Growing up in the south of the South Island, Paula Simpson’s world was quiet, conservative and very white. And then she moved to India… Here she speaks to fellow Pākehā New Zealanders about prejudice and preconceptions.
Content warning: racist language
It’s hard to know you’re racist when you’re surrounded by people like yourself.
I’m a white, middle class, Christian woman. I’m nothing special or exciting. I grew up in a small town in the bottom of the South Island. In my local high school, there was one ‘Asian’ family (who were all Kiwis) and a handful of Māori.
I grew up knowing my place in the world. I didn’t notice other people’s skin colour but by heck I knew that reverse racism was a thing and the Māori were fleecing us Pākehā. I didn’t know much for sure, but I knew Asians were good at maths and Maoris were good at singing, but not school. We watched the 6pm news while we ate our meat and three vege and tutted at the bad bits overseas and then waited for the sports and weather.
I wasn’t racist though. Because I didn’t say anything bad about brown people. I went to church, I went to class (mostly), I lived a standard Kiwi kid life. Played outside at night with the neighbours, waded into filthy ponds to catch frogs, played back yard cricket with my siblings, you know, normal. Definitely not racist.
I remember seeing my first ‘black’ man in the flesh, at about age 18 when I moved to the big smoke that is Dunedin. He walked past my office window. The following year the 9/11 attacks happened, which was when I found out that ‘Islam’ was scary. They were dark skinned men, with beards, and they spoke a language I did not understand. They wore funny crocheted hats. The women, with their exotic eyes, seemed trapped behind their black veils, ambushed in religion and hate and misogyny.
I knew I wasn’t racist because I would say things like, ‘I’m not racist’… ‘but those Māori are all on the benefit and living in state houses while I pay tax’. I also had friends who weren’t white. So if someone accused me of being racist, it was easy to deflect, hold up my brown person like some shield, ‘nah mate, I’m no racist, look, Ngahuia is my friend’. Nope, I’m not racist but I wish those Islam people would go back to where they came from (with some foggy idea of Saudi Arabia as being home to all these Muslims). They are ruining our Kiwi culture (said the woman that did not speak te reo Māori and hated hangi, this woman whose grandparents were immigrants).
I had friends who were Māori and would tell me I suffered from white privilege. No way – you with your hiring quotas, that’s reverse racism, I’m disadvantaged because I’m white.
And then, a friend asked me something: “Paula; do you ever go into a job interview and hope that the interviewer isn’t racist?”
Instantly, I saw it. I saw my white privilege. Because I had never even thought about a job interviewer judging me on the colour of my skin. Because I had never had to.
Fast forward a few years. I moved to India. I quickly made friends; the range of people I met in India was incredible, with hundreds of different local languages, different cultures and different foods. While mostly Hindu, about 20% of the population are Muslim.
One day I was taking a train from Delhi to Agra. I’d been waitlisted for a ticket but had turned up at 6am anyway for a chance of finding a spot. I boarded amid the melee when the train arrived and ended up standing between the carriages as there were no seats. There were a couple of goats with their Sikh herders, a bunch of students, two Hindu aunties and a Muslim couple. Throughout the journey, I stood, aware the Muslim man in his funny hat was glaring at me. His wife in her full niqab also watched me intently. I felt uncomfortable, and once the aunties, goats and students got off at their stops, it was just me and them. I ignored them, feeling worried that they hated me.
I was looking out the window when I heard from behind me, “Sister… please come, sit with us.” The Muslim couple had found seats that had been vacated, and one for me too. I went and sat with them. They shared their walnuts with me, and I shared my sweets with them. Not much common language, so we didn’t talk. But we didn’t need to talk, because their care for me had left me embarrassed and horrified at my judgements and Islamophobia.
Then a few months later, I met this guy Reza. He was gorgeous and had this incredible gentle, calm way about him. A few weeks later, someone told me he was Muslim. Oh was he? Wow. I hadn’t stopped to think. Because he was just a person. Some cute guy.
I got to know him and his family. They welcomed me, fed me (so much rice, seriously). They were lovely people. I met the wider family. Some women wore burka or hijab; it was their choice. In fact, at a family function, a cousin joined in the family photo with her niqab (full face covering) on and the family chanted ‘take it off’ until she did and we all laughed hysterically that she would be in a photo with her face covered, and she just shook her head at us and smiled.
Reza and I spent hours talking about religion, many nights when we should have gone to sleep. We argued robustly over our differences, while Reza patiently taught me that Islam isn’t scary. That Muslims are just people. Doesn’t seem like rocket science, but I had to learn that Islam is just a religion. You get nutters in every religion. And that there’s about 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, and that they are just people like me.
Our relationship progressed. As I became more aware of my own prejudices, I saw it in others. I’d see media personalities in New Zealand posting provocatively worded questions that would incite hate from their audience. I saw the Stuff comments. I saw the hatred of immigrants, refugees, Muslims. A very wise man once said to me that under anger there is always fear and pain. Under that anger, I saw fear – fear of the unknown. And I recognised it. Because that had been me.
After two years dating, it was time to bring Reza home to New Zealand to meet my whānau and friends. There’s always a bucket of nerves any time you take your new partner home to meet the family, but this was different, heightened. I’d seen the comments, I knew that many Kiwis are racist, Islamophobic. So taking a brown guy called Mohamed into the country… I jittered.
I live in a perfectly lovely echo chamber and my friends loved him, of course. My family only got to meet him briefly, but they were amazing. Mum made sure he was OK to be hugged (some Muslim men don’t hug women out of respect). My siblings asked what he ate and sourced halal meat and cooked delicious meals. I don’t think I’ve ever loved my family as much as I did then. The acceptance from everyone was incredible.
And on Friday, we went to prayers. Reza ran through the bitterly cold Invercargill summer rain to the Southern-most mosque in the world, and I waited in the car. I laughed at myself, and my stupidity. Because here were a bunch of Muslims, heading off to Friday prayers, peacefully, quietly, and Kiwis just getting on with their lives, living happily side by side. I sat outside that mosque and was so bloody grateful for New Zealand and New Zealanders, or at least the vast majority of them. We had a great trip and returned home to India.
When the news of the shooting broke on Friday, my heart shattered. I read the manifesto and I saw the same fear, the same lies, the same words that I knew other Kiwis had written on Facebook and Stuff.
This is not my New Zealand, you say.
I’m sorry. This is your New Zealand. Maybe you just couldn’t see it.
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