Leonie Hayden talks to three young leaders of New Zealand’s Black Lives Matter movement about colonialism and justice – and why anti-Black racism isn’t just ‘an American problem’.
I start all interviews by asking “Nō hea koe, where are you from?” In a Māori context it’s a whakapapa question that places people on a familial landscape. I’m aware, however, that for migrants and the children of migrants it can be a loaded one, depending on who’s asking. When I met with Shalane Williams, Mazbou Q and Mez Swami – three exceptional young Black leaders and organisers of the first Black Lives Matter protest in Auckland – I asked it anyway, with the caveat that they answer exactly how they want to.
Williams told me she is from Cape Town, South Africa. “I arrived in Aotearoa on the 1st of January, 2013 with no intention of staying, but Aotearoa had other plans for me. It conspired to keep me here,” she laughed. “And seven and a half years later, I now know why. I’m incredibly grateful and also mindful of the work that I need to do and how I need to honour the fact Aotearoa has kept me here for a reason and it’s not only to make a change in the Black community, but in all indigenous communities.”
Swami told me he’s “straight from the Garden of Eden”.
“Ethiopia. I was born in Sudan, in Khartoum, and came here as a refugee at the age of five.”
He said his family’s initial application was declined but the head of immigration had a dream that he should approve the first file he found on his desk the next day. “We walked in, he got on his knee and looked me in the eye and said: ‘It’s an honour to meet you. You need to be in New Zealand’.”
Mazbou Q spoke of his Nigerian whakapapa. “I’m from Nimo village of the Anambra state of Nigeria. Igboland, also known as Biafra. My parents moved to England, and had me and my sister, and then they moved to New Zealand in the early 90s. I grew up in Manurewa… I was privileged enough to come here at a time when there weren’t many Africans in the country and I was one of the first to embody the intersection between between New Zealand and African culture. I see that as having a duty to establish something that can be looked upon by future generations of Black culture; something that they can grab a hold of and run with. And now that I have a daughter, that has become very real.”
Three very different backgrounds, with one very simple message: Black lives matter everywhere.
The three of them, along with their peers Lulu Tekeste, Elyssia Ra’nee Wilson-Heti, and Shelley Te Haara, were responsible for organising and leading the first Black Lives Matter protest in Auckland on June 1, six days after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. An estimated 5,000 people showed up to hear from speakers, including UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, and march down Queen Street to the US Consulate. “Three weeks ago I didn’t know all these guys,” Williams told me. “Now they’re my family.”
She had suggested we meet at Cornwall Park for its proximity to her house and I was struck by the choice of the expansive, manicured grounds – named for the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York in 1901 – as a meeting place to discuss the dismantling of white supremacy. But in a colonised country, it’s hard to find public spaces that aren’t monuments to our settler past, and this all-pervasive, inescapable environment of whiteness-as-the-default is exactly what the group wants to challenge. We made ourselves comfortable on a park bench just out of hearing range of the nearby café.
“There’s a thing I do when I walk into a place like this,” Swami said, gesturing to the café, heaving with parents and older couples. Then he mimed smiling pleasantly in all directions with an appeasing nod of the head. “I don’t realise I’m doing it until afterwards. And then I think, wait, what the fuck was that?”
Mazbou Q and Swami laughed. They clearly understand this mollifying behaviour as easily as they understand how to breathe.
“Why am I trying to come off as non-threatening? My brain and my soul must know that I come off as threatening by existing, and that’s a hectic world to be brought up in.”
Williams began to describe being the only Black person at a recent social event. “It was the first time that I was actually really aware of it. I realised how much of a front I had to put up to make them feel comfortable about having me there. It’s so incredibly subconscious. As a Black woman in white spaces I’ve been conditioned to be less than myself, because you’re not allowed to be outspoken about the real stuff you experience or you’ll be deemed aggressive and angry. Too loud.”
Experiences like this, they say, are the reason that the dreaded r-word, racism, while obviously real, is no longer helpful in addressing the global climate of anti-Black violence. The good people of the local café are not being racist by existing. But for the most part they are taught to accept that their culture, worldviews and appearance is the norm.
“I don’t think every white person that says something ignorant is racist,” said Swami.
“Not that I think we should tailor our language,” Mazbou Q continued, “but that’s why I prefer to use ‘white supremacy’, ‘white normativity’, ‘white hegemony’ – because it gets people to shift their thinking. I think framing it as ‘these people are racists and these people are not’ is actually unhelpful. It allows people to absolve themselves from the issue. ‘I haven’t called anyone an n-word, I haven’t beaten anyone up.’
“Rather than using that framework, it’s better to understand that racism is an ideology that underlines society. There’s a sense in which white things are normal, white things are expected. And you can either be someone who perpetuates that or you can be someone who is dismantling it.”
Radical people often come from radical families, so I asked how their parents were feeling about their involvement. Williams spelled out the stark price of political activism in South Africa. “My parents have always existed in politics due to segregation, at the same time as existing outside of it to survive. If you were political, you died. Yesterday was the anniversary of the Soweto Uprising, which happened in 1976. They say 176 small children died but other reported figures say there were over 700. That is what it meant to be political. So my parents are surprised I’m in this space.”
Mazbou Q’s parents fear for him, but he said he understands why. “The colonial experiment in Nigeria is quite different to the rest of the world. It’s often said Nigerians don’t know they’re Black until they leave Nigeria. So my parents’ experiences with racism would have broadly began when they moved to England. Their immigrant status there would have opened them up to a myriad of ways of experiencing anti-Blackness. And so their survival mechanism, shared by many immigrants, was to keep to yourself, do really well, show these people they’re wrong about you, and don’t make a fuss. And again, being political in Nigeria meant death. Even though they know that they’re in a Western democracy where you can be politically active without being in danger, they still carry that with them.”
