Let’s address that ‘Chinese-sounding’ panda in the room, writes Ally McCrow-Young.
I woke up today to eagerly download my voting papers; it’s finally time to cast my overseas vote, which, as a nerd who teaches political engagement, I always find to be both fun and a real privilege. But this year I have to say I feel a little…bummed. There’s just no fancier word for it.
When Labour shook things up by appointing Jacinda Ardern to lead the charge for this year’s election, I was thrilled. And yet, the pesky spectre of Labour’s recent racial profiling keeps haunting me.
In 2015 I was floored by Labour MP Phil Twyford blaming people with “Chinese-sounding names” for Auckland’s housing problems. According to him, every Ling, Wong and Wu was gobbling up all the homes in Auckland, kicking deserving Kiwis out of the game. This unsupported and bizarre claim left a bitter taste in the mouths of a whole community, many of whom had been staunch Labour supporters.
It left me, a 30-year-old Aucklander and Chinese descendant, feeling like an outsider in my own country. Even though my name didn’t give me away as one of these dreaded “Chinese”, my face did. It felt like a gut-punch to those of us who come from a family of Labour supporters, only to be told people “like us” are the problem.
Determined to regain a mini ray of hope in the party, I wrote a letter to then-leader Andrew Little, explaining my disappointment at Labour’s comments.
“Dear Andrew Little,” I wrote, “I wanted to let you know why Labour has lost my vote. When my granddad came to New Zealand from China, he admired the principles of equality and dignity that Labour stood for, and he was a proud Labour supporter for his whole life.”
It’s true that the bloated and stressed Auckland housing market needs some serious regulation. But, I continued to explain to Mr Little, Labour’s profiling of New Zealand Chinese does nothing but fan the flames of xenophobia and racism.
What it does is obscure an important discussion about affordable housing, and target Kiwis who have stood with Labour through generations. It’s exactly this kind of thing that made my family change our surname, cutting ties with our legit ‘Wong’ name back in 1996. The pressures of avoiding discrimination based on that name, and the desire to blend in with the (apparently house-buying-sanctioned) white people names in New Zealand made this sad step seem necessary.
Casual racism is something many Kiwis have dealt with for their entire lives. We already feel jaded by answering the constant tirade of “But-where-are-you-really-from?”, or the old classics like “ching-chong” being called out as you’re popping to the dairy to grab a dollar mix.
So when a high-ranking member of our parliament encourages further racism by finger-pointing at anyone based on how “Chinese-sounding” their name is, it’s pretty damn demoralising.
Not so long ago, Helen Clark apologised to the Chinese community for the country’s shameful imposition of poll taxes on Chinese immigrants. Today, that sentiment of progress seems to have left the country along with Aunty Helen.
“Mr Little,” I concluded in my letter, “This is not a Labour Party I recognise. I voted for Labour because I genuinely thought that you believe in diversity and inclusion. I really hope you’ll help remind Labour of the values the party claims to stand for, and that you’ll represent all Kiwis again.”
And what was Andrew Little’s response to my heartfelt letter from a voter? Nothing but crickets.
As The Spinoff’s own Simon Wilson said, Jacinda Ardern really needs to “chop the heads off a few of the party’s gremlins. Most especially this one: the damage caused by Labour’s racist use of ‘Chinese-sounding names’.”
I was pleased to hear Susie Ferguson tackling this particular gremlin during a recent Morning Report interview, asking Ardern if she thought Labour’s business with the Chinese-sounding names was racist.
“Here it comes,” I thought, “finally the apology I’ve been waiting for. She’ll crush that leftover gremlin and soon I can fly my Labour flag again!”
Ardern’s answer? (drumroll please…): She admitted that she didn’t feel too comfortable with that situation. But then, devastatingly – no, she didn’t reckon Twyford’s comments were racist: “I certainly wouldn’t have said that it was [racism]. If anyone felt that it was, then of course we would apologise for that, but that was not our intent.”
Here’s some insight from the multi-coloured side of the fence: For us, it’s much more than “uncomfortable”. For us, it’s most definitely racism, and it should be acknowledged as such. Let’s call a spade a spade, and not spin the “Chinese-sounding names” slur any other way.
So today, my excitement at the prospect of an accomplished woman taking back the reins of the country has unfortunately been spoilt by Labour’s refusal to apologise or acknowledge its racial profiling.
I do believe that a Labour government is the best way forward for New Zealand, if we are truly to represent the people’s interests. And I would love to vote for a party that supports social development, a clean environment and equality for all.
But I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told to just “get over it” when it comes to racist comments. Or, my all-time favourite, to “just have a laugh about it”. But unless you’ve felt the full weight of exclusion from the majority, please allow us to call it what it is: racism, mate.
Constant denial of racism, especially by our leaders, only fuels continued daily racism. When you turn a blind eye to it, you condone it.
Labour has prided itself on being the people’s champion, and it can be that again. The first step is apologising to the Chinese community, because we deserve a champion, too.
So I’ll try again, one last time before I cast my vote: Dear Jacinda, my vote for Labour is lost, but it can be won again, with an apology. What do you reckon?
Ally McCrow-Young is an Aucklander living in Malmö, Sweden. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Copenhagen, and completed her Master’s in Media and Communication at Lund University.