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Guest Post: What does it now mean to be racist?

We're always told that New Zealand is a racist country, but what does it now mean to be racist? Not what many of us think, apparently. No one has actually labelled me with the r-word, but only because of the pale, stale company I keep. That's what most young, university-educated people would call me if we ever had a conversation on Maori issues.

It was the debate on separate Māori municipal wards that pushed me over the line. The progressives advocated special representation for Māori as tangata whenua. Some may see this as a tenable argument, but I came down on the side of colour-blind democracy. The progressives are naturally free to disagree, but some called their adversaries racist. “One person one vote” just cannot be racist.

I've always insisted race counts for nothing, and have even argued heatedly against those who postulate differences “in the blood”. Bill Bryson in his book The Body recalls a biologist peeling off a translucent section of a cadaver's skin and saying, “That's all that race is – a sliver of epidermis.” The ideal in Blue Mink's song Melting Pot was “coffee-coloured people by the score”. What could make better sense as a formula for international harmony?

So much for anatomy. As for culture, we are what we label ourselves – if anything. Of course, all New Zealanders would benefit enormously from lifting Maori achievement.Contemporary newspaper, radio and TV offer a soapbox to pundits, columnists, presenters, reporters, advocates and academics who take it for granted that Māori people can achieve fulfilment and success only if they define themselves as Māori first and Homo sapiens second. The only differences are in policy details. But perhaps this very assumption has it the wrong way round. What if Maori exceptionalism isn't the solution but the problem?

The thread linking my thoughts on Māori issues is that racial and cultural identity is unimportant. I agree with young Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird: “...there's just one kind of folks. Folks”. And all folks would do better to celebrate their common abilities, desires and aspirations rather than retreat into the identity politics of the tribe. Of course, one counter-argument is that I am so immersed in the dominant pakeha culture that I am unaware of its subconscious effect on my own identity and of its power to confer privilege on me. Yet some people who share my views come from minority ethnic groups in New Zealand, and that argument cannot apply to them.

Cultural identity has become the only narrative in town, and it's produced a set of issues on which the slightest deviation from the progressive doctrine can unleash fury. One such issue is cultural appropriation. Stuff recently reported that gamer and design consultant Morgana Watson was “shocked” that tā moko was used in a new game called Cyberpunk 2077. The company had misappropriated something sacred, and being Polish doesn't get the designers off the hook. Reporter Oriini Kaipara added, “In the day and age of Google, that's just absolute stupidity.”

Kaipara's dismissive response is argument by exasperation: it uses outrage to browbeat into silence anyone tempted to disagree. Yet I do. A search engine opens up a world of information, but thankfully lets us choose what opinions we form about it. Maybe the designers didn't uncover the spiritual significance of tā moko, or maybe they did but shrugged it off because they have little respect for anything sacred, whether local or exotic. Don't they have that right?

The notion of intellectual property can usefully be applied only to individual people and companies. Cultures shouldn't have patents. The unchecked cross-fertilisation of ideas is essential to humanity's Great Conversation. This applies to everything, including ritual, religion, music, food, clothing, art and language. Any of these can be copied, manipulated, mutilated, ridiculed and even exploited for profit. The alternative is a closed cultural network which disadvantages everyone. Furthermore, any closed network would need to be consistent. The debt of gratitude – or even cash – owed to Anglo-Saxons just for the Magna Carta, the printing press and refrigeration would be incalculable. We'd have to ditch the current assumption that pakeha culture is fair game, on the basis that any appropriation is justified retribution after centuries of European dominance. This “level the scores” model hardly seems ideal for progress and social harmony.

Any culture has two courses: either yield to outside influences and therefore to change, or remain “pure” and fossilised. This is best seen in language. It's normal to get misty-eyed when mentioning te reo, which is heralded as a defining focus for Māori people – even for all New Zealanders. Yet the more a language is spoken in the real world, the more it loses any spiritual pretences and becomes a mere tool. As such, it changes over time because of patterns of usage and influence from other languages. We tacitly acknowledge this with English, which many of us happily mangle. The same people who cause the white-haired English grammar police to wince by confusing bought and brought or rang and rung may be Māori language nit-pickers who are outraged by an impure vowel or an omitted macron. We're told that te reo, properly spoken, is a thing of resonant beauty, but this must surely be in the ear of the beholder; it would be naive to expect everyone to like the same language. It must be acceptable to say you just prefer the sound of Finnish to English...or of Serbo-Croat to Māori.

