Don't let it slide: what to do when someone is racist

Taika Waititi: give nothing to racism.

Taika Waititi: give nothing to racism.

Combating racism can be as simple as staring blankly when a real estate agent complains about Asian buyers at an open home, calling out a mate who makes jokes about overweight Pasifika people, or shutting down a taxi driver mocking immigrants.

Uncomfortable everyday encounters such as these are all too common, and the inspiration for a new video launched by the Human Rights Commission.

In it New Zealander of the Year Taika Waititi uses sly humour to suggest that we "give nothing" to racism — don't shrug or laugh or diffuse tension when someone says something offensive.

Dame Susan Devoy: one third of complaints to  the HRC are about racial discrimination.
Peter Meecham

Dame Susan Devoy: one third of complaints to the HRC are about racial discrimination.

"In the past many of us would have let those comments slide by and people would take silence as affirmation," says Professor Paul Spoonley, research director of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University, who encourages countering racist comments face-on. 

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"My response is always to call it out, so you simply say 'What you just said, I found offensive.' That either stops it, or escalates it.

Paul Spoonley: "Simply say, 'What you just said is offensive'."
David Unwin/Fairfax NZ.

Paul Spoonley: "Simply say, 'What you just said is offensive'."

"I think the taxi driver and the real estate agent are okay [to deal with], because you are a paying customer and you can respond. It's harder when it's members of your family, or in the dressing room after a sports game."

If someone holds an entrenched view, your comments are unlikely to sway them, so simply make yourself heard and move on, says Spoonley.

"I wouldn't use the word racism, by the way — that gets into the whole debate about being politically correct. I think as soon as someone uses a term like politically correct it says a lot more about the person than the debate. 

"Then you get into statements like 'There are no full-blooded Maori left'. It's a nonsense."

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Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy says one third of the complaints received by the HRC are about racial discrimination.

Sociologist Dr David Mayeda, a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland, says overt racism is not as much of a problem in New Zealand as covert racism. We have an issue with unconscious bias, "when people are unintentionally making discriminatory comments but there's not an intent behind it."

An example is to compliment someone by saying, '"Oh, you're really smart or really articulate for — insert the ethnic group here — and it's really a backhanded compliment," says Dr Mayeda. 

For ethnic minorities, it is "exhausting" to have accomplishments framed in terms of race, suggesting that they only got into a certain school or job because of a diversity programme. This message is often delivered in the form of a joke.

"What you're not acknowledging is that they got to that place in spite of the discrimination they and their families have faced over the years," says Dr Mayeda. "And that's not funny."

Dr Mayeda wants to see more work in primary schools to emphasise tolerance and celebrate diversity, and in secondary schools to tackle subjects such as immigration policy and the difference between prejudice and discrimination.

"Policy makers need to be in on this too."

Spoonley praised the HRC video for its creative take on racism.

"To use humour and invert what you would normally expect is a very powerful way of challenging [racism]. I started my work in the 1980s. The public discourse has actually improved a lot. A lot of things you could have said 30 years ago you certainly couldn't say now."

 - Stuff

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