‘I’ve felt like a refugee in my own country’
Racism is embedded in Aotearoa – from verbal assaults, slurs, putdowns and ‘‘profiling’’ to threats of violence – but there is little data on how widespread it is. This prompted Stuff to launch its own online survey. Cate Broughton reports on its findings.
Are you OK, Mum?’’ Then 12-year-old Dion Maresca is standing at the supermarket checkout with his mum when a customer unleashes a stream of vitriol about Ma¯ ori.
His Mum, Pania Warren, a 56-year-old Ma¯ ori mother-ofthree, says she was unloading her groceries when a woman behind her ‘‘kept going on about Ma¯ oris, the land, and who do we think we are, that I as a Ma¯ ori am entitled to more than any other person in NZ who is nonMa¯ ori – which is not correct’’.
Her son – born to a European father of Italian descent, from whom he got his very fair complexion – ‘‘just looked at this woman and he came up to me and said ‘are you OK, Mum’?
‘‘The look on their faces was just beautiful and absolute shock.’’
Now aged 25, Maresca has been a frequent witness to his mother’s belittlement at the hands of shopkeepers and strangers.
So when launched its online survey on racism, Maresca decided it was time to put his family’s experiences ‘‘out there’’.
He was among more than 2000 people to take part.
For Maresca the frequent racial slurs and discriminatory treatment have been painful to watch. ‘‘I just look at my Mum and I just feel guilt and regret.’’
‘‘If you don’t believe racism exists in this country, it’s because your experience . . . is very different to mine. I’m of Ma¯ ori descent, but have been made to feel like a refugee in my own country’’ – Survey respondent.
Stuff’s survey was launched in September, six months after the March 15 terror attacks when 51 people were killed in two mosques in Christchurch, allegedly by an Australian-born gunman with white supremacist views.
His extreme and abhorrent views are rejected by the overwhelming majority of Kiwis. But not all. Multiple arrests were made in the days and weeks following of New Zealanders who had shared the shooter’s banned manifesto and chilling livestream with online contacts.
In a powerful piece published on March 17, Islamic Women’s Council leader Anjum Rahman was among a number of commentators who said they were appalled by the attack but not surprised. The signs of mounting racism had been apparent, yet ignored by the wider public and authorities.
Did we have our heads in the sand?
Statistics show that recorded hate crime and online abuse have soared in the UK and the US since the anti-immigration Brexit vote and the election of
Donald Trump as president.
But there are no similar statistics in NZ. Police do not record hate crime; we do not routinely survey Ma¯ ori, Pasifika or migrant groups on their experiences of racism, nor monitor social media.
The Human Rights Commission has not had funding for a comprehensive survey on the topic. The only race-related data it regularly collects are from the complaints made under the Human Rights Act, of which there have been about 400 in each of the past two years.
Keen to find out what was going on, Stuff asked readers to share their views. More than 2000 people took part in its online survey. These respondents are self-selecting and motivated but their personal experiences and views of race relations in New Zealand provide a wealth of information.
Christchurch-based Research First analysed the data while TextFerret used artificial intelligence to assess the longform answers.
About 60 per cent of survey respondents identified as Pa¯ keha¯ , 16 per cent Ma¯ ori and 14 per cent Asian. Many shared painful experiences of day-to-day racism by strangers, colleagues, shop workers and officials. Experiences included verbal assaults, putdowns, racial profiling and threats of violence – with Ma¯ ori consistently taking the biggest hits.
Others also revealed the times they had challenged friends and colleagues about their racist comments, and a number who confessed feelings of guilt about their own behaviour.
The survey also lifted the lid on an undercurrent of resent-
ment from Pa¯ keha¯ against a Ma¯ ori renaissance.
Suspicious shop workers
Wellington consultant and proud Ma¯ ori woman Vanessa Mohi loves her lipstick. On a regular shopping trip to stock up on her favourite shade at David Jones, the 46-year-old was heading out the door when a security guard asked to check her bag.
As she went to show him the contents of her handbag a
Pa¯ keha¯ woman took offence to what she saw as racial profiling.
‘‘She had words with the security guard about why wasn’t he checking everyone’s bag and said this was disgusting.’’
Staff from the lipstick counter told him to let Vanessa go.
Back at her office she recounted the scene to her mainly Pa¯ keha¯ colleagues.
‘‘My workmates all looked at me and went, what? They checked your bag? And I said ‘yep, don’t they check yours?’ ’’
The survey found nonEuropean respondents were three times as likely as Europeans to say they ‘‘very often’’ experienced unfair treatment by service people such as shop assistants, waiters and security guards.
‘‘I constantly get followed around by shopkeepers whenever I go to the supermarket and I am always asked to show my receipt to staff before being allowed to leave the shop,’’ a MELAA (Middle Eastern, Latin American and African) respondent said.
Another said he was followed home by a hardware store staff member and accused of being ‘‘a thief like all Indians are’’.
In the past year, Mohi had another encounter reminding her casual racism was alive and well.
The chief executive of a company in her field asked her to meet the hiring manager to discuss a new job. She had spoken to the woman on the phone to make arrangements.
When she arrived the woman said ‘‘Oh, you didn’t sound Ma¯ ori’’.
‘‘I was a little bit shocked so I went on the defensive and said ‘what does a Ma¯ ori sound like?’ and I think she just giggled a bit and said well, you know . . . and I said ‘I really don’t, please tell me’.’’
