Racism is alive and well in Godzone despite sound progress to counter it over the years. General social surveys show that ten per cent of Kiwis feel discriminated against.
About 400 complaints about racial discrimination are made every year to the Human Rights Commission.
The media regularly highlights cases of blatant prejudice towards people of different cultures, and Netsafe says there are a growing number of racist comments on social media.
One has the feeling, however, that the statistics present only the tip of the iceberg.
Beneath the surface
Scratch the polite, respectable veneer of society and attitudes will be discovered that appal, attitudes unbecoming of people in a modern, enlightened democracy. Of course, most of us will deny we are racist in any shape or form but when tested we too frequently betray our prejudices.
Some of us poke fun at and pass derogatory comments about people of a different colour and cuture. Maori, Pacific Islanders and Asians are blamed for most crimes and drug use, and those of European heritage decry ‘reverse discrimination’ in response to affirmative action from government institutions.
Since the mid-1970s racial slurs have shifted their focus from Maori-Pakeha relations to new immigrants, particularly Asian, with most complaints related to the work place. This is partly because immigrants have been pouring into the country from Asia, the Middle East and the Pacific.
Many of them don’t feel safe here. New Zealand-born Kiwis blame them for taking their jobs and adding to the crime rate.
‘Why should my taxes pay for immigrant welfare?’ is a common cry.
An open nation
However, most New Zealanders have a positive attitude towards new immigrants. We are more ‘open’ than many countries. The reaction to the recent Christchurch tragedy overtly showed this.The present political policy is the cultivation of multiculturalism and diversity.
People of different cultures are seen as making a valuable contribution to society. We are all exhorted to be more tolerant and understanding.
Nevertheless, many people naturally feel uncomfortable with any behaviour that is different from their own, such as speaking with a funny accent or displaying different political or religious beliefs. We tend to view with suspicion anyone who is of a different culture.
It is so easy to make superficial and summary judgements – and anyone can do it. Anyone can express racist thoughts.
It isn’t peculiarly a ‘white’ problem. Most complaints to the Human Rights Commission, for example, are from Asians, followed by Caucasians, then Maori.
How do we resolve the problem?
Perhaps we are approaching it from the wrong direction.
If racist thoughts are likely for most, if not all, of us then the starting point should be with each individual, rather than with documents like The Treaty of Waitangi or glorious feel-good festivals or politically correct projects from government departments.
Perhaps we need to realise afresh that each person, whatever their race or colour, is unique and important.
Is it time to positively restore the awe, wonder, characteristics and merits of the individual human being, whatever his or her cultural background, instead of becoming bogged down in notions of race and colour?
We would do well to recapture the thought behind Dame Whina Cooper’s words:
He aha te mea nui o te ao?
He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!
(What is the most important thing in the world? It is people! It is people! It is people!)
Individual people are important, whatever their race, nationality or cultural background. All human beings are worthy of respect regardless. The issue is a spiritual one.
I wonder if our leaders have debated the goal for ethnic relations in the future.
How can the integrity, value and importance of individual New Zealanders best be promulgated?
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George Bryant QSM, JP, MA (Hons) is a leading non-fiction author, and a member of the NZ Society of Authors and the NZ Christian Writers.
Latest Book: AGENTS OF CHANGE: Kiwis Making A Real Difference
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