Peter O’Connor explains why racism belongs to Pākehā – and Pākehā need to take responsibility for stopping it
It’s nearly 50 years since legislation was introduced to establish the Race Relations Office as part of our commitment to signing the UN Declaration for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Prime Minister at the time, Keith Holyoake, didn’t think we needed such an office as he said we had the best race relations in the world and, at the same time, the Māori Council was concerned it would merely give Pākehā an opportunity to air grievances. But the office was established, and, in its 30 years of operating, it investigated complaints of racial discrimination and also provided education.
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When I applied for a job at the Race Relations Office in 1994, one of the leaders of the Bastion Point occupation, Joe Hawke (Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei) was on the interview panel. He politely asked why a Pākehā should be employed in an organisation fighting racism. I said, well, us Pākehā understand exactly what racism looks like, what it sounds like, and how we benefit from it. We know how we hide it, how we pretend it doesn’t exist and we know how to be quiet when we hear and see others be racist. In the end, I said, racism belongs to Pākehā and Pākehā need to take responsibility for stopping it. (And although much has changed in the intervening years, that still remains the case.)
I got the job and for the following four years I got an insider’s view on race relations. I eventually managed the Auckland Office and became its National Education Manager. It was a time of significant symbolic resistance by Māori, with the felling of the tree on One Tree Hill, the smashing of the America’s Cup and land occupations, especially Pakaitore Marae, dominating the media. Anti-Asian sentiment was, as always, bubbling away, and there was skinhead trouble at the top of the South Island and in Christchurch.
Pākehā understand exactly what racism looks like, what it sounds like, and how we benefit from it. We know how we hide it, how we pretend it doesn’t exist and we know how to be quiet when we hear and see others be racist.
The office itself was often the site of attention too. We were reviewed more than three times by parliamentary inquiries, poorly funded and resourced, and constantly derided and demeaned by media commentators and politicians. In response to a series of billboards and newspaper ads we put out showing four brains, all of equal size except for one labelled racist, there was an enormous backlash against drawing attention to racism in New Zealand. The office was flooded with complaints about the use of the term Pākehā. There was bitter anger at a Māori word being used to described white New Zealanders. Winston Peters took umbrage and complained bitterly that taxpayer money was been spent on fighting racism when it didn’t exist in New Zealand.
The Māori Council was right. The largest single category of complainant to the office was from Pākehā. Their complaints were usually about perceived injustices of “separatist” government policies that privileged Māori. Medical school quotas were an often-cited example of what was called reverse-racism. The complaints were wrapped in the language of calling for one people, one New Zealand, a nod to Hobson’s comment at the signing of the Treaty. Any sense that Māori had rights as Indigenous people was labelled apartheid and dangerous to nationhood. The other complaint we regularly received was for being called a racist. If the ‘n’ word was banned, it seemed the ‘r’ word was also not permitted in New Zealand.
Politicians know exactly how certain phrases and words are understood by frightened and indignant Pākehā and they attempt to use them for political gain, citing unity as they sow division and rancour.
There seemed then, as now, to be an absolute loathing by Pākehā for calling out the racist systems that have deeply privileged them. Tears, outrage, denial and finger pointing was, and still seems to be the order of the day. Our staff who took those complaints over the phone, many who spoke Māori as a first language, were routinely abused for answering the phone, saying kia ora. I was called a ‘n..r’ lover and traitor to my race for investigating a complaint against the then Manukau City Council, which had objected to the word marae being used for a meeting house in Howick. Our team from the office was heckled and booed for giving a mihi at a public meeting over the issue.
I led the development of the first textbooks for New Zealand schools to address racism to be published by the Ministry of Education. The Minister of Education at the time got cold feet and the resource was literally dumped free into schools without any publicity, with the hope it would sink without trace. Significantly, the te reo version of the work was heavily used by kura kaupapa Māori.
But always, then and now, when we feel as if we are finally getting to an acknowledgement of our history and our current injustices, the dog whistle politics start up again. Politicians know exactly how certain phrases and words are understood by frightened and indignant Pākehā and they attempt to use them for political gain, citing unity as they sow division and rancour. It all feels so familiar and yet the advent of social media where the racism hides now behind online anonymity makes it more dangerous, more hurtful, more sinister: Racism is as ugly as it gets when it hides and pretends it’s something else.
Fifty years after signing the UN Convention we need to remember we have made progress. Co-governance models are understood by large parts of the country and soon we will finally have our history taught in New Zealand schools by a Government unafraid to address the big issues within it. And equally significant of that progress is that the dog whistling too seems to have failed to attract the same response previous leaders of political parties have enjoyed. But there are still advances we need to make, and these must be driven by Pākehā New Zealanders out of a sense of social justice, with an honesty that admits to the privilege whiteness brings in this country.