Racism is alive and well in Aotearoa – from verbal assaults, slurs, put downs, “profiling” and threats of violence - but there is little data on how widespread it is. This prompted Stuff to launch its own online survey as part of its Being Kiwi series on diversity and racism. Cate Broughton reports on its findings.
Dion Maresca has grown up a witness to the racism experienced by his mother Pania Warren.
Dion Maresca has grown up a witness to the racism experienced by his mother Pania Warren.
“Are you OK, mum?”
Then 12-year-old Dion Maresca is at the supermarket checkout with his mum when a customer unleashes a stream of vitriol about Māori.
His mum, Pania Warren, a 56-year-old Māori Ngāti Toa mother-of-three, says she was unloading her groceries when a woman behind her “kept going on about Māoris, the land, and who do we think we are, that I as a Māori am entitled to more than any other person in NZ who is non-Māori - which is not correct”.
Her son - born to a European father of Italian descent, from whom he got his very fair complexion - “just looked at this woman and he came up to me and said ’are you ok Mum’?
“The look on their faces was just beautiful and absolute shock.”
Now aged 25, Maresca has been a frequent witness to his mother’s belittlement at the hands of shopkeepers and strangers.
So when Stuff launched its online survey on racism, Maresca decided it was time to put his family’s experiences “out there”.
He was amongst more than 2000 people to take part.
For Maresca the frequent racial slurs and discriminatory treatment have been painful to watch.
“I just look at my mum and I just feel guilt and regret. That people can just do that and carry on with their day, not considering that this person has had these looks, these kinds of glances her whole entire life and she’s not a bad person.”
The survey was launched in September, six months after the March 15 terror attacks when 51 people were killed in two mosques in Christchurch, allegedly by an Australian-born gunman with white supremacist views.
His extreme and abhorrent views are rejected by the overwhelming majority of Kiwis.
But not all.
Multiple arrests were made in the days and weeks following of New Zealanders who had shared the shooter’s banned manifesto and chilling livestream with online contacts.
In a powerful piece published on March 17, Islamic Women’s Council leader Anjum Rahman was amongst a number of commentators who say they were appalled by the attack but not surprised. The signs of mounting racism on our shores had been apparent, yet ignored by the wider public and authorities.
Did we have our heads in the sand?
Statistics show that recorded hate crime and online abuse have soared in the UK and the US in the wake of the anti-immigration Brexit vote and the election of Trump as President.
But there are no similar statistics in NZ. Our police do not record hate crime, we do not routinely survey Māori, Pasifika or migrant groups on their experiences of racism, nor monitor social media.
The Human Rights Commission has not had the funding needed for a comprehensive survey on the topic. The only race-related data it regularly collects are from the complaints made under the Human Rights Act of which there have been about 400 in each of the last two years.
Keen to find out what was going on Stuff asked readers to share their views. More than 2000 people took part in its online survey. These respondents were self-selecting and motivated but their personal experiences and views of race relations in New Zealand provided a wealth of information.
Christchurch-based Research First analysed the data while TextFerret used artificial intelligence to analyse the long-form answers.
About 60 per cent of survey respondents identified as Pākehā, 16 per cent Māori and 14 per cent Asian.
Many shared painful experiences of day-to-day racism by strangers, colleagues, shop workers and officials. Experiences included verbal assaults, put downs, racial profiling and threats of violence – with Māori consistently taking the biggest hits.
The survey also lifted the lid on an undercurrent of resentment from Pākehā against a Māori renaissance.
Others also revealed the times they had challenged friends and colleagues about their racist comments, and a number who confessed feelings of guilt about their own behaviour.
Suspicious shop workers
Wellington consultant and proud Ngāti Kahungunu woman Vanessa Mohi loves her lipstick.
On a regular shopping trip to stock up on her favourite shade at David Jones, the 46-year-old, was heading out the door when a security guard asked to check her bag.
As she went to show him the contents of her handbag a Pākehā woman took offence to what she saw as racial profiling.
“She had words with the security guard about why wasn’t he checking everyone’s bag and said this was disgusting.”
Staff from the lipstick counter told him to let Vanessa go.
Back at her office she recounted the scene to her mainly Pākehā colleagues.
“My workmates all looked at me and went what? They checked your bag? And I said yep, don’t they check yours?”
The survey found non-European respondents were three times as likely as Europeans to say they “very often” experienced unfair treatment by service people such as shop assistants, waiters and security guards.
“I constantly get followed around by shopkeepers whenever I go to the supermarket and I am always asked to show my receipt to staff members before being allowed to leave the shop,” commented a MELAA respondent.
Another said he was followed by a hardware store staff member to his home and accused of being “a thief like all Indians are”.
