No matter which way you dress it, racism is neither smart nor casual

Sir Peter "The Mad Butcher" Leitch made some "key learnings" this week.
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Sir Peter "The Mad Butcher" Leitch made some "key learnings" this week.

OPINION: The Great War of Waiheke that marked the start of 2017 added a bizarre chapter to the history of racism in Aotearoa/New Zealand this week.

In case you missed it, His Mateship Sir Peter "the Mad Butcher" Leitch told Lara Wharepapa-Bridger that the place her family had called home for generations was a "White Man's Island".

The Mad Butcher's PR advisor Michelle Boag then threw herself on the barbecue by referring to Bridger's skin tone as "barely coffee-coloured", thus distracting everyone from who'd butchered what to begin with.

PR maven Michelle Boag.
ALDEN WILLIAMS / FAIRFAX NZ

PR maven Michelle Boag.

Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy declared some of her best friends were butchers.

READ MORE:
* Phil Gifford: I've known Sir Peter Leitch for 40 years and never heard a racist word

* Sir Peter Leitch says comments were misinterpreted
* Racism row a learning opportunity

A chorus of "sorry if I offended anyone" apologies and mansplaining from rugby league greats about Butch's colourblind credentials added to the general bewilderment.

New Zealand race relations commissioner, Susan Devoy.
CHRIS SKELTON/FAIRFAX NZ

New Zealand race relations commissioner, Susan Devoy.

But by the time the dust had settled, thankfully all parties to the event had made a few "key learnings".

The Mad Butcher: Learned that no white man is an island.

Michelle Boag: Learned that there is such a thing as casual racism. The wily political operator who hasn't been sheltered from the sun's harsher rays followed up her coffee-coloured remark by claiming she was only aspiring to have a better tan. When you can no longer relate to the public, it's probably time to quietly retire from public relations.

Hopefully Waiheke Island local Lara Wharepapa Bridger was not offended for nothing - let's use this as an opportunity to ...
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Hopefully Waiheke Island local Lara Wharepapa Bridger was not offended for nothing - let's use this as an opportunity to make ourselves better.

Dame Susan Devoy: That sticking up for your mates doesn't equate with being the voice of racial harmony.

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The Mad Butcher: Also learnt there is no such thing as smart casual racism, no matter how many black or white tie charity fundraisers you lend your time to.

Songwriters Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway: That nearly 50 years after they wrote Melting Pot, made world famous in NZ by 80s girlband When The Cat's Away's, the term "coffee-coloured" would be used to stoke racial divide rather than heal it. And that there's quite a bit of pot-stirring still required.

Anyone who visits Waiheke Island: That a quadrupling of the island's population in 25 years, 10% year-on-year house price increases, gentrification and an explosion in visitor numbers, is likely to make families who have lived on Waiheke for generations feel less secure about their place.

Some casually smart observers: That Leitch has probably been using his popularity to get away with making unacceptable racial comments for some time.   

Auckland Councillor Dick Quax (who interrupted a break in the United States to Tweet: "Peter Leitch does not need to apologise to a race hustler seeking her 15 minutes of fame"): Stick to selfies with statues of Ronald Reagan when on holiday.

The Waihekian Wars came in the same week Murray McCully's electorate office was targeted by someone claiming the foreign minister was a "Jew hater" and "traitor" after co-sponsoring a UN resolution against Israeli settlements in disputed territories.

And in Australia, a senator from the blatantly racist One Nation party called for New Zealanders to be punished for our support for a United Nations resolution condemning Israeli settlements in contested areas.

All of this reminds us we live in a country where countervailing racial winds are constantly buffeting each other, occasionally drawn into plain sight via social media.

For these lessons, we have Lara Wharepapa-Bridge to thank. 

 - Sunday Star Times

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