As his friends and supporters continue to remind us, Sir Peter Leitch holds a special place in Māori and Pasifika communities through his support for rugby league. That’s all the more reason for him to step up and admit that his casual racism is a serious problem, says Annabelle Lee.
Before it was a maze of vineyards and declared ‘The Hamptons of the South Pacific’, before it became home to a constellation of New Zealand celebrities and their holiday mansions, Waiheke Island was paradise.
Waiheke was a crazy collection of hippies and sailors, lesbians and artists, families and hermits, Māori and tauiwi (and every imaginable combination thereof).
I grew up on Waiheke, my children’s whenua are buried there and my oldest daughter, Omiha-Pearl, is named after the little bay where I was raised.
For those of us who were fortunate enough to spend our childhoods on the island, being a ‘Waihekean’ is a source of immense pride.
I don’t live there any more but my connection to the island is precious to me, particularly as the distance between my life now and my childhood grows wider and the community I knew is replaced by a new kind of Waihekean.
I am sure Lara Wharepapa-Bridger probably feels the same.
So when Ms Wharepapa-Bridger had her island credentials challenged recently by The Mad Butcher, I believe her response (that she was born on Waiheke and is tangata whenua) was born of pride and a desire to assert her identity and aroha for the island.
Leitch infamously responded by stating that Waiheke is now a ‘White Man’s Island’.
The reality is that Waiheke is a not so much a white man’s island now, as it is a rich man’s island. Over the years I have seen the struggles of families I grew up with, both Māori and Pākehā, as they try to secure housing on the island. Many landlords now require their tenants to move out of their homes over the summer so they can spend their holidays there. Some whānau have had to camp out at the marae while their landlords make the most of the lucrative summer demand for short-term accommodation.
But was what Peter Leitch said racist?
I believe it was.
His comment was designed to remind Ms Wharepapa-Bridger of her place as a Māori woman in his eyes, i.e. below that of a white man and therefore below him. It was an assertion of his power and dominance and there is nothing funny or light-hearted about that, however he intended the comment to be received.
Ms Wharepapa-Bridger was genuinely hurt and, as is common among young people, posted a video on Facebook describing her version of events and how it made her feel.
To see a young Māori woman shed tears because she had been singled out and made to feel inferior – her special connection to the island deemed worthless – was painful to watch.
To read the comments about her being a sook and an attention-seeker, and needing to harden up, was even worse.
So vile were some of the comments that Ms Wharepapa-Bridger removed the video. But in the slow news silly season that is New Zealand in the New Year, the cat was already out of the bag.
In the days that followed Mr Leitch’s supporters piled in, using their platforms to voice their support of ‘Butch’ and reminding everyone of his generous contribution to Māori and Pasifika communities through his patronage of rugby league.
It didn’t seem to occur to any of them that this is completely irrelevant given Ms Wharepapa-Bridger isn’t a professional league player or that Pākehā play league too. And that’s before we even get into to analysing New Zealand sport’s long-standing culture of racism and misogyny.
These supporters, many of whom are Māori and Pasifika, had a huge advantage over Ms Wharepapa-Bridger. They had public profiles and mana. In standing by ‘Butch’ they effectively trampled on her.
For his part, Leitch told the NZ Herald he had been misinterpreted and said “There is no way I can ever be accused of being racist. The irony is that I was with my own granddaughter, who is herself of Ngapuhi heritage.” Otherwise known as the 2017 version of “some of my best friends are Māori” or “my wife is from Singapore”.
To argue that someone is incapable of making a racist comment because they have a connection to, or interest in, a particular community is a bit like saying a man is incapable of sexism or misogyny because he is married to a woman or has daughters.
There is no argument that Sir Peter Leitch has worked hard to develop rugby league in New Zealand. But he has also been the beneficiary of that very publicised work. It has built his profile and the Mad Butcher brand, it has helped to make him rich and famous, and ultimately earned him a knighthood.
While many Māori and Pasifika may have benefited from his contribution to league, that does not give him the liberty to say what he likes. Over the last week numerous stories have emerged of Butch tossing around the word ‘Coconut’ and addressing Māori children as ‘Rangi’.
Equally, there have been multiple tales of Peter Leitch being generous and friendly, again, mostly from men in the rugby league community. But most of them have dealt with him on a level playing field or in a professional capacity – and he’s hardly going to treat them like dirt is he? Positive experiences don’t negate negatives ones. Both can be true. But the positive ones don’t give you a free pass.
As someone who holds a special place in Māori and Pasifika communities, and as a knight, we should expect a higher standard of behavior from Sir Peter Leitch. These positions come with responsibility. Not acting like a silly old bigot is one of them.
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Leitch’s supporters who try to justify what he said would be doing him more of a favour if they took him aside and had a candid chat. After all, real friends tell you when you’re being a dick.
And in that spirit of friendship, to those newspapers and media outlets who didn’t bother to ask any Māori to write about the issues raised by this story – you’re being a dick.
If you take the (rather generous) view that Michelle Boag, Peter Leitch’s spokesperson, genuinely did not know what casual racism is, then the media have to accept their complicity in her lack of knowledge. Casual racism is still racism. And perpetuating a world where only Pākehā viewpoints count is also racism.
Casual racism, cultural stereotyping, “banter”, microaggressions, misguided talk of “Māori privilege”, the nuances of being Māori in Aotearoa (be you a vanilla latte or a double shot long black) – these tales can only be told by those who have seen the world through indigenous eyes. Just like Bill English, the media needs to learn that Pākehā don’t always have to speak. Sometimes you need to listen too.
Annabelle Lee is the executive producer of TV3’s The Hui and the co-host of The Spinoff’s politics podcast, Gone By Lunchtime.
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