New Zealand doesn’t have a race problem

Those of you who are newcomers to this blog (I honestly have no idea how many new people there are from day to day, but the numbers are gradually getting larger so I can only assume…) won’t understand the context of the title of this post, or the 4 or 5 others in this series that precede it. A common trope in Canada (and yes, I actually do hear it) is that racism isn’t really a problem anymore. People seem to believe that racism is all stuff of history, but now we’ve progressed beyond that as a society. At least, in developed countries, members of visible minority groups don’t experience any racism. This is a transparent attempt to divest one’s self from any responsibility, since anyone who thinks they’ve experienced racism is clearly just overly sensitive and needs to “get over it.”

And so I’ve started throwing these stories up from time to time to keep poking my audience, reminding them (and myself) that racism is still alive and well, and won’t go away until we take concrete steps towards addressing it.

So today it’s New Zealand’s turn:

A television presenter in New Zealand has been suspended for suggesting on air that the country’s governor-general was not a proper New Zealander. Sir Anand Satyanand was born in New Zealand to Indo-Fijian parents. Presenter Paul Henry provoked a storm of criticism by asking the Prime Minister, John Key, whether the next governor-general would look and sound more like a New Zealander. “Is he even a New Zealander?” Henry asked. ”Are you going to choose a New Zealander who looks and sounds like a New Zealander this time?”

In case you missed the oh-so-subtle insinuation, a “real New Zealander” is a white person. Never mind, of course, the fact that white people are a recent addition to the human species in New Zealand, whereas someone who is Indo-Fijian has a much more legitimate claim to being “really” from there. Let’s ignore all of that. This is part of the centuries-old branding by white Europeans to define the “default” human being as white, whereas everyone else is some departure from that. The evils of “Darwinism” have shown us that, in fact, racial differences are less than 100,000 years old; and in some cases even more recent than that. Certainly since we have records of when the first white people landed on New Zealand and encountered people already present there, it should be ridiculous to even suggest that any white person is more  a “real New Zealander” than anyone else. But then again, these are logic-based arguments, whereas racism is based on prejudice and intentional ignorance of fact.

Oh yeah, please believe it doesn’t end there:

India has condemned “racist and bigoted” remarks by a New Zealand TV presenter who made fun of Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit’s surname. TVNZ breakfast show host Paul Henry broke into laughter a number of times as he mispronounced the surname – which sounds closer to “Dixit” in English. Mr Henry’s comments were broadcast last week on the state-owned channel TVNZ, but took a few days to be noticed in India. In the footage, Mr Henry mispronounces Ms Dikshit’s surname several times – apparently deliberately. He added: “It’s so appropriate because she’s Indian… I’ve known about her for a while and I’ve been laughing ever since.”

If you were ever looking for an example of white privilege, here it is. This is a guy who is on state-sponsored radio making outrageous and hurtful comments about someone’s last name for a cheap laugh. And why does he get the cheap laugh? It’s not because the jokes are particularly well-constructed or insightful, it’s because he has an audience that buys into the background cultural racism that says that someone from another culture is wrong or weird; not by virtue of any harm they do, but because their language is different than English.

I’m completely comfortable calling out Iran’s terribly destructive cultural practices because they’re destructive. I’ll bag on China for shutting down free speech because it hurts people. And if Mr. Henry were making a coherent critique of India’s performance hosting the Commonwealth Games, I’d have no problem with him shitting on the Indian government. However, that’s not what this is. This is an asshole with a microphone playing to the never-spoken racist feelings of his fan base (who I’m sure would swear up and down that they don’t have a racist bone in their bodies).

But of course New Zealand doesn’t really have a race problem, right?

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  1. Pat Dixon says

    It’s my own theory that we won’t eliminate racism until we have real integration. But of course you have those folks who argue that ‘cultures’ would be lost. I too am sad that my kids never learned Shakespeare or Blake in school. It might have offended someone; for the same reason, they didn’t learn grammar either.
    It would help if education encouraged logic, or deeper thought, but it’s too busy teaching weight-loss or french-horn playing to include much actual ‘knowledge’. I sometimes wonder if we’re more likely to destroy ourselves through ignorance, or through political correctness.
    Partly because of the latter, kids no longer have to analyze the meaning of “Tiger Tiger… etc” learning not to take words (etc) at face value, or study world history, learning to see our world in a historical context. Instead they graduate from high school easy to manipulate, gullible. Easy to turn into racists, or believers in conspiracy theories….
    At the end of the day, we all need to be able to look at the bigger picture, try to see what is really needed if we’re to achieve a healthy world, and be willing if necessary to give up beliefs or traditions that have been important to us. Or at least to be able to distinguish between what’s really important and what isn’t – in the long run. But we persist in throwing out the baby with the bathwater….
    We may eventually hear something equally horrifying on CBC Radio, the way it’s being dumbed down. I could go on ad nauseum. But what’s the point? I’d be ‘interpreted’ to death…

  2. says

    Absolutely education is key to improving society, but many of even the most educated men throughout history were racists themselves. In my eyes, there must also be a concerted effort to bring different groups of people together, working towards a mutually-beneficial goal. When “they” become “us”, it’s much harder to hate them. This goes beyond simple education and logic – this is a question of policy and social change.

  3. says

    Ahh, Paul Henry.

