The dunce of Dunners

Last updated 10:39 23/11/2008

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Say what you like about Dunedin's marketing types, but they certainly know how to make a splash.

Short of threatening to toss ropes over the lower limbs of the trees in Logan Park or burn crosses outside the West Indies' team hotel, they could hardly have hoped for more publicity for their upcoming cricket test. "It's All White Here". Good grief. That's not a promotional slogan; it's just an unfortunate fact of life.

It might have even been funny had officials reacted with enough alacrity to dismiss the idea as an unfortunate gaffe when they had the chance last week. But no, they backed down reluctantly on the slogan and decided to continue marketing the theme of a "White Out". Business houses will still be draped in white. New Zealand supporters attending the match will still be encouraged to dress up in white. If awards were to be given for missing the point, these guys would be runaway winners.

Highlights so far have included mayor Peter Chin insisting Dunedin is a racism-free zone because he is Chinese, and Dunedin City Council spokeswoman Debra Simes enlightening us with the revelation that no one involved in the plan had considered the chance of racial implications. Really? Talk about uttering the blindingly obvious. The question yet to be answered is how anyone could not? Are they living under a rock?

This is the West Indies, after all. Many, if not most, who visit Dunedin for the opening test will be descended from African slaves abducted and sold to white plantation owners by white British slave masters. A quick visit to any of the main islands in the region should convince any white-skinned doubters of the resentment that still lingers. For many West Indians, white is not as much a colour, as an issue. And they have a right to be touchy.

Almost all the early West Indies cricket teams had a white player as skipper, in keeping with imperial Britain's view that non-whites were intellectually incapable. Len Hutton's 1954 English tourists openly condoned racism in the Caribbean. Clyde Walcott said he was disgusted with what he saw. It wasn't until Frank Worrell's appointment in 1960 that a black man captained the West Indies for an entire series. Even then, that South African- born buffoon Tony Grieg still managed to enrage the West Indian tourists with a racially-charged slur in 1976.

It's a tough job deciding whether those who claim the Dunedin campaign is OK because it carries no calculated offence are simply embracing ignorance in order to duck the issue, or really are as clueless as they sound. Already we're hearing from simpletons who see nothing wrong with the promotion because, they claim, white is just a colour; nothing more, nothing less. They prefer to blame the entire controversy on (yes, you guessed it) political correctness. The last refuge of the socially retarded.

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Thankfully, most folk have more common sense. An online poll on Thursday by Christchurch newspaper The Press showed that 31% of respondents thought the idea inappropriate, only because 50.7% opted for the answer, "has someone lost their mind?" Christchurch-based Sam Guillen, who played for both the West Indies and New Zealand, said he was in no doubt his countrymen would take offence. Dunedin-based Billy Ibadulla, the former Pakistan test batsmen and renowned coach, called it "stupid" and "ill-conceived".

These people clearly understand the reality: that it's not how locals interpret the message that counts, but how the West Indian people and the rest of the world interpret it. White hosts are not supposed to invite black guests into their house and bombard them with ambiguously racist taunts. Not any longer, anyway. The Dunedin connection might wring their hands and plead that no offence was intended, but what are they really trying to say? "Gosh, sorry - we didn't realise you were still so uptight. Aren't you guys over it yet?"

As for the weak apologies (to anyone who "might" be offended), you can only hope these are treated with the disdain they deserve. If any of the relevant officials were genuine about not wanting to cause angst for their guests, the promotion would have been pulled entirely. To go from "It's All White Here" to a "White Out" hardly qualifies as an emphatic rejection of the charge. Quite the contrary, in fact. It now looks like they're trying to get away with it by stealth.

The most ludicrous aspect of this controversy? Only that it's so unnecessary. Out of character, as well. Barring the treatment of Chinese prospectors during the heady days of the gold rush, Dunedin has no reputation for this type of insensitivity and, if anything, has been relatively enlightened on social issues, no doubt due to the influence of its fabulous university. It has always been the champion of the underdog; the spiritual home of David. A shade neurotic, perhaps, but never brazen.

Last week's aberration was just a silly mistake that can still be put to rights, if the powers-that-be are prepared to swallow some pride. There is still plenty of time, not only to scrap the daft "white out" campaign, but to also come up with a substitute promotion that wouldn't turn them (and by association us) into the laughing stock of world cricket. In fact, given the lack of thought that went into the initial idea, you'd imagine they could dream up a dozen new proposals by lunchtime tomorrow.

For all that, I still can't get over the DCC spokeswoman's comment about no one considering the possible racial implications of such an idea. C L R James, the great Trinidadian author would no doubt be turning in his grave. All the great struggles against white oppression, and now this? All the years of white hegemony, of being treated as second-class citizens, and now we expect them to not take any offence? Ah well, I guess CLR was right. What do they know of marketing, who only marketing know?

- Sunday Star Times

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