Thursday, January 18, 2007

Say It to My Face? No Thanks

Prompted by a long expedition to find mozzarella cheese ($8.00 for a 500g bag? Seriously?), last week Peter, Roni, and I were talking about some of the things that have surprised and disappointed us over here in NZ. Peter noted how shocked he was to discover that contrary to his impression that Kiwis are liberal and progressive, his (white) coworkers in Wellington were actually pretty racist. He was horrified by a lot of the comments they would make, and his foreign coworkers (Brits, Canadians, etc.) were horrified as well.

I haven’t really had that experience. The people I’ve met, for the most part, seem pretty open-minded. The most I have encountered is some people who throw around the N-word more than I am used to (never in describing an individual, but just in general conversation). Not that this is acceptable by any means, but I suspect that this comes from a lack of understanding about the word’s actual implications. I have little concept of how serious racial slurs against Maori are, so it makes sense that someone who didn’t grow up surrounded by the legacy of black slavery wouldn’t comprehend the full implications of that word, especially when most of their exposure to it is through American pop culture. I don't feel comfortable singing along with a song that uses the word, but I can see how if you grew up here, you wouldn't have that same discomfort. Still doesn't make it okay, but it's easier to explain my discomfort when I know where the other people are coming from.

So where did Peter find these racists when I definitely didn’t? Part of it, I assume, is that I work in the Maori Health Directorate and most of my coworkers are Maori. Of course they’re going to be different than a mostly white environment. But I still spend a lot of time around white people here—flatmates, other Ministry of Health coworkers, etc. Was Peter’s experience just an anomaly? Is the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry just a magnet for budding KKK members?

I doubt it. I forget that Peter and I, despite our many similarities (we are cousins), are going to have very, very different experiences over here simply because he is white and I’m not. He’s part of that ingroup, so his white coworkers are going to feel comfortable saying things around him that they probably wouldn’t dare to say in front of me. Which puts us in very different positions to interpret the level of racism we perceive here. On the one hand, he will get a glimpse of the ugly things people say and think behind closed doors while I get the polite fa├žade. On the other hand, Peter gets the white privilege that comes with being a part of an institutionally racist society, while I will get the oppression. Just like in America.

Do I see racism here? Definitely. The mere existence of my job is proof that there is a history of racism toward Maori that needs special attention to remedy. I see the stereotypes play out in media. I read the newspaper editorials rebuking Maori and Pacific cultures and lifestyles. I also read the anti-immigration editorials that are clearly targeted at Asian immigrants. And I know that people are treating me differently than they would if I were white.

But I haven't been a part of many conversations that include racist comments. So maybe I am getting a distorted picture of just how racist New Zealanders really are, and maybe I'm not. But even though maybe hearing those comments would unveil the truth about what people are really thinking about me, I'd rather they just smile politely so I can maintain my overall positive image of New Zealand. There's a reason why they say ignorance is bliss.

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