Racism is an ugly prejudice

RICHARD SWAINSON
Last updated 07:57 26/06/2012

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Richard Swainson

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Racism is an ugly prejudice, unbecoming and unjustifiable. To assume that a person's shortcomings are in anyway grounded in the colour of their skin or other, less obvious aspects of their genetic makeup is a mentality that indulges the irrational.

The belief that certain cultures or cultural practices are inferior to that of the Western mainstream merely by dint of their difference is one that denies the common humanity that connects us all.

Whatever these philosophical truths, racism is as alive and well in New Zealand, as it is in every other country in the world. True, we are not a nation that boos at the sight of black footballers on the soccer pitch or burns crosses on lawns. The likes of Louis Crimp, of Invercargill, are marginal players on our political stage and lip service is generally paid to the ideals of tolerance and respect. New Zealand racism is on the whole more subtle, at times to the point of being unconscious.

Pakeha New Zealand is given to easy stereotypes. Indians run the corner dairy, the Dutch are tight with their money and the Irish prone to drunken revelry. These generalisations pale, though, next to the prejudice at the heart of society. I'm talking about attitudes which brand our first peoples as somehow less intelligent and industrious citizens, as folk with a greater aptitude towards criminality and violence, as an under-educated ethnic group that is over-represented when it comes to poverty, incarceration and lifestyle-related illness.

I used to work for a man who wore his racism on his sleeve. Deeply suspicious of any Maori customers who condescended to use his video store, he refused to employ any indigenous personnel. When a part-Maori woman was accidentally given a job, he questioned her honesty while, ironically enough, making no secret of the fact that he found her physically attractive.

In time, I discovered that the man's internal contradictions went ever further. Despite often referring to the tanga te whenua in language that would make a Ku Klux Klansman blush, he had fathered a Maori son.

It wasn't easy working for such a person. I cannot claim to have challenged him on his attitudes or expressions and often laughed at appalling jokes just to keep the peace, all the time telling myself that I vehemently disagreed with his hateful philosophy.

In any case, there were strange, paradoxical limits to the boss' prejudice. He was well capable of engaging the occasional Maori customer in long, warm conversation or even doing as much at the public house, shouting a round or two and sharing the evening with those he claimed to despise.

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I thought of my former employer about a month ago when a Maori gentleman and his young lady graced my own DVD rental store. The couple spent some timing chatting before electing to join and take out two overnight rentals and a weekly one. While their manner was friendly and effusive, I would be lying if I didn't confess to having had some concerns about the pair. If I had signed up such people back in my Video Ezy days without doing exhaustive security checks, there would have been hell to pay.

Such thoughts, of course, do me no credit. In the end, I elected to do the right thing and treat the couple no differently from any other.

Our business is based on trust. If we second-guessed every customer, we wouldn't rent anything at all.

The DVDs have yet to be returned. I have been phoning the man involved on and off for a fortnight now, leaving messages and sending texts. I even spoke to his mother, his alternative contact.

Initially, very distressed that she had used his number at all, she promised to get hold of him for me.

Although I cannot believe that this man entered my shop planning to steal from it, his actions to date equate to theft. I don't know what distresses me more: the loss of three items of stock or the fact that the circumstances of the theft cannot help but reinforce latently racist stereotypes in my head.

One action by an individual Maori does not, of course, say anything about Maori per se. The gentleman behaved thus not because of genetics, still less because his ancestors' land was stolen or Treaty of Waitangi promises were otherwise broken, but any way you look at it, such behaviour has unfortunate consequences both for the people directly involved and for societal attitudes in general.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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