While in the store he had picked a piece of timber but put it back, realising it was too short for his project. The man asked for CCTV footage to prove he had not stolen the timber which was declined. He complained to the store and received an apology but said the staff member was still working at the store.
In the past year, Mohi had another encounter reminding her casual racism was alive and well.
The chief executive of a company in her field asked her to meet with the hiring manager to discuss a new job. She had spoken to the woman on the phone to make arrangements.
When she arrived the woman said “Oh, you didn’t sound Māori”.
“I was a little bit shocked so I went on the defensive and said ’what does a Māori sound like?’ and I think she just giggled a bit and said well, you know...and I said ’I really don’t, please tell me’.”
Mohi said the woman became defensive. “I felt like I should have done better to make things right. And then I thought no, I hadn’t actually done anything wrong.”
She did not pursue the job.
Mohi says her comfortable life provided a buffer against the impacts of racism.
“My life is full of privilege, I have an education, I have a decent job, I have high self esteem. You can brush these things aside when it’s not important to you. But it wouldn’t be the same if I had to take that job so that I could feed my family.”
While she doesn’t like to make a fuss, her daughters, now young adults, are more outspoken about “every day” racism.
Mohi attributes her resilience to her educated, financially secure parents who had high expectations of their children.
“...and maybe I just live in a bubble.”
While Mohi has had the buffer of wealth and education another Māori survey respondent, Ngāpuhi woman Michelle Holden, 47, hadn’t been so fortunate.
The former counsellor moved to a small “village” in the Manawatu-Wanganui Region three years ago.
“I just heard that people were shocked that she’s brown, she’s got tattoos and dogs and she doesn’t have a husband.”
Holden said before moving to the predominantly Pākehā area she hadn’t experienced discrimination for many years but hearing of the response to her presence in the town was deeply upsetting.
“It’s really hard to describe. It’s such a powerless feeling. Like, I don’t care about these people but finding that out made me feel less than and it was quite profound ... I felt ashamed ... and I don’t even know these people.
“I thought I’d gotten past that.
“Just the blindness of it, not quite knowing where it’s coming from...it’s so powerful.”
“I didn’t used to be, but I am very aware of how unpopular white people are in NZ these days.”
Helen, an Aucklander, filled in the survey form and agreed to be interviewed by Stuff but did not want her full name used.
She said she mixed with people from other ethnic groups at church and in her workplace, which was “safe ground”.
Helen was among a large number of Pākehā respondents who said they regularly experienced racism, mainly from Māori and the media, and felt “under attack”.
When asked about challenging racist comments, Helen wrote about the persecution of New Zealand Europeans.
“All white people are now seen as potential white supremacists.”
She had noticed this “very much since the Mosque shootings”.
“Any white person who says anything about immigration ... or about Islam ... or anything like that, they are immediately a potential white supremacist or far right, or alt right ...”
As a fourth or fifth generation settler family she was also labelled a “colonist”, Helen said.
Helen said she had been called a f..... white b…. to her face while working at a school in Otara.
Usually the abuse was online “because I’m usually criticising race-based funding, to be fair ... so that tends to wind people up”.
She said her daughter, who suffered a health condition, had initially been declined financial assistance but this would not have been the case if she was Māori.
“I don’t feel like I’m better than anybody else and you know, we’re not well off, we’ve struggled ... we still struggle but I feel like white people are looked at as the privileged few who’ve had everything easy and I don’t think that’s a fair view.”
Analysis of all open text answers by data analytics company Text Ferret found more than 400 Pākehā respondents expressed similar views.
This is “quite natural” says University of Canterbury political sociologist and expert in ethnicity Professor Steven Ratuva. Some Pākehā feel they are experiencing racism.
“The classical definition of racism is a particular group looking down on another group as being inferior.
“In other cases, so-called inferior groups may respond by abusing the other back. And that may be seen as racism by those on the receiving end.”
Ratuva said different groups re-defined racism to make themselves the victims.
He pointed to supporters of US President Donald Trump who had interpreted a demand for more equality by minorities as racism against them.
The response by disgruntled Pākehā respondents came as no surprise to University of Auckland School of Māori Studies Professor Margaret Mutu.
“White privilege is so invisible to white people that those Pākehā who do not understand our history, or have not worked in some way to become more bi-cultural, find challenges to their monocultural world view and power extremely threatening – especially when it comes from a Māori.
”If you are in a position of power and people say let’s share that power you don’t want to let go.”
‘Why can’t you take a joke?’
Aeronwy Cording says her biggest fear is that her daughter will be confronted by people telling her she should go home. “She is home, she was born here. She is a Kiwi.”
Aeronwy Cording says her biggest fear is that her daughter will be confronted by people telling her she should go home. “She is home, she was born here. She is a Kiwi.”.
