I was reminded of a great discussion I had with an ex-colleague about 18 months ago after hearing a good friend complain about a racist post their uncle shared on Facebook the day before Waitangi Day.
My ex-colleague is a highly successful software architect responsible for solving some of the most complicated data and application level problems facing our community. He grew up in West Auckland and now lives in St Heliers. He is Samoan.
The conversation started with him explaining how racist it was growing up in Auckland in the 1980s. He went on to explain how nothing has changed in the 30 years since. I debated furiously with him that it wasn’t ever that bad, nor is it now. He was patient, but clearly angry when he proceeded to explain what racism can be and where you can see it in our society.
He described how a parent from his local school wore black face to a school fundraising event and that no one said anything until he finally did.
He described a colleague complaining about ‘f*&king Asian drivers’, and how the people he works with seemed to have no problem with this.
He explained that he doesn’t always feel comfortable in his community because of how he looks and sounds.
It’s all racism.
He had many more examples, and it was troubling to confront. In the end, I couldn’t do anything but agree with his point of view.
I used to scoff if people said NZ was a racist country. I couldn’t see it. I also grew up in the 1980s in Auckland. I had friends from all corners of the globe. Some of them are still my friends. I didn’t feel uncomfortable, different, or out of place so I never once thought to ask if they had, or still have, any issues with racism in New Zealand. It never occurred to me that I should ask such a question.
It turns out the kids I thought were just like me, who must, “therefore”, have experienced the world just like I did, absolutely did not. By their accounts, they, and their parents, all, in some form, experienced racism growing up in New Zealand. It influenced their perception of our country and had an impact on their lives. That’s not okay.
My opinion today is that there is a problem in New Zealand that we need to fix. I played golf with a Singaporean man last week who has been living in New Zealand for forty years. I asked him for his thoughts. He said that he still has people telling him to “go home”. He’s been in New Zealand for forty years… This is his home, irrespective of how good his English is!
This man has paid taxes, raised his family, and contributed to our society, for forty years, and there are people in our community that feel it’s okay to tell him to go home!? It makes me sick. I was born thirty-two years ago. He’s been in this country longer than I have! By any other measure that might make him more entitled to be here than I am, and rightly so.
A person’s race should only matter when we are celebrating and sharing the unique differences that make that culture special. This includes, but isn’t limited to, the food, language, heritage, ideologies, and everything in between. We shouldn’t be discounting, ranking, or discriminating on these differences. We also shouldn’t be trying to mix all these races to form a muddy version of ‘Kiwi-ism’.
We should, however, be celebrating the commonalities within all these cultures that we can all identify as Kiwi. I personally see these as tolerance, goodwill, resilience, pluckiness, determination, and self-deprecation, to name a few. These are the attributes that combine to make us uniquely ‘Kiwi’, and they are blind to ‘race’.
I have discovered that people are now more willing to talk about their experiences with racism in public openly. Their stories are now diffusing through our society and are starting to reach what you could argue is the most sheltered group in our community: white, middle class, NZ European male; aka me. This is a hugely positive sign. When awareness of a problem has penetrated deep enough into our society for someone like me to discuss it in a LinkedIn article, it shows that it’s no longer a discussion happening on the margins. As such, I suspect we are past the tipping point for a change in attitude as a society, and this is encouraging.
For those in our society still trapped in their parallel bigot-verse, good luck to you. Your attitudes and opinions no longer fit where our nation is heading. You can work towards changing or simply become irrelevant. For the rest of us, we need to see more people challenging racist actions and behaviours when they occur and celebrate the people that do. We should be trying to educate the ignorant to a better way of seeing the world, and we should be encouraging those that usually stay silent to poor behaviour to speak up. This is how I would like to see us behave as a society and how I will be acting from now on.
I want New Zealand to be a beautiful and inclusive society for all colours, creeds, ages, genders, sexual orientations and everything else in-between. We obviously aren’t there yet, but I don’t doubt that we will be sooner than not if we can continue to have conversations like the one I had with my old colleague.
About the author — Aidan Kenealy
My mission is to help those with high growth businesses realise their vision for success. I draw from the unique lessons learned growing EMGN to help founders and CEOs get the best out of what their businesses can be.
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