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The thin line between dickishness and casual racism

It’s easy to dismiss a stray look or comment as simple rudeness, but often it’s more than that. Philip McKibbin (Ngāi Tahu) argues that casual racism is both endemic and more damaging than we give it credit.

I keep thinking about the wink the bartender gave me.

I didn’t know then that he had just insulted my friends – I didn’t even know most of them then. So I smiled, and did my awkward best to get on with the whakawhanaungatanga, greeting and welcoming as many of the newcomers as I could, while my hoa ako did the same.

I help to organise a reo Māori conversation group called Kapa Kōrero. We get together about once a month at different bars in Auckland, to practice speaking te reo Māori and to enjoy each other’s company. Almost all of us are second-language speakers, and most of us are still learning. One of our aims is to normalise te reo Māori in public spaces: to speak so it is heard.

We had been to this bar before, numerous times. We hadn’t had problems – at least, not until recently. There had been the suggestion, made as I booked our table, that some of us would ‘just drink water’. It’s true: every now and then, one or two of us will drink water while sitting with our larger group. But most of us buy drinks, some of us buy more than one, and we often order snacks as well. I think the business has done pretty well out of us.

On this particular night, several of our group were stopped as they entered. They were told that they had to buy drinks then and there. They felt pressured into making a purchase, and did so. When one of our members approached the bar staff later that night, she was told, “Well, when you see someone walk in and you have a feeling they’re not gonna buy anything…”

We were a darker, younger group that night; and it was a darker, younger subset of our members who were targeted. I believe they were targeted because they are Māori, and because they were part of our reo Māori group – which is to say, I believe it was racism.

Joanne McNaughton is one of Kapa Kōrero’s founders. When she and I heard what had happened to our friends, we were angry. Jo and I had a kōrero about what to do – a conversation we continued over Messenger the next day.

A few days later, we sent a letter to the manager, explaining what had happened, and saying:

We are ashamed of the way our members were treated. We want you to understand that when you treat one of us this way, although it is that person who is hurt most by the treatment, all of us are affected: whether we are Māori or Pākehā, whether our skin is darker or lighter, whether we joined Kapa Kōrero two years ago or two minutes ago. When one of our members is emotionally assaulted, we worry for their well-being. No one should be publicly humiliated because of their ethnicity.

We wrote that we also worry for our reo: there are too few learners of te reo Māori, and the language needs all of them. Most of those who were targeted that night were newcomers to our group – and I know from experience how daunting it can be to attend a full-immersion hui for the first time.

While we were writing our letter, I spoke with one of my Pākehā friends about what had happened. He questioned whether it qualified as racism. It was ‘dickish’, he said, and they should definitely be called out on it – but was it racism? How could we prove it?

This is an important question. How do we know it was racism? The thing about racism is that it’s often hard to tell it apart from ‘dickishness’. Just as most racists don’t run around yelling, ‘I’m racist!’, racism doesn’t usually announce itself. The fact that racism is insidious (as Taika Waititi recently pointed out) makes it all the more necessary to call it out when it happens. We can only go by what we witnessed, what we were told, and what we have learnt. I can’t imagine a group of Pākehā being treated that way.

I think about the bartender. We were greeting the newcomers and pulling together some seats; he had appeared to watch – to help, perhaps… When I looked up at him, he winked at me.

I look Pākehā – my skin is white, and I grew up believing I was. The bartender could be forgiven for not realising that on my mother’s side, I whakapapa to Ngāi Tahu. Like him, I’m not a mind reader. But in that wink, I saw an assumption: that I saw my friends as he did.

On weekdays, I teach at a school in South Auckland. I’m a new teacher; I have a lot on my mind. On Thursday lunchtimes, I have duties on the courts. My job is to be there: to keep an eye on the kids, and to intervene if necessary. An adult presence in the world of children.

A couple of weeks ago, I was watching some of my students play basketball. I was intrigued: I knew these kids from different classes, and here they were, playing together. And I was thinking about aroha, about how much I care for these kids: their smiles, their tears. As their teacher, I see the best in them. I see their potential, and I help them to imagine how they might realise it.

I also worry for them. I know that our society doesn’t value our brown people as much as it should; I know that, although our diversity has made us stronger, we too suffer from the disease that afflicts so many other societies. I know that, as well as grappling with adolescence, these children are learning to grapple with racism – and that they’re growing up faster than we are.

It’s a painful thought: not all of my students will reach their potential.

It’s a thought I choose to sit with, though, because it’s a necessary one. It helps me to explain to myself why it’s so important that we stand up to racism. The reason is that if we don’t, we’re accepting a less than perfect world for everyone, including our children.

The fact is, ethnicity still determines a person’s opportunities in life: Māori and Pasifika generally experience worse outcomes than Pākehā in education, health, and our justice system. To not care about this is to accept it. This is why we must stand up to racism when we witness it: because ethnicity shouldn’t determine these things.

We need to re-think how we view this problem. We tend to think of racism as something that only affects certain people – and the risk here is that those of us who aren’t targets are able to ignore it. I’ve written recently about he tōrangapū aroha, the Politics of Love. Aroha helps us to see that racism isn’t someone else’s problem: it’s our problem.

When we love each other – when we care about other people – we’re hurt by what hurts them, and we celebrate what benefits them, even if we don’t know them personally. Aroha is the answer not because love will give us an easy fix, but because it repositions us relative to our concerns. It encourages us to see racism as our problem, and urges us to resist it.

Aroha requires us to take this one step further, though: it asks that we give each other opportunities to learn, to grow, and to move beyond our mistakes. If we don’t allow people to change, how can we expect each other to grow? In our letter to the manager, Jo and I explained that, while we do not plan to return to the bar at this stage, we’re open to sitting down and talking with the people who work there, if they’re willing to. I really hope they get in touch with us.

I keep thinking about the wink that the bartender gave me – about that assumed complicity, that ‘us and them’ way of viewing the world. When we look at racism through the lens of aroha, we realise that it isn’t something that only happens to ‘us’, or that only affects ‘them’. It’s a problem that involves everyone, and we must work together to solve it.


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