Unspoken racism endemic in NZ

The Rugby World Cup opening dominated the following evening's television news and among all the brouhaha over Auckland's failure to cope with large numbers of enthusiastic fans was a worrying detail: a number of costumed waka crew, mainly young females, were assaulted as they moved from the wharf through the crowd.

Verbal abuse and thrown objects, including bottles, led to at least one broken rib and a suspected concussion, among other injuries. The tightly packed crowd shown on television looked cheerful, but within this crowd were several people who thought it was acceptable to have a bit of a go. And right next to these friendly types, presumably, were onlookers who didn't stop them. What on earth is going on?

A couple of months ago, TV One's Close Up conducted a viewer poll. The question at issue was this: do Maori have a special place in New Zealand society? Results were revealed at the end of the show: 81 per cent of respondents texted "no", 19 per cent "yes".

Even if methodology means that this poll is a snapshot of the opinions of those Close Up viewers who can be bothered to text a response rather than a statistically valid reflection of New Zealanders' views, this result reveals something disturbing, and disappointing, in some New Zealanders' attitudes towards Maori.

And yes, of course "special" needs to be defined, and, who knows, many Maori may have texted in "no", but somehow, I doubt it.

Here's another example of a common attitude in the same depressing genre: a vox pop in a local tabloid where a Stoke woman said: "Don't call me `pakeha', I hate that name." This negative attitude towards Maori language items adopted into New Zealand English is widespread. And, answer honestly: how many people did you hear complaining about Maori cultural elements dominating the World Cup opening ceremony?

A letter in the Dominion Post (September 13) sums up this attitude: "Why are 14 per cent of the population continually allowed to force-feed their culture on the other 86 per cent of us?" What's behind these attitudes?

I'm afraid that it's the usually unacknowledged racism endemic in New Zealand society. Our particular version of racism is often combined with prejudice against people in lower socio-economic groups and a somewhat hypocritical admiration of Maori culture when we're overseas or supporting national sports teams at international events.

Such racism is often dressed up as nationalism: proponents will loudly pronounce, "We're all just New Zealanders – why should anybody be treated differently?"

Pakeha New Zealanders come across as defensive about our relationships with Maori. We don't seem to be able to acknowledge the particular place that Maori hold in Aotearoa as tangata whenua without feeling that our status as New Zealanders is somehow diminished.

Non-Maori New Zealanders of European descent should remember we don't need to feel inferior or defensive. We are tangata tiriti – people of the treaty – and through the Treaty of Waitangi we gained the right to New Zealand citizenship. But we weren't here first, and that's a fact no-one can deny.

The current richness of our culture, our "New Zealandness',' is surely the product of a unique mix of Maori and European elements, (not forgetting the subsequent contribution of other cultures, of course).

Maori are horribly over-represented in many of our most depressing statistics. There's clearly an element of socio-economic influence here, but some Maori activists would like to blame the colonial process for the number of young Maori men in prison, children abused or living in poverty. On the other hand, Pakeha commentators such as Michael Laws blame Maori cultural heritage for these problems.

Of course, these issues are complex and this is where we tend to get reasons and excuses mixed up.

There's no excuse for bad behaviour and most New Zealanders of all ethnicities are pretty clear about what constitutes bad behaviour. But there are reasons why people, and groups of people behave the way they do and we would be very foolish not to look carefully at these reasons to see if they might inform solutions.

Some will say that the so-called Maori "extremists" like politician Hone Harawira and academic Margaret Mutu are not willing to work with pakeha to improve relationships. But in a healthy democracy, we should expect to encounter extreme views on both sides of an issue.

Such views are thought provoking, they create healthy debate and often lead to positive change. Consider the achievements of that wildly revolutionary group who were going to bring down society, the suffragists.

In a healthy democracy, extreme views cannot dominate, but they can help bring about solutions.

As New Zealanders we could all be thinking better about issues around the relationship between Maori and pakeha.

We need to condemn thoughtless racism whenever it happens because such acts are never helpful. To borrow a Salvation Army slogan, "We're all in this together." We all need to work on our thinking and attitudes so we can go forward together as the united and wonderfully diverse people of New Zealand that we aspire to be.