snide jokes about needing to lock things up when I was around were common. 
Drunk white kids in university bars were wanting to debate the “handouts” Maori got, or the scholarships, or the Treaty of Waitangi. 

I was a really naive person at the time, so all of that hit me like a bus, especially when you look around the room and realize that I was the minority - to the point I was even referred to light-heartedly as “token”, after the African American character from South Park. 

I never really won the debates about the “handouts” or any other Maori based topic, I could only deflect on to other topics with humour, because I found they weren’t looking for dialogue, they were seeking an echo chamber to reinforce their narrow, white world view. 

It's said you shouldn’t talk about politics, sports or religion in polite company - I can add race to the mix. I cannot speak for every person who grew up in Rotorua, but when I look back on how I grew up, Rotorua to me, was so proud of our multicultural makeup. 

Culture was (and still is) everywhere and I always felt like it was where I belonged. The open, caring, loud and adventurous spirit that swirls around Rotorua is the only place I have ever been where cultures blend in such a positive way. Manaakitanga at work in a beautiful way. 

Racism isn’t an issue for people of colour. In New Zealand, it's a white person problem. Racism is a tool to discriminate and disadvantage minorities based on the colour of their skin. 

We don’t really see the out and out racists in New Zealand anymore. They are more gutless than they were. But their influence and bias are very real, to the point most people don’t even notice. 

The National Party's entire front bench is white. They didn’t notice until the media pointed it out - there is your unconscious bias. 

Political parties are reflections of their voters. When the largest, wealthiest political party in New Zealand doesn’t see an issue with a lack of diversity on their front bench, then that's likely because their supporters don’t see it either. 

The world is very frightened right now, with Covid-19, racism, economic uncertainty and the All Blacks with a new coach. 

In the past, the President of the United States was the hero the world looked to, to steer us through the murky times ahead. But now that's not the case. Americans are looking to our Prime Minister as a beacon of hope. 

That hope is generated through each of us living to the best of our abilities the values we grew up with. Manaakitanga (kindness), whanaungatanga (family) and kaitiakitanga (respect for the environment). As the world reaches out for a people who can show them a better way to be, to coexist, I believe that Rotorua, our people, our values are those real heroes the world is looking for.

Not Batman or Richie McCaw. We should stand up against racism, hate and oppression, but not with bullets and fists, but with compassion, love and kindness.

Let's celebrate our unity, but not forget there is always work to be done.


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