The media needs to take some responsibility for the prejudice that Muslims and other minorities have faced in New Zealand, writes Shilo Kino.
I became a journalist for all the wrong reasons.
Honestly, I just wanted to interview famous people. As a kid I would cut out faces of the Backstreet Boys and stick them on card paper. While other kids went out and played, I would sit at home and write fake interviews with my fake boyfriend Nick Carter. ‘So, what do you think of New Zealand?’ and then I would write a detailed answer pretending I was Nick. I thought that was fun.
My motives for becoming a journalist changed in an instant when I walked into my first year of communications at university. I was in for a huge wake up call. I was so ignorant to the fact that all news and media I had ever consumed was white, but there it was, clear as day. I looked around the room. It was white, as in every person in the room was white. I’d never felt so out of place.
It wasn’t until I saw two brown faces sitting in the middle of the room that I didn’t feel so alone. They gave me a subtle smile. It was a look that said, ‘We get it. We understand. Come and sit with us’. So I did. One was a Cook Islander, the other Fijian. We became friends and it was great. But, in that moment, it dawned on me that interviewing famous people was a meagre, pointless and embarrassing reason to be a journalist. There was a much bigger and more meaningful purpose and it was staring at me right in the face.
The horrific tragedy of Christchurch has left me reeling in disbelief. I echo the words of my prime minister and the heartbreak of many Kiwis who are struggling to come to terms with such a tragedy. But as a young journalist, I’m also struggling. I struggle with the fact that the mainstream narrative that I am a part of has excluded not just indigenous voices but the voices of different minorities for so many years.
Tell me, when did you last see a news piece before March 15 that was a positive story about a beautiful Kiwi Muslim family? Before the horrific attack occurred, when did you last read something about Muslims that wasn’t connected to terrorism or ISIS? There are now more Muslim voices in the New Zealand and world mainstream media than I have ever seen before. How sad that it has taken such a tragedy to finally give minorities a voice.
Growing up, I struggled with my identity as a Māori person. Māori were always the child abusers, the criminals or crazy activists chopping down the trees or banning people from the beaches. This one time my friend told me, ‘it’s always the mowries abusing their children.’ Then she looked at me and said, ‘oh but you’re not a real mowrie, you’re a plastic mowrie.’ In her mind she didn’t associate me with all the negative assumptions and stereotype that came with being a Māori because I was ‘plastic’. A term used to describe someone who has been assimilated into Western culture and disconnected from their own.
My language and culture was stripped away from me before I was even born. That’s because te reo Māori, the national language of New Zealand, was banned from being spoken in schools. My grandparents didn’t pass on the language to my parents, so they couldn’t pass it down to me. With language loss comes loss of culture, traditions and identity. I didn’t know my whakapapa. I only knew my iwi because I had to write it on scholarship forms. I grew up in a society where being a Māori was not a compliment. I learned to ignore jokes, ignore subtle and not-so-subtle digs at my culture, and silently cringe at constant mispronunciation and butchering of the Māori language. Every single day.
It wasn’t until university that I understood the power of the media. I was truly horrified. I remember a gut-wrenching feeling when I read academic articles from the likes of Leonie Pihama, who explained how media manipulates our understanding of Māori. Images of Māori protesting and holding signs always had such negative connotation. There was never a why. Never a historical context on the injustices against Māori and the struggle to get our land back. Sixty-six million acres of land was taken away from Māori, and by 1975 almost 97% of our land was sold.
Of course, this was never portrayed in mainstream media. Instead, I would see images of angry Māori flash across the TV screen accompanied by sound bites from a white journalist and absolutely no Māori perspective.
I wrongfully thought Māori were responsible for most child abuse cases, just because those were the cases reported on the news. I learned that Michael Campbell was a New Zealander when he won the US Golf Open, but when he did something wrong he was Māori. I learned how much mainstream media perpetuates racism, bigotry and hate for the sake of revenue, likes and engagement. I realised why my mum stopped watching One News, why so many Māori purposely denied their culture and heritage and why there has been such a plague of ignorance about our people for so long.
When friends on social media began expressing shock and outrage at the Daily Mirror for calling the terrorist an ‘angelic boy’, I didn’t know why they were so surprised. What the Daily Mirror did is common among mainstream media – feeding into the idea of minorities being ‘other’, encouraging false stereotypes and fostering racism and prejudice. I realised most people have no clue what kind of ideology they’re consuming when they scan the news in the morning while munching on a piece of toast.
And as young journalist I have to ask myself, am I contributing to this narrative? Has any white person read an article of mine and felt validated in their racism and hatred against minority groups? Have I strived to give Muslim communities and other minorities a voice? Can I truly support mainstream media outlets that not only encourage but contribute to everyday racism? This one I am still struggling with.
I have to wonder how many Muslim girls have been worried or ashamed to wear their hijab, an outward expression of their love of God, because media have wrongfully linked the image of hijabs to terrorism. How many Muslim men and women struggle with being proud of their identity because of the misleading stereotypes the media have propagated? When is the media going to take responsibility for the part they have played in the prejudice that Muslims face here and around the world?
These are questions I am constantly asking myself. Don’t get me wrong – I think New Zealand media have done a great job in covering the terrorist attack in Christchurch. Through this tragedy, the world has become aware of how beautiful, kind and compassionate the Muslim religion and people are. Countless voices from the Muslim community have finally been given a platform, their stories finally told in a positive light. But the question now is: how long is it going to last?
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.