She did not pursue the job. Mohi says her comfortable life provides a buffer against the impacts of racism. ‘‘My life is full of privilege, I have an education, I have a decent job, I have high self-esteem. You can brush these things aside when it’s not important to you. But it wouldn’t be the same if I had to take that job so that I could feed my family.’’
While she doesn’t like to make a fuss, her daughters, now young adults, are more outspoken about ‘‘everyday’’ racism.
Another Ma¯ ori survey respondent, Michelle Holden, 47, has not been as fortunate as Mohi. The former counsellor moved to a small village in the Manawatu-Whanganui region three years ago.
‘‘I just heard that people were shocked that ‘she’s brown, she’s got tattoos and dogs and she doesn’t have a husband’.’’
Holden said that before moving to the predominantly Pa¯ keha¯ area she hadn’t experienced discrimination for many years, but hearing of the response to her presence in the town was deeply upsetting.
‘‘It’s really hard to describe. It’s such a powerless feeling. Like, I don’t care about these people but finding that out made me feel less than and it was quite profound . . . and I felt ashamed.’’
‘‘I feel uncomfortable with anyone outside my own race in case I unintentionally offend them,’’ said Helen, 55. ‘‘I didn’t used to be, but I am very aware of how unpopular white people are in NZ these days.’’
Helen, an Aucklander, filled in the survey form and agreed to be interviewed but did not want her full name used.
She said she mixed with people from other ethnic groups at church and in her workplace, which was ‘‘safe ground’’.
Helen was among a large number of Pa¯ keha¯ respondents who said they regularly experienced racism, mainly from Ma¯ ori and the media, and felt ‘‘under attack’’.
When asked about challenging racist comments Helen wrote about the persecution of New Zealand Europeans.
‘‘All white people are now seen as potential white supremacists.’’
She had noticed this ‘‘very much since the mosque shootings’’.
‘‘Any white person who says anything about immigration . . . or about Islam . . . or anything like that, they are immediately a potential white supremacist or far Right, or alt-Right . . .’’
As a fourth or fifth generation settler family she was also labelled a colonist, Helen said.
She had been called a f ..... white b…. to her face while working at a school in Otara.
Usually the abuse was online ‘‘because I’m usually criticising race-based funding, to be fair . . . so that tends to wind people up’’.
She said her daughter, who suffered a health condition, had initially been declined financial assistance but she believed this would not have been the case were she Ma¯ ori.
‘‘I don’t feel like I’m better than anybody else and you know, we’re not well off, we’ve struggled . . . we still struggle but I feel like white people are looked at as the privileged few who’ve had everything easy and I don’t think that’s a fair view.’’
Analysis of the survey’s open text answers by data analytics company Text Ferret found more than 400 Pa¯ keha¯ respondents who expressed similar views.
This is quite natural, says Professor Steve Ratuva, a University of Canterbury political sociologist and expert in ethnicity. Some Pa¯ keha¯ feel they are experiencing racism.
‘‘The classical definition of racism is a particular group looking down on another group as being inferior.
‘‘In other cases, so-called inferior groups may respond by abusing the other back. And that may be seen as racism by those on the receiving end.’’
Ratuva pointed to supporters of Trump who had interpreted a demand for more equality by minorities as racism.
University of Auckland School of Ma¯ ori Studies Professor Margaret Mutu says white privilege can be invisible to white people. ‘‘If you are in a position of power and people say let’s share that power you don’t want to let go.’’
‘Why can’t you take a joke?’
Aeronwy Cording, a survey respondent from Christchurch, high school teacher and single mother to 4-year-old Zahara, has had a front-row seat to experiences of casual racism since the birth of her daughter.
Cording is Pa¯ keha¯ while the father of Zahara is Zimbabwean.
While usually surrounded by colleagues, friends and family who embrace diversity, Cording said she was still regularly confronted with racist attitudes.
On on occasion while at lunch with some women she did not know well she was asked ‘what’s it like having a n…..child?’.
As her toddler played happily nearby Cording reacted swiftly.
‘‘I said ‘please don’t ever talk about my child like that again’ and everyone kind of awkwardly giggled and someone changed the subject and that was that.’’
Cording says the reactions of the other women were equally troubling. ‘‘They thought it was funny. Because that’s everyone’s default, ‘I was just joking, why can’t you take a joke?’ ‘‘
Cording says the initial response of love and compassion following the March 15 mosque attacks did not last.
‘‘I guess what hit me was the backlash of ‘oh, I suppose Jacinda is going to try and get their whole family over now, and we’ve done all this for you and now you are complaining, how dare you not be thankful that I’ve helped you’.’’
Cording says she is fearful her daughter will be affected by the same attitudes. ‘‘My biggest fear is when Zahara gets older and people say ‘go home’. She is home, she was born here. She is a Kiwi.’’
Vanessa Mohi says ‘‘her comfortable life provided a buffer against the impacts of racism’’.
At a lunch with some women she did not know well, Aeronwy Cording says she was asked ‘‘what’s it like having a n….. child?’’
Dion Maresca has recounted being a frequent witness to the belittling of his mother, Pania Warren, by shopkeepers and strangers. ‘‘I just look at my Mum and I just feel guilt and regret.’’