Mia and Raymond: a galaxy better than the bigots and their facile apologies

In the space of days a waitress was racially abused in Auckland and a deaf student mocked by his peers in Canterbury. In both cases there were apologies. In both cases those apologies fall short, writes Christine Ammunson

What a stink week. Within days and in two different cities, we had two very different young people humiliated because of who they are for the entertainment of other people. And as they were mocked, people laughed. No one stood up for them.

The first was Raymond Ellwood, a member of the Equity and Wellbeing Committee at Canterbury University, and a law student. He is also profoundly deaf. Raymond’s fellow law students mocked him on stage as part of their annual review, named him outright and portrayed him as severely mentally and physically disabled. The blurry cellphone footage shows theatre goers guffawing with laughter.

The second was Mia Griffiths, a 17-year-old wāhine Māori who wants to study medicine when she leaves school. She was waitressing at a popular restaurant on the Auckland Viaduct. A table of senior leaders from James Hardie included one obnoxious man who looked her up and down and said, according to reports: “I bet your whānau doesn’t come here often, they’re at home eating boil-up.” He continued mocking her while the table laughed along. The man repeatedly used the word “whānau”, mockingly pronouncing it “faarnow”. And everyone kept laughing “like they were watching an animal in the circus”.

Ashamed, embarrassed and shocked, Mia said she feels defeated and insecure.

Unlike the students who humiliated him on stage, Raymond – like Mia – had the courage to face the public and share his distress.

But their tormenters have not been so courageous.

The abusive, boor at the restaurant with his racist “jokes” aimed at the teenage waitress remains anonymous.

As for those “comedians” at the Canterbury Law Revue: no article is outing them, so we don’t get to put names and faces to the young men who are so entitled they think it’s great entertainment to publicly bully another person because of his disability and support for diversity.

They’ve all preferred to hide behind official statements.

James Hardie emailed an apology to the restaurant. But not to Mia. The boss did say he was sorry if Mia felt “uncomfortable or abused”.

Meanwhile down south, Canterbury Law School said it wasn’t a censor but had facilitated a meeting which led to a Facebook apology. They said it’s not the university’s role to act as censor (what has this got to do with free speech?), but they did facilitate a meeting which led to an apology on Facebook. The Law Students Society said it made a significant error of judgement and from now on content would be reviewed by an independent person.

What is surprising but not surprising (sounds like sorry not sorry) is how impersonal and cowardly both apologies have been. A Facebook sorry, or a written apology to your boss isn’t really worth the wifi you needed to read it. Real people come to see you face to face and say sorry: to your face. Not to your Facebook. Not to your boss’ email.

If you are going to humiliate another human being, and then realise the world of crap you’ve got yourself in, have the guts to say sorry. Properly. Like a person, not a press statement. Also, Canterbury Law School: just because it’s not illegal doesn’t make it OK. You can comment on what totally disappointing humans your students are. You can say their actions are morally and totally abhorrent. You could even penalise them in some way.

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Aotearoa New Zealand hasn’t always been known for acknowledging when it’s been wrong but this has begun to change over the past 20 years or so. Recently I’ve had the privilege of supporting the team at Restorative Practices Aotearoa. When it comes to saying sorry properly, we can learn from their core restorative practices values: participation; respect; honesty; humility; interconnectedness; and accountability. These things are what real apologies are made of.

The rude racist guy at the Viaduct restaurant took me back to the late 80s at a Cuba Street restaurant, when a sales rep was loudly telling a joke about a Samoan cleaner at the doctors. The doctor told her to take off all her clothes, get on all fours, crawl around on the floor. The punchline was that the doctor was using her to see where he put his black leather couch. Back then everyone at the table laughed their heads off. I turned around and threw my glass of red wine all over the sales rep’s white billowy pirate (Simon Le Bon wannabe) shirt. Didn’t last much longer at that place.

So many of us have been Mia, some time in our life. Last week, even though she wanted to cry, Mia kept serving the disgusting people sitting in front of her: “Because I’m better than that”.

Yes Mia, and Raymond: You are both way better than that.


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