    I’m a Kiwi.

    The thing that really got me about Paul Henry is how surprised everyone’s been. His job, as far as I can tell, is to say over-the-top, provocative, insulting things on national television. He’s there to titillate by mouthing off in front of the audience and being rude to people – particularly winding up his attractive co-presenter Pippa Wetzell. He’s the court jester. and for the most part he’s as entertaining as he is obnoxious.

    It was only a matter of time before he went too damn far.

    That doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t be held publicly accountable (he should) or that there shouldn’t be a public outcry (there should). But there’s an element of shock running through the NZ media at the moment, and it just seems a bit bizarre. Seriously. Yes, we have race issues in New Zealand. Yes, a bolschy television presenter who is paid to say stupid, pig-headed things on controversial topics said something stupid and pig-headed about race. Sure, string him up for it. But why is anyone remotely surprised?

    Race in New Zealand is a hot topic. I can’t think of anyone who can seriously claim there isn’t a race problem here. Jokes are written about it.

    In the video above, Brett makes the comment at the end that “We wrote that song to stop racism in New Zealand… It’s all better now.” (or something close to that).

    This is one of the many Kiwi in-jokes that FotC put in their songs and shows. It may seem a bit crude to joke about, but that was, in fact, the joke. It ain’t better, and denying it doesn’t change the fact.

  4. says

    Oh – for what it’s worth, the media, corporations, and politicians have all come down on Paul like a ton of block-shaped heavy things.

    Now, that will be less genuine than we may like and more to do with saving face.

    But all the same – the public outcry has gotta be worth something.

  5. says

    It actually doesn’t surprise me that he stepped over the line. Don Imus and Laura Schlessinger have done much the same. I guess my point was that those jokes wouldn’t even make it into the shock-jock lexicon if guys like Henry didn’t think they could get a cheap laugh from it. Those comments resonate with some portion of the populace, who nevertheless fall all over themselves to deny that they agree with those kinds of statements.

    All the public outcry in the world won’t do a thing to help unless it’s accompanied by a general understanding that there’s still an issue. You say that it’s already well-known, and I have no reason to doubt you. Here in Canada, we like to pretend there isn’t a problem because we’re such nice people.

  6. says


    Actually, I’m going to come back and eat my words.

    It’s known. But on reflection, I suppose it may not be widely known.

    After I hit ‘send’ on my last two messages, I got to thinking.

    1) The whole Paul Henry tendering his resignation thing didn’t ring true. I think it would have been better to actually have Henry enter into a discussion on racial issues rather than scream foul and sweep him under the carpet. I’m glad that his comment was as widely challenged as it was – but it feels like the challengers were more interested in either revenging themselves on him or on saving face. I don’t recall much emphasis on addressing the underlying issues exposed by his comment.

    The result seemed to be punishing him for bringing racism to light, rather than doing something constructive about the racism thus exposed.

    This thought is new and unfamiliar to my brain – I suspect that’s your influence. ^_^

    2) On reflection I now think I was wrong in my estimation of what other people think about racial issues in this country. My work and social circles are definitely aware. Amongst my mates, racial issues are actually a constant source of humor (which I’ve argued in the past is far healthier than it may sound). So in my circles there’s no question that there are racial tensions in New Zealand.

    But now I’ve got to thinking critically after I hit send, and I’m getting all reflective on a couple of examples to the contrary. I suspect I may have written my last comments under a skewed view of what other people think.

    Two examples spring to mind.

    One was a friend of an uncle, an older man in the building industry. He wouldn’t shake a Maori or Polynesian’s hand until after he had witnessed with his own eyes that the individual in question was a hard worker – harder than any white person would have to work to get a handshake out of him.

    Another example is of a Tongan girl I knew who had major self-identity problems. She was highly educated (English post-graduate, major in literature) and had a set of favored past-times to match (reading, theater, opera, etc). She felt excluded from Tongan social circles because she felt too different. Her self-identity as a Tongan, and what she thought that meant, was at odds with her self-identity as a highly educated and intelligent young woman. She’d internalized the notion that Tongans were stupid, and it was making it hard for her to fit in with other Tongans. (She also didn’t want to go out with me, but that’s another issue.)

    So now the more I think, the more I want to roll back time and take my comment back.

    I still think there is a heightened awareness of racial issues in New Zealand compared to other countries… But based on further reflection, I want to change my position to include the notion that it’s not heightened enough, and that there is too much of an emphasis on demonizing racism rather than discussing and dealing with it in a constructive way.


    Yep. Thought about this one a bit more than my last two, and it feels better.

  7. says

    Oh, and a final thought for what it’s worth:

    I found Henry really entertaining. Obnoxious, yes – but that was what made him entertaining. I object to his racial comment of course, but I’m still sad to see him go.

    I would have preferred to have him work through his racial issues and continue working at a job that he did very, very well.

    Other than saving face for TVNZ, I can’t see that his resignation achieved anything particularly constructive in terms of racial issues in this country.

  8. says

    This is now my favourite comment of all time 😛

    It’s a challenge to think critically about statements that are never made explicit. When someone outright says something you can evaluate it, but how do you apply skepticism to non-corporeal (so-to-speak) ideas? I’m glad that you’re doing that, regardless of how much of a role my writing has played.

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