Swami spoke about how proud his father is right now. “My dad was a politician since the age of 12 back home. Sounds nuts here, but there it’s normal. He unfortunately was on the side that wasn’t the military and had a bounty on his head at the age of 18.”
“To see his son stand and fight for the same things he was fighting for but in a much more meaningful and hopefully longer lasting way, honestly I’ve never seen my parents more proud.”
It began to rain so we moved from our park bench and jumped into Swami’s Skyline, and began circling the park and the nearby streets of Greenlane. This naturally made me think of think of the trope of men of colour in cars being profiled by police. I asked if they’d had any experiences with police. Swami and Mazbou Q chuckled for a very long time.
“I don’t know if you know this about African immigrant parents but they love their European model cars. Before I had my own car I’d run errands for them and almost every time without fail I’d be stopped,” Mazbou Q offered.
The reason would invariably be that there had been “some reports” of stolen vehicles and they wanted to make sure, he said.
Swami laughed. “Once I said ‘Why did you pull me over, sir?’ and he literally said, ‘you guys are wearing hoodies and beanies’. I was so confused. It was the middle of winter. I was like ‘Is that illegal?’ and he said, ‘no, no it just looked dodgy’.”
The group welcomed the strong Arms Down NZ presence at their march and said acknowledging the shared struggle between Black and indigenous people was an important part of their message. The intersection with the Rainbow community was a welcome part of it too, but they sheepishly admit they didn’t really expect such strong support from so many different groups, because they didn’t think there would be many people there at all. “We thought there would be 100 people, mostly our friends and networks,” said Mazbou Q.
“Mez was just going to pitch up with a flag and hope for the best,” Williams teased.
When I told them it was one of the most well-organised marches I’ve been to, Swami interjected that it was organised in 18 hours. “God has been at the centre of this, for me. Call it God, call it love, call it Allah. Whatever you believe. Love and compassion has been at the centre of all of our messaging. We didn’t want to cause any drama. All we wanted was people to come together and show our African communities that they give a shit.
“When people said, ‘this is an American problem’, I didn’t realise we were that unseen. I didn’t realise people don’t know that there’s a massive African community.”
I asked what they think of the media coverage of the protests. The group were clear at the time that they would be selective about what media they would give interviews to and when, so that they weren’t complicit in a Black Lives Matter media bandwagon.
“There is certain media you go to to find out what is happening right now, and that is a huge responsibility,” Williams said. “The responsibility lies in being a representation of all voices and the choice to put words like ‘racist’ in quotation marks and say things like ‘Ahmaud Arbery was a Black man running in a white neighbourhood’, those subtle things reinforce a biased viewpoint and it really shows who you deem as more valuable. And so we’ve been hit up by a lot of these organisations, but it’s like, you’re just jumping on a bandwagon now because we are the flavor of the month. But what is that angle you’re going to be taking?”
“We’re also being asked to step into an extremely vulnerable position with no protection,” Mazbou Q added. “For them, there’s no consequence. They love it if people are angry and tell us we’re just playing identity politics, or being divisive. But to us, it’s a different story. We avoid comment sections but there is stuff that seeps through and we’re made aware of hatred and vitriol being directed at us.”
All three have full time jobs, with Swami and Mazbou Q also balancing music careers, but the movement they’ve created has organically turned them into a group with skills and resources that other people now want access to.
This week they attended a meeting in support of the student at the centre of a viral video in which a Lynfield College teacher used the n-word and justified its use, to a Black student, because it was in a book. “Now they’re considering standing him down for recording it and putting it online. So we turned up to the meeting and supported him. And now a few schools have hit us up, wanting us to speak to their students, or their staff.”
Williams has also been in touch with her child’s school to ask how they’ll address anti-racism. “I think it’s important to disrupt the education sector. Half the school is people of colour.”
A week later she’s still waiting for a response. “That in itself is telling. It means they’re uncomfortable. I want them to be uncomfortable, because that means they have to start thinking about these things, because my child is a beneficiary of what they’re teaching. He’s chanting ‘Black lives matter’ in the playground because that’s what he knows, so what are they doing to facilitate that conversation?”
I told them that there was a lone voice in the crowd at the second Auckland protest last Sunday (organised by collective We The People rather than their group), who gallantly tried to chant “all lives matter” in the rare quiet moments. I asked what language they would use to facilitate a conversation with him.
“Some people are able to apply the reasoning behind Black Lives Matter in every other context, except for black lives,” Mazbou Q explained. “To the people pushing back on the removal of statues, because it erases our history, my response is ‘All statues matter, not just the colonial ones’. And the reaction is, yeah but it’s the colonial ones being taken down.
“So its not as if people don’t understand the concept, they just have a problem with Black people. I would love for people to just admit that and let’s work with that. We can work from there, as opposed to pretending that they’re trying to be diplomatic or fair.”
At this point Swami had to leave for work. He dropped us back at the busy cafe, and as he drove away I realised I hadn’t yet taken any photos of the trio.
As far as role models for our kids and spokespeople go, you couldn’t find better. They understand anger all too well, but theirs comes from a place of love and community.
“I’m blessed. I love this country,” Swami told me, more than once. All they’re asking for as Black New Zealanders is for their country to love them back.