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Covert racism

Aidan Rasmussen puts his neck out and expresses his views about the 'whispered racism' inherent in New Zealand society.

I want to talk about racism. But I don't know where to start? Whatever I say is going to sound condescending, especially since - despite my often written about Polynesian roots - I look very European. How could I possibly know what it feels like to be a minority in a majority Anglo-Scots society when from the outside I look very much like that majority? Am I qualified to talk about it?

I think we all are, and I think we should be doing more of it. We should be questioning our beliefs and attitudes towards people dissimilar to ourselves with regularity. If we can't embrace each other's differences then we should at least try to understand them, realistically, though. Even the most tolerant of us slip into racial stereotypes from time to time and mutter things under our breath we later come to regret. We are not perfect.

If we don't get things out in the open and engage each other in discussion we will carry along in that typical two-faced Kiwi way; maintain a faux tolerant front while seething on the inside with ignorant intolerance. This is racism in New Zealand - insidious and secret. It's the sort of think that comes out at dinner parties, in like-minded company. It's a kind of whispered bigotry we only feel comfortable divulging when those concerned have no right of reply. It's a cowards form of racism. At least with Neo-Nazis and other hate groups you know what you are up against. In this country you can never quite be sure. And yet we so desperately want to believe that we are a truly egalitarian society. In many respects we are. This country is blessed with its level of racial tolerance in relation to many other countries. But we are not perfect.

Lets dispense with a few myths. The idea that we have always been a united people living in harmony was an idea that sprang out of the homogenous 50s, an era that painted New Zealand as a liberal 'Land of Milk and Honey'. It was a fallacy. There was equality, but only if you stuck to the rules of the incredibly insular society of the day. This meant that if you were Maori and didn't act up, you were equal. These were the 'nice Maoris' you hear about every now and then. Which must mean that those Maori seeking restitution under the Treaty of Waitangi today are bad ones. What does that make Mike Smith and other 'radicals'? The Chinese, who were some of the first settlers here, were ostracized from the start - sometimes violently. If you want to find out how much, go to the immigrant section at Te Papa and read their stories. You will be touched, saddened and outraged.

Anyone heard of the Dawn Raids? If you're not familiar with that phrase ask your parents, I'm sure they'll remember. Basically people of Pacific Island extraction who weren't residents of this country ('overstayers') got an early morning wake-up call from the authorities and deported back to their homelands. It was rather conveniently forgotten that as a result of a labour shortage the New Zealand Government had urged these people to come here in the first place. Most overstayers in this country were of European extraction as well. They weren't booted out.

I know I'm going over old territory, but there is a generation of people out there that aren't aware of New Zealand's less than PR-friendly past.

The ongoing Treaty settlement negotiations have seen a rise in negative feelings towards Maori. "I wasn't around when the Treaty of Waitangi was written, so why should I have to pay for it?" Exclaims a chorus of white faces. The smashing of the America's Cup and the attack on One Tree Hill were the last straw for many people. "What if the roles had been reversed and that was a sacred Maori symbol that was attacked?" I'm sure there would have been a huge uproar and double standards would have been employed. But, wait a minute, whose land was confiscated unlawfully, whose language and art were outlawed? The Treaty has to be upheld and some restitution needs to be made. What are we scared of? We do need to move on and Maori and Pacific Island people need to become more self-reliant and more self-aware, a process that has been occurring for the last two decades and is bearing fruits in our art, fashion and music scenes but the safety net of the state still needs to exist, (for all), but only as a last resort.

The new whipping boys and girls for the frightened hegemony are Asians. Why are we so scared of these people? They're hard working, productive and bring money into the country. What's wrong with that? They're different that's what's wrong. They're so different to us. Their customs, their attitudes, their beliefs, their eating habits. It all runs counter to what we've been brought up with. Fear is the evil and corrosive thread that underlies intolerance and racism. We're afraid that these people are here to take over our country. Which is nothing more than ignorance-induced xenophobia. But, and some of the more PC people out there aren't going to like this, just like some New Zealand residents, I don't believe every single new immigrant comes here because they want to make a contribution to New Zealand society. Some, I'm sure come here to exploit our education system. But why not when New Zealand secondary schools and tertiary institutions are falling over themselves to get some of that 'Asian' moolah.

Racism and our attitudes towards it open up such a Pandora's Box of emotions that we cannot hope to find a permanent solution to it. In some respects it exists on a spectrum, some days we are more tolerant than on others, which of course shouldn't stop us from trying a little harder.

Aidan Rasmussen

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