“Where are you from?”

“Hamilton, yeah just south of the Bombay Hills there. Well actually, born in Huntly strictly speaking, but schooled and grew up in Hamilton. Look it’s a great place you should visit sometime. Very exotic.”

“Oh yeah, but you know, where are you from?”

Why should it matter where I am from? You’ve already heard me speak as we exchanged pleasantries — my New Zealand twang is unmistakable. Does confirming your suspicions of my cultural identity have a bearing on the meal I am about to order from you?

I’m told curiosity is often the reason. Possibly, in the right context. But for me, the question of where I am from, more often than not contains subtext. I’d argue that people ask this question as some form of subconscious defence mechanism — to secure and protect what they know. To attach themselves to the Familiar; a semblance of NZ white culture. To reinforce their idealised true identity of what it looks to be a New Zealander. Duncan Garner did an outstanding job of touting this last year.

On a recent Saturday night, I was treated to four separate instances of racial discrimination. I was pointed out unnecessarily and unfavourably as different to my peers. And this was from varying social situations; from old white men at a sports club, to drunk girls at a party. They included the all-too-familiar reference to being ‘Indian’, and ‘token’. The remarks themselves varied in degrees of discrimination but they still hit home. I was made to, inadvertently or not, feel different.

Here’s the thing, I don’t ever think of myself as different, and you are not allowed to make me think otherwise. I was born and raised in New Zealand (yes, Hamilton). Most of my friends are hand-picked in your typical manner; similar tastes in music, sport and just a small penchant for enjoying a drink or two. They also happen to be mostly white. I don’t ever sit in a room with them and think to myself, “Whoa hang on, something’s up here… I’m a bit different’. And I know they don’t either. So why should you?

The author hanging out with a few of his white friends, enjoying a drink or two. Photo: Supplied

Singling someone out as different is discrimination.

Let me try to give you a sense of what this is like. Remember that time in primary school when you wet your pants, and your whole class noticed because it happened during a presentation, and you were standing up in front of the class waiting for your turn, thinking you could hold it, but completely overestimating the severity of the situation, and your favourite teacher Mrs Clarke told the rest of the class they were to keep it to themselves, but by lunchtime the next day almost the whole year group knew? It is something like that.

I revisit this terrible, sodden memory as it engenders the same feeling of embarrassment when someone calls me out as different. I’m stuck. Lost for words. There is no comeback when you are faced with discrimination — it’s a K.O. blow. I’m struck in equal measure by the audacity and disappointment of it. The only difference being a change of clothes and shower doesn’t rectify the situation.

It is also important to distinguish between discrimination and prejudice, and how one leads to the other. Discrimination typically exists on face value; your actions or words. It is inherently offhand, perhaps a throwaway comment that may lack conviction.

“Oh did you know that they were Samoan? But they’re so friendly!”

Prejudice, however, is a fundamental belief preconceived against a person or group. It has weight, and is strengthened by constant discriminatory remarks. You do something or hear it often enough, and you’ll soon believe it. Where there’s smoke, there’s a big raging racist fire.

Failing to recognise there is even a problem perpetuates racism too. A wilful and wistful ignorance.

I have dealt with a decent spectrum of racism over the years: from being called a ‘black c**t’ and having rocks thrown at me, to being mistaken for the Indian Pizza Delivery Guy. I’ve had landlords question if I cook curries, worried about the lingering smell in their overpriced Wellington apartment. Luckily for me, deep down I know I am OK and your sympathy is no good to me — I am personally quite comfortable in my skin. I surround myself in enough good company who don’t express any anti-Prak sentiment.

But I think of those a little less fortunate — people without a support network of friends and family from growing up here. It is a frightening prospect, to land on these shores already under a shroud of doubt of belonging. If I can be subject to racial discrimination as a New Zealander living here for 30 years, what hope do they have? Their skin might be a different colour than yours, but I doubt it’s any tougher.

My parents moved here as immigrants and started a new life in a country which they knew nothing about. I am staunchly proud of that, and of being a New Zealander. We are fortunate enough to be an incredibly diverse country, so let’s honour that. In a society that constantly expresses — and prides itself — on how fair and egalitarian it is, it is wholly unfair that people who have only arrived here more recently face this kind of discrimination. We need to place the onus of our housing strain and employment opportunities (which at times fuel racial discrimination) on those in power, not on those who have as much right to be here as you do. There is a worthy debate to be had, but it’s weakened when people resort to discriminatory comments and stereotypes. 

Much like discrimination in other forms (sex, disability), racism is too often treated with disdain, dismissed with the typically Kiwi ‘She’ll be right’ mentality. A euphemism in itself is the term ‘casual racism’. You’ve got to be joking right? There is nothing casual about racism, only the attitudes towards it.

Failing to recognise there is even a problem perpetuates racism too. A wilful and wistful ignorance. She ain’t right, she’s bloody racist. 

Prak Sritharan is the owner of Wellington lifestyle store & gallery Precinct 35, and often works with brands, places, spaces and nice things.

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