Christchurch survey respondent, high school teacher and single mother to four-year-old Zahara, Aeronwy Cording has had a front row seat to examples of casual racism since the birth of her daughter.
Cording is Pākehā while her daughter Zahara’s father is Zimbabwean.
While usually surrounded by colleagues, friends and family who embrace diversity, Cording said she is still regularly confronted with racist attitudes.
On one occasion while at lunch with some women she did not know well she was asked ’what’s it like having a n….. child?’.
As her toddler played happily nearby Cording reacted swiftly.
”I said ’please don’t ever talk about my child like that again’ and everyone kind of awkwardly giggled and someone changed the subject and that was that.”
Cording said the reactions by the other women was equally troubling.
“They thought it was funny. So then if I’d pushed that it would be, why can’t you take a joke? Because that’s everyone’s default, I was just joking, why can’t you take a joke?”
Cording did not believe the March 15 mosque attacks had made a significant difference to levels of racism in New Zealand.
The initial response of love and compassion was overtaken by resentment and misunderstanding.
“I guess what hit me was the backlash of ’oh, I suppose Jacinda is going to try and get their whole family over now, and we’ve done all this for you and now you are complaining, how dare you not be thankful that I’ve helped you’.”
Cording said she was fearful her daughter would be affected by the same attitudes.
“My biggest fear is when Zahara gets older and people ’say go home’. She is home, she was born here. She is a Kiwi.”
The Stuff survey, while not scientific, confirms racism is thriving in Aotearoa and our Māori and Muslim whanau take the biggest hits.
It also shows many feel bad about racist behaviour and are willing to call it out.
More than 2000 respondents answered 12 questions about experiences of racism in the past year, including four that invited open text responses.
An analysis of the results by Christchurch-based Research First found that two-thirds of Māori and almost half of all Pacific Island respondents reported hearing or reading offensive comments about them “very often” in the last year.
The result was much higher than racism expert Professor Paul Spoonley said he expected.
“My suspicion is that the internet has increased the possibility that offensive name-calling is used more often by keyboard warriors in a way that was not possible in the past – in casualised ways as well as full-blown racist comments.
When asked how frequently they had racist comments aimed at them in the past year, one in five Māori (20 per cent) and nearly one-quarter of (23 per cent) Middle Eastern, Latin American or African (MELAA) responded “very often”.
Nearly one-third of Māori (30 per cent), Pacific Island (28 per cent), MELAA (32 per cent) respondents said they had been made to feel “unintelligent, dishonest or dangerous” in the past year.
This compared with 15 per cent of Pākeha, 17 per cent of Asian and 13 per cent of “other European” respondents.
Spoonley said the survey consistently showed Māori were most likely to hear or be the target of offensive language and labelling.
“This is a serious concern and highlights a longstanding issue of actual or perceived racism in New Zealand.”
He suspected the high levels of racism reported by MELAA respondents was driven by Islamaphobia.
“...my expectation is that a significant reason for the very high negative experiences of MELAA is that Muslims have been targeted, prior to and unfortunately since the 15 March.”
But along with experiences of racism, one-quarter of respondents across all ethnic groups said they had felt regret about racist or discriminatory behaviour.
One New Zealand European respondent wrote: “I used to think of people of other races as ’other’. I was not rude, but I didn’t reach out. I can honestly say that it has taken until my 50s for me to really see people first, appearance second.”
Another said: “I used to be racially ignorant, made some crappy jokes about Asian people “invading” New Zealand. Was a crap move on my part and I felt horrible about it.”
Many respondents reported challenging others for racist behaviour in the past year.
Māori respondents were most likely to call out racism (80 per cent), though more than half of Asian (55 per cent) and MELAA (58 per cent) respondents said they would also speak up.
Respondents described experiences of and approaches to challenging others, often reporting frustration about the responses.
“I always respond to jokes about Maori being dole bludgers, arguments about correct pronunciations of Maori names, NZ people hating on asians, stereotypes about indians...everything, right up to MPs being racist and media printing racist articles. 90 per cent of the time the defence is “I was only joking” or “so&so is Maori and she agrees.” – a Māori/Pacific respondent.
Spoonley said these results were “extremely surprising” and suggested most respondents knew what was offensive and were prepared to take “brave” action to voice their concerns.
Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon is now urging all government departments to collect data about racism and experiences of discrimination amongst staff and people they worked with. “The more data we collect, and the better we understand these issues, the more evidence we have to help us work to eliminate racism.”
Words CATE BROUGHTON
Visuals CHRIS SKELTON and MONIQUE FORD
Design KATHRYN GEORGE
Editor KAMALA HAYMAN