Another issue taps into the broad expanse of society and its institutions: systemic racism. This is treated as a such a given that it's considered racist even to doubt it. Māori people do suffer disproportionately from lower achievement in all areas, and we are told that the statistics don't lie. They don't, but what is the truth they are telling? When one demographic group underperforms another, systemic discrimination may explain the difference totally, partly or not at all. We know this. After all, there is another group disproportionally represented in figures for low educational achievement, suicide, incarceration, poor health and homelessness: men. Yet no one dares suggest males suffer from systemic discrimination.

Disturbingly, countless conservative Kiwis have to reconcile two conflicting views on Māori culture and identity, especially if they hold a government job: the officially sanctioned, progressive one they must advocate enthusiastically at work, and their actual skeptical view, shared furtively with selected mates over a coffee.

That skeptical outlook isn't racist. In fact, the rival progressive outlook can be seen as patronising to Māori. While we pakeha are allowed the luxury of doing and believing what we want, the notion of “Maoriness” places on Māori people a narrower range of acceptable behaviour and values. If I were an academic Māori teenager aspiring to a professional career, I would be furious at the condescension of any teacher who practised “kinesthetic” classroom practice, allegedly more suited to Māori learning styles. Is it assumed only fair-skinned adolescents can sit still? And who has the right to urge an urbanised Māori – who has no more interest in Maui or Tamatea than I have in Lancelot or Merlin – to suddenly profess belief in Maori myths, because that's what his cultural heritage prescribes? Is a Māori entitled to be a loner with little interest in whanau or whakapapa? To be an internationalist by learning Spanish rather than te reo?

Many Māori would agree, especially ones who live overseas. In the Te Puni Kokiri report on Māori in Australia, some expatriate respondents said living there gave them a welcome opportunity to (as one put it) “escape having to be Māori.” One respondent said her reason for migrating to Australia was “to get away from tikanga Māori and whanau dynamics...” Good luck to them, asserting their right to allow personality to prevail over the restrictions that culture often imposes. It's just a pity it's hard for them to break free at home.

The government is determined to emphasise New Zealand history in the classroom. A sound policy in itself, but the motive appears to be more political than educational. For example, I wonder what will happen if a student writes an articulate essay claiming that despite indisputable pakeha land grabs, she considers the overall treatment of Māori to be too inclusive to be labelled colonisation, or challenges the prevailing narrative that the traditional Māori community was an Arcadia ruined by the arrival of European usurpers. Can she still pass, or will she have to be re-educated out of her heresy?

Differences reside more in individuals than in cultural groups. In her October election victory speech Jacinda Ardern thanked those conservatives who ventured into the Labour tent. Some were probably Covid converts, while others were turned off by a National Party in disarray. I was pleased to hear Ardern celebrate diversity, not in the way we have become used to hearing it – race, culture and gender identity – but in the way that will always matter most: a healthy range of tenable opinions, freely expressed.

I hope Ardern meant that Labour will tolerate views that might unsettle many on the left. Planned hate speech legislation must not allow mainstream conservative views like mine to be cancelled. It's easy to dismiss us with that cheap, sneering shot, “They're not racist, but...”, as if no one who veers even slightly from the doctrine deserves a voice. A government employee who opposes opening every work meeting with a karakia is not racist, and neither is a parent who broadly supports te reo but has doubts about making it compulsory in schools. No legislation can ban hatred, but perhaps it can help preserve nuance in our national discourse.

Many of us have always insisted that races are equal, but now the tide of multiculturalism has surged in and overwhelmed us. How bitterly ironic it is that the new left makes no distinction between cultural conservatives and our traditional adversaries: the unevolved redneck racists who ignore the truth contained in that strip of human epidermis.

Peter Joyce: "I am a retired English teacher from Nelson. Living and working in Taiwan for five years gave me a special interest in matters cultural. In particular, I was impressed by the way the Taiwanese had transformed their society and economy so profoundly in less than two generations by being internationalist: by looking outwards, not inwards."

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