Why we must all be more like Dame Susan Devoy

As the Race Re­la­tions Com­mis­sioner fin­ishes her term, she de­serves a solid pass mark for her ef­forts to call out our coun­try’s deeply en­trenched racism.

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AND just like that, time’s up on Dame Susan Devoy’s ten­ure as Race Re­la­tions Com­mis­sioner.

One would hope that so­ci­ety would im­prove to the point where a per­son with that job never has to pop up in the news, but her five years seem to have flown by, such is the reg­u­lar­ity she’s had to com­ment on racism in New Zealand.

For a job that was al­ways handed out with­out too much at­ten­tion, Devoy’s ap­point­ment in 2013 at­tracted some con­tro­versy. She was un­doubt­edly one of the coun­try’s great­est ever sports stars, but was that enough for such a sen­si­tive role?

At the time, then Green MPCather­ine De­lahunty ques­tioned why the Gov­ern­ment would choose a per­son with ‘‘no back­ground in Te Tir­iti is­sues or di­ver­sity pol­i­tics’’ and ‘‘who is on pub­lic record doubt­ing the rel­e­vance and value of Wai­tangi Day to New Zealan­ders’’.

There were also ques­tions over how she had pre­vi­ously tack­led con­tentious is­sues about wear­ing burqas and com­pet­ing in South Africa dur­ing the apartheid years.

I didn’t have high hopes for Devoy in 2013, but Sir Michael Jones was among the many who sup­ported her be­cause her ap­point­ment would help make race re­la­tions is­sues main­stream. Which is a very valid point.

Peo­ple tend to switch off when peo­ple of colour talk about racism, but per­haps a Pakeha woman – a sport­ing hero to many – could have more im­pact. And I think, she has.

Devoy’s past con­tro­ver­sial com­ments on race – as un­for­tu­nate as they were – prob­a­bly re­flected main­stream Kiwi views. And it’s ex­actly be­cause she once had those per­spec­tives that her trans­for­ma­tion to the role of Race Re­la­tions Com­mis­sioner was so much more telling.

Christchurch pro­fes­sor Jar­rod Gil­bert this week ac­cused her of spend­ing ‘‘five years preach­ing pop­u­lar slo­gans to the con­verted’’. But I think that is way too harsh.

Many of her com­ments may have been ‘‘pop­u­lar slo­gans’’ but when you’ve spent your life ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the whole gamut of racism from ca­sual right up to in­sti­tu­tional, it’s ac­tu­ally heart­en­ing to hear those things con­stantly be­ing said – even if it seems so ob­vi­ous to ‘‘the con­verted’’.

And it re­ally does make a dif­fer­ence who’s say­ing it. For peo­ple who still strug­gle to un­der­stand racism and its cor­ro­sive de­bil­i­tat­ing ef­fects, hear­ing these sorts of state­ments from some­one like Devoy may just have made them stop and think.

Be­sides, how is suc­cess even mea­sured in a role like this? I can’t help but think that racism is en­trenched so deeply into our so­ci­ety, it would take much than five years of any­one’s ef­forts to make more than a scratch.

Just this week there was a story of Ro­torua’s Nar­relle Newdick who re­ceived a voice­mail mes­sage in which two car sales­men ridiculed her for be­ing Maori. That makes you won­der whether even the late great Nel­son Man­dela may have strug­gled if he’d had the job.

To my mind, Devoy has stood up to the chal­lenge and I would give her a solid pass.

Of course, I wish we didn’t even need a Race Re­la­tions Com­mis­sioner in New Zealand. But we do, and so the im­por­tant thing is that they high­light racism when it hap­pens and point out that it’s a com­pletely kaka way to be.

What’s im­por­tant, though, is that we shouldn’t just leave that task to just one per­son – as Devoy, her­self, said: ‘‘I don’t want to be the only Kiwi call­ing out racist be­hav­iour, I want other peo­ple to be call­ing it out too’’.

Dame Susan Devoy.

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