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Image: Getty / Archi Banal
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PoliticsFebruary 6, 2023

New Zealanders need a better understanding of the word ‘racism’, these reports reveal

Image: Getty / Archi Banal
Image: Getty / Archi Banal

The Human Rights Commission, Te Kāhui Tika Tangata, last week released two reports on racism and the impact of colonialism in Aotearoa. Among their many insights was the necessity of a wider understanding of how racism manifests itself. 

I was honoured to accept an invitation by Te Kāhui Tika Tangata to join the Tangata Tiriti advisory group supporting the preparation of their two reports on racism, released on Friday.

I bring long-lived experience of racism, Islamophobia and misogyny. I’ve also travelled to 46 towns and cities across Aotearoa New Zealand, talking to a very diverse group of people about their sense of belonging here. And facilitated community engagements organised by the Ministry of Justice for their National Action Plan Against Racism.

I wish every New Zealander had the opportunity to sit through these conversations. Perhaps if they saw the tears, understood the impact of racism, sat with the hurt, listened to understand, then we might be better placed to implement the recommendations of these reports: Maranga Mai and Ki te whaiao, Ke te ao Marama.

A key recommendation is to build a wider understanding of racism. Many people think it’s about one person saying a mean thing to someone on the basis of their race, or making a judgement or decision about someone on the basis of their race. Interpersonal racism certainly needs to be dealt with, but we cannot do that without addressing the root causes.

Racism is about power and control; it is about exploitation. It is about the rules we put in place, the design our organisations and institutions. It’s about a culture and way of thinking that is transmuted from generation to generation, an embedded notion of one race being superior to others.

Today, Waitangi Day, 2018. Today is a day for Aotearoa to look frankly at its past and its future. (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

It is this wider context that leads individuals to practise racism in their day-to-day lives. The wider context ensures supremacists retain power, control and resources, making it difficult for victims of racism to prosper and overturn injustices.

Racism is also about violence. In present day Aotearoa New Zealand, we do not see the overt violence of lynching, burning down of neighbourhoods, massacres, physical enslavement. Many look to other countries and assume that things are so much better here.

This ignores our country’s history of racist violence and dispossession, the intergenerational trauma and loss of land and culture by design and through legal processes. Present day racist violence shows itself in the disparity of incarceration rates, the differences in life expectancy, the ethnic pay gap, lack of access to leadership positions, and much more.

Many will respond to these two reports with anger, denial and fear. Political actors will use them as an opportunity to get attention through performative outrage, without addressing or seeking to understand our past and present. As aspect of racism is to deny, to gaslight, to undermine the testimony of those who experience racism, to delegitimise the words they use to describe their oppression and their responses to it.

The recommendations of these reports are challenging but they are doable. They are necessary and urgent. Whether it’s constitutional reform, changes to the immigration system, mandated transparency reporting or hate speech laws: we must build on the work of our past generations for the benefit of our future generations.

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