I love New Zealand. It’s my country of choice, I considered myself a New Zealander within a few months of arriving here and I am pretty sure it will always be my “home” even though I don’t plan on living here forever. Still, I have to admit to a little kernel of unpleasantness in our society that has been receiving quite a bit of attention lately.
Those of you outside New Zealand probably haven’t heard about Paul Henry. Well, I hadn’t heard much of him either, but he’s a TV presenter for our breakfast TV show and he has a habit of saying stupid things for laughs. He recently stated on national TV that our Governor General (the person who represents the Queen as head of state) doesn’t “look” or “sound” like a “New Zealander”, despite the fact that the GG was born in New Zealand and has a long distinguished history of serving the country. The reality is: it was a racist assumption that a Fijian Indian didn’t represent “New Zealand” since he, frankly, wasn’t white.
This created such a backlash. At the time, a TVNZ spokeswoman claimed “he only says what we’re all thinking but are too afraid to say”. To which, essentially, the whole country rose as one in indignation and said “no”. The presenter has been suspended for a brief time and there have been a great many angry things said about the situation.
To be honest, though, I think we do need to take a serious look at ourselves and consider whether what the TVNZ spokeswoman said is true. I say “ourselves” because I’d like to think that as a part of New Zealand this problem is mine too. Yes, Paul Henry is a bit of an ass, and yes, he said things that are completely unacceptable for anyone on public broadcasting to say and he needs to learn that, but I think it’s far too easy to point at him and say: “there, he is, the evil one, banish him from our midst”. Because I think he does actually say what some of us are thinking.
These thoughts had been boiling uncomfortably in my head for days when they were brought home to me in quite an unexpected way. I was at my friend Izzy’s stag party. Izzy is of Sri Lankan descent and so he’s “brown” as he would say. As a consequence I ended up going out on the town with a large group of “brown” Sri Lankan and Indian guys.
The party consisted of guys in their 20’s and 30’s, all intelligent, articulate, educated and well spoken people. Guests included an entrepreneur, a doctor doing his internship, a maths teacher and a number of people in specialist IT fields.
We were gearing up to go into town, loitering outside a hotel when some random white guy starts hurling racist abuse at my friends saying things like “go home” and “mootie f***ks” and “are you even a New Zealander?”At the end of the video here, you can hear as he tries to hug my friend Izzy, Izzy says “don’t touch me, bro”.
We all stood agog, but eventually the Sri Lankans just walked away, leaving the drunk white guy to himself. I was embarrassed, both on behalf of my friends who had just been insulted and on behalf of all white guys that this drunk fool seemed to represent. Click on the image to the left for the shameful video. Later on in the evening, another guy started up a conversation with one of the stag party:
“Hi, are you from around here?”
“Yes, yes, I am”
“Oh, I thought so, I kind of thought you would be from the dairy around the corner…”
That was all I heard of the conversation but that was enough for me. The Sri Lankan guy just smiled and continued talking civilly till the guy left.
“Who was that?” I asked
“Oh, some racist ****” came the response.
The school teacher confirmed for me later: “oh, yes, that’s a normal night out for us, you always get that kind of thing but you can’t let it get to you. You know I have friends who are 3rd generation kiwis who have “made in New Zealand” tattoos, but it makes no difference, they’re still seen as not New Zealanders.”
I think we New Zealanders suffer Xenophobia. We’re afraid that an influx of immigrants will dramatically change our way of life, or change the social landscape somehow and this manifests itself as a kind of racism.
“Go home” is the last resort of a xenophobe who not only doesn’t realise that this is their home as much as ours, but there no “them”, only “us”.
Image of Paul Henry stolen from stuff.co.nz