Crusaders mascots ride out at AMI Stadium in Christchurch. (Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)

In praise of white man’s guilt

Duncan Garner has described the Canterbury Crusaders’ name change as ‘white man’s guilt’, but Catherine Delahunty argues that guilt and discomfort are a necessary part of moving forward as a more inclusive society.

The Christchurch attack has highlighted how a racist society operates when challenged by white supremacist terrorism. The strong thread of decency and humanity in this country is clear, but still the underlying issues fester away. A lot of them are very familiar from my years teaching Te Tiriti o Waitangi. That experience has given me a check list of responses that I hear in every workshop of mainly Pākehā people with monotonous regularity. 

The very first word on the list is ‘uncomfortable’. Pākehā are highly resistant to this feeling and will do all we can to avoid it. We get angry with people whose truth confronts us. The slightest suggestion that we have a problematic culture is often taken personally, with anger, tears and denial. We cannot bear to spend time in the discomfort zone. Don’t other people understand that we are allergic?

The second no-no is ‘guilt’. We refuse to feel guilty for any of our current privileges and our inheritance derived from the bloody fruits of colonisation. Why should we feel guilty? What did we ever do, or not do? What are we supposed to do anyway? Tell us! 

The third word is ‘racist’. If you call our culture racist we will angrily try to prove that this is a dangerous generalisation that cannot possibly be applied to us. We have bad apples, sure, but overall we are really nice people, and anyway racism is two-way – someone called me honky once.

In addition to these responses are the wistful moments when we Pākehā, who do not think we have a culture, think we would like to be ‘ethnic’; we wish we had whakapapa or were from somewhere ‘exotic’. We wish we had a unique culture instead of just being boring old Kiwi people who eat normal food, and live normal lives.

The surprise is often huge when I suggest to my own that we are an ethnicity with distinctive markers, that we are defined by our relationship to the indigenous culture encapsulated in our identity word ‘Pākehā’. It seems what is invisible to us is oh so visible to the people all around us. These visible behaviours identify a unique culture with some dark sides as well as endearing characteristics.

These positive characteristics supposedly include ‘fair play’, but fair play seems to be pretty selective. I really want to believe in the great values of my culture but a quick scan of Facebook at the moment is not helping me believe it.

In addition to these dark complexities we seem to thrive on ignorance. We just don’t want to know our history unless it’s sanitised, and we don’t want to hear the voices of tangata whenua in our education system so that our kids get the facts. 

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Many Pākehā do want to respect diversity and honour Te Tiriti but only as long as there is no sacrifice or requirement that we take the back seat while other voices are heard. We struggle with a lack of imagination – if we have never experienced something personally, is it really happening? After the Te Tiriti workshop or the diversity training how long do we continue to act with empathy and respect? After the tragedy of Christchurch, how long will we be prepared to reflect on our own privilege and listen to the voices we are so practised at ignoring?

Truth, reconciliation and restitution are essential to healing this country. Right now there are some opportunities to progress this understanding, but equally there is polarisation, angry voices spewing abuse and complaints that someone else is telling them what to think. How dare we join the dots and publicly claim that racism and hatred have a long history in this country? 

Those of us involved in community education regarding racism and Te Tiriti have long been aware that we only reach the tiny percentage  of people willing to open their hearts to painful truth. So often the people from refugee and non-Western migrant communities show more interest and respect towards the indigenous world view and history than the rest of us. In this time of both generosity and prejudice, of love and fear, how many of my culture will take on the big picture? Who will be prepared to keep listening, with discomfort if necessary, so we can be part of a sea change against racism?


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