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.
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.