This post is written in the wake of racist statements from Phil Twyford and the New Zealand Labour Party. For more information, please read this by Keith Ng and this comic from Everything is Nothing By Itself on Tumblr.
New Zealand has a racism problem and it affects everything in this country, it always has. The British brought their prejudices across with them along with their Victorian ideals and industries and they’ve embedded in the land here – most of it illegally confiscated from the rightful owners and still not returned.
If you look at New Zealand history the racism is visible in the language, in the othering and distancing and control placed on those who were different. It is every piece of legislation designed to strip Maori of rights (that’s most of them). It’s the Chinese immigrants having to pay tax just to be allowed here, where no such restriction was placed on white settlers. It’s the fact this was only abolished in 1944 and only apologised for in 2002.
It is decades of struggle in the face of legislation and rule-making in favour of a particular set of cultural norms. It’s in our current Prime Minister telling us that New Zealand was settled peacefully, and our current opposition party doubling down on painting Chinese-sounding names as bogeymen, after the houses that rightfully belong to ‘hard working New Zealanders’.
New Zealand has a problem with Chinese people. Families who have lived here for decades are called immigrant and a problem and told both explicitly and implicitly they don’t belong here, even though it’s as much their home as anywhere could possibly be a home.
It’s strikingly obvious when you compare this to the white foreign nationals who move over and are accepted, accents and all. Welcomed and asked what they like best about us please please tell us, your approval is everything. It’s a refusal to acknowledge the brown faces who make up our cities, unless it’s to blame, ridicule or regurgitate hateful phrases at them. And while this might not be your experience, while you as a white person might never have said or done anything directly hateful to an Asian person or a Pasifika person or a Maori person, it is nonetheless happening every single day in this country, and probably to people you know. Maybe they’re telling you right now how hard this is and how much it hurts.
My family is not Chinese, but we are East Asian. It’s in the surname I choose to wear and in my father’s face and my grandmother’s accent, even though it’s been over 50 years since she moved here. The otherness was thrown as rocks at her and as slurs at my father, and while I am privileged to look white it cuts me in a thousand tiny ways as I try to move around as myself in this country, attempting to connect to who I am and where I am from. My name gets mispronounced or unpronounced (I can hear people avoiding to say it), and I am left feeling like Tinkerbell, slowly starving because the vowels in my name are inconvenient for Western mouths.
Once the topic of my ethnicity is raised things go from silence to choreography. The lines are so routine it almost feels like people must be reading from the same hidden script. “I knew you were something” “On your mother’s or your father’s side? And his mother or his father?” I always want to ask if they know a half Japanese man or an elderly Japanese woman and they’re wondering if we’re related. People do punnett squares to decide just how Asian I am, and their ruling is always final. I’m categorised by phenotype like some biological specimen, I have no right of reply. Once they’ve made up their mind, that’s the topic settled. I’m pinned down.
This is only a very small piece of what it means to have an Asian-sounding name in New Zealand. It’s not always friendly or comfortable. And because I have a white-looking face my experience is milder than most. Racism Lite™, a study in microaggressions from your friends and co-workers.
This is why it is unacceptable when our politicians, our representatives, stand up and tell the country that people with our names and names like them are the problem in our country. It inevitably means eyes point to us and yet again we have to say we live here, we’re from here, we’ve made our lives here.
I want to live in a New Zealand that respects and understands all the facets of herself, but we are built on a colony that broke indigenous backs and we have to work every single day to undo this. White New Zealand is intolerant of those who are different, who present a story outside their designed narrative. As a person descended from colonists and immigrants it’s my job to work to dismantle this oppression every day, as the damage done only began in the 1800s – it has continued in many different forms and stages since then.
We need to stop being scared of using the words that describe this. Especially the word racism. We can’t dance around and pretend it’s only a thing in the super really bad cases. Racism is not just hatred, it is a system and structure designed to favour one group of people over another. In New Zealand this group is undeniably white New Zealanders, and those of us who fall into this category need to work a hell of a lot harder to understand what this really means.