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What’s the deal with denial? A NZ Chinese woman on ‘Kiwi-ness’ and casual racism

The first step in tackling racism in New Zealand: stop telling people to ‘get over it’ and start actually acknowledging their experiences, says Ally McCrow-Young.

I’ve never felt more like a Kiwi until I moved almost 20,000 kilometres away from home, to Sweden.

When I arrived three years ago in Malmö, in the south of the country, I was struck that when I told people I was a New Zealander, it went unquestioned. None of the usual follow ups ensued, like “No, but where are you really from?” Instead, what I got was more along lines of “New Zealand, cool! I really like Lord of the Rings.”

What was going on here? Where was the usual string of questions about the origins of my family tree, or the precise boat my great grandfather took from China back in the day? Where were the compliments about how well I’ve grasped the English language?

This was all a little shocking to me at first, but when I started to think about it, it really wasn’t so surprising. Growing up in New Zealand as a second generation Kiwi Chinese, I’ve had to prove the extent of my ‘Kiwi-ness’ time and time again. It became habitual to me; I learnt a series of phrases to repeat robotically whenever the inevitable interrogation began.

“Yes” I would answer, “I was born here, in Auckland.”… “Yes, so was my mum. Also Auckland.”… “Before that? There was no ‘before’ that, I mean, I think mum moved from Ponsonby to the North Shore at some point, if that’s what you mean.” (It was never what they meant)… “No, I don’t play the piano. Or the cello.”… “Thanks, yes, my English is pretty good.” (It better bloody be good, considering it’s my only language).

It got to the point where if I had to take a test on being a legit Kiwi, I would ace it. Prove my Kiwi-ness? No problem! Look at how much Marmite I eat, see how many pairs of jandals I own, and here’s a picture of me and some mates with the giant L&P bottle. I could prove my Kiwi-ness till the cows come home.

paeroa-2006

THE OBLIGATORY PAEROA ROADTRIP PHOTO, 2006

But should I have to? Should anyone really be forced to demonstrate the validity of their Kiwi-ness, therefore asserting their right to be here? It shouldn’t be the case that I feel the most like a Kiwi only after leaving New Zealand. And I’m betting I’m not alone in this feeling.

After seeing the New Zealand Human Rights Commission’s new campaign against racism, That’s Us, I not only feel comforted that casual racism is finally being acknowledged, but also a sense of responsibility to speak up. This is my attempt not to let the normalised racist comments that have followed me all of the 29 years of my life get swept under the rug. I hope that others will share their stories, and that we can begin to have the conversations that are so desperately needed in New Zealand.

Dame Susan Devoy has said that racism in New Zealand isn’t as bad as across the ditch in Australia. This is a comparison I’ve heard a lot when I’ve tried to raise the issue of racism to Kiwis – “well, we’re not as bad as the Aussies!” Sorry to say, but Aotearoa has some serious soul-searching to do about its own brand of casual racism. Our situations may be slightly different, but one of the main problems in New Zealand is denial. The old “she’ll be right” attitude gone too far.

When I’ve told anecdotes about casual racism – like when people put on a fake broken English accent when speaking to me – I can almost guarantee the response from friends, colleagues or boyfriends’ families will be something in realm of get over it/it’s no big deal/ you must have misunderstood. It’s this refusal to engage with the problem that particularly disturbs me. It’s this complacent attitude from everyone that can make a young kid stop telling their stories of passers-by shouting “oriental” while pulling their eyes up, or ‘jokes’ made about eating dogs.

ALLY AND HER DAD, 1991

ALLY AND HER DAD, 1992

So what’s the deal with the denial? Because if there’s really no racism in New Zealand, why did the Labour Party point the finger at homeowners with “Chinese-sounding” last names, painting an oversimplified picture of the Auckland housing market? Why did Mike Hosking dispute claims of racism over Māori representation on councils? And why is it that a second generation Kiwi Asian gets the third degree about her ancestry, while her South African-born (white) friend beside her gets a simple “Hey mate”?

My hope is that by sharing our experiences, we can stop denying that racism in New Zealand is real, and start seeing that it’s been here for a long time. We throw around the word “diversity” proudly and frequently, exclaiming the greatness of our melting pot. But let’s put words into action and start acknowledging the facts by respecting peoples’ experiences. No one should have to prove the extent of their Kiwi-ness or be dismissed with an eye-roll at any mention of racist remarks.

Next time you feel the need to say your house looks like a Chinese laundry, think twice before blurting it out – because the awkward fact is that my granddad owned a Chinese laundry when he moved to Auckland (and actually, we just call it “a laundry”). And when you next see an Asian face at the counter of your café, instead of shouting a “HELL-O- WHAT YOU- WAAANT?”, try out a “Hey mate!” Because once each of us begins to acknowledge that we all came from somewhere, that our ancestors all at some point journeyed to little Aotearoa and made it their home, we can truly be proud to be Kiwis. Let’s have the conversation and put an end to the denial.


That’s Us is a campaign by the Human Rights Commission that asks Kiwis to start sharing their personal stories about racism, intolerance and hatred, as well as their hopes for the future of New Zealand as one of the most diverse countries in the world. The NZ Attitudes and Values Survey, as well as the Human Rights Commission own complaints data shows we need to start talking openly about racism, intolerance and hatred. That’s Us is about the kind of people we want to be, as well as the kind of country we want our kids growing up in. Read more stories at thatsus.co.nz and tell your story.

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