Why is Christchurch Hospital displaying photos of staff in blackface?

A ‘Christmas tradition’ featuring photos of urology consultants in dark brown makeup and afro wigs has angered members of the public.

It’s at Christmastime that New Zealanders buy more mince pies and glazed cherries. It’s at Christmastime that New Zealand’s spirit lifts. And it’s at Christmastime, apparently, that New Zealanders get back into blackface. Zwarte Piet, the Dutch folklore character, has long divided opinion around the world and only recently was discontinued at New Zealand Christmas parades, though he still made an appearance in Rotorua last weekend. But while “traditionalists” bring up the long history of Zwarte Pete in defence of its blackface, other New Zealanders have been enjoying the racist practice on their own, just for fun.

Every year, the urology department of Christchurch Hospital dresses up thematically for a Christmas staff photo. Themes have been wide-ranging, from James Bond, to Survivor, to the royal family, to American politics. The images are well-curated – clearly a lot of effort has been put into them – and are currently on public display in a level three hallway of Christchurch Hospital.

Included in the display of more than a dozen images from past years are:

A New Zealand politics themed photo from 2011, featuring ‘politicians’ from each political party. The woman representing the Māori Party wears dark brown makeup, a long, black wig, a woven handbag, and poi around her neck.

An American politics themed photo from 2016, featuring the Obamas and the Trumps. The man and woman ‘acting’ as Michelle and Barack are white and wearing very dark makeup over their faces and arms. The man is wearing a black afro wig. Two young ‘Mexican’ men kneel at the front wearing ponchos, sombreros, and fake moustaches. One holds a cactus.

An Indian themed photo from an unknown year. The whole group wears traditional Indian sarees, including the men. They pose in an approximation of an Indian dance.

A member of the public, who wishes to remain anonymous, sent The Spinoff photographs of the display after being disgusted by some of the imagery. The person, a former DHB staffer, had been alerted to the display by a friend. “I was really shocked at first and thought [they] must be exaggerating,” they told The Spinoff. “When I saw the pictures for myself I was really appalled. I couldn’t believe they were displayed in a public hallway and printed out proudly in the form of Christmas cards and even a calendar.”

The urology staff members featured in the images are all Pākehā, including the woman in dark makeup as a generic Māori Party leader. The joke, if you could call it that, is all the more cruel given its display in the hallway that leads to the dialysis centre, where those with renal failure have appointments. In this 2015 report, it was stated that “the number of people starting dialysis each year is staying the same for New Zealand European patients, and continuing to increase for Māori and Pacific patients.”

The hallway on the third floor of Christchurch Hospital

The former DHB employee who sent through the images said that such pride in what is at best an unfunny joke – and at worst serious cultural disrespect and racism – is inexcusable for anyone, but particularly those in the health sector. “I find it difficult to understand how specialist medical professionals who would have been involved in academic studies for decades would not at some point have been educated about the effect of racism and unconscious bias on health and would not have the emotional intelligence to realise that dressing up in blackface is offensive.”

The urology department at Christchurch Hospital has not responded to requests for comment.

There are all sorts of questions that need to be asked, and answered, when seeing such smug displays of ignorance from some of New Zealand’s most educated individuals. The lack of diversity on staff becomes shockingly apparent when images likes these are able to not only be planned, but executed without hurdle. For the former DHB staffer, the actions of the urology department at Christchurch Hospital are shocking, but not surprising.

“It’s hard for some to see the link between the Māori patient getting renal dialysis in their 40s and the photos in the hallway next door of a white person dressed in blackface mocking a member of the Māori Party, but it’s there and it is a symptom of something that’s very wrong with New Zealand.”

UPDATE: Urology Associates have responded with a statement, presented below in full.

“Each year since 1996, Urology Associates [A private urology practice in Christchurch] staff create a unique photo-shopped/cartoon-style image that is designed to be humorous and topical and on occasion pick up on political themes that were in the news that year.

We regret that some of these images, displayed in a corridor in a staff-only area at Christchurch Hospital have caused offence, and were removed as soon as it was brought to our attention that someone found them offensive and disrespectful.

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We apologise for any offence caused.”


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