Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind


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Institutional racism?

One of the difficult parts of being part of a minority group is having your group or aspects of your group defined by the majority group. As an autistic person, every time I leave home I am subjected to a world that pays little heed to the needs of neurodivergent folk. At best there is token allowances for which I’m expected to be grateful. For the most part, I’m expected to put on a mask of normalcy no matter what, and hide my true identity. But should I?

Ethnic minorities also face similar hurdles. Yesterday in Parliament an MP (Member of Parliament) was prevented from speaking by the Speaker, and was eventually ordered from the House when trying to raise a point of order over the matter. His crime was that, in the opinion of the Speaker, he was not dressed appropriately. Standing orders require that in Parliament MPs must be appropriately dressed, which is for men to wear a jacket and tie as part of “business attire”.

In an email sent from Speaker Trevor Mallard, to MP Rawiri Waititi, the Speaker said that a review of the Standing Orders supported members dressing in formal wear of the cultures they identify with. This lies at the heart of the matter and I will address this shortly.

Rawiri Waititi was wearing a business shirt and jacket, but instead of a tie he wore a hei-tiki. For many Māori, the wearing of a hei tiki is part of their cultural, spiritual and personal identity. The fact that he was prevented from speaking raises several issues in my mind. I’ll get the least controversial aspect out of the way first.

What is “business attire?

A quick search online revealed a range of “business attire”, including “casual“, “smart casual“, “business casual“, “business informal“, “business professional” and “business formal” just to name a few. And that’s only for Western dress. Whew!

In the New Zealand context, I would argue that typical business wear for men over recent decades is dress shirt, dress trousers, dress shoes, a jacket and for most occasions a tie is optional. Here, I use “typical” to refer to accepted Pākehā dress (around 70% of the population identify as Pākehā or NZ European).

The Speaker is of the view that ties should be optional and last year he sought the opinion of MPs about abandoning the rule on ties. Apparently there was little support for a change, so the standing order remains – a tie is mandatory. Fair enough, you might say. The majority have spoken, so that’s the end of the matter. To me that shouts out tyranny of the majority.

Racism

I’ve titled this article “institutional racism?” simply because it’s a term that will be most familiar to my readers. To my mind, the term race is a very blunt tool when it comes to understanding the oppression of and discrimination against minorities. I see race as being a set of physical characteristics that make one group distinctive from another. It says nothing about culture, cultural expectations or cultural values.

Regretfully, racism (judging a person or group by their physical appearance) does exist in this country. I have witnessed it although it has never been directed at me in Aotearoa New Zealand in a form that I am able to recognise. I have experienced “low level overt racism” while in Japan, especially in the ’70s and ’80s. In recent visits to Japan, it’s mostly limited to assumptions that I would prefer to use a knife and fork instead of chopsticks, or that I would be more comfortable shaking hands than bowing, neither of which are true. I have an intense dislike to shaking hands and avoid doing so as much as possible. My eating utensils of choice are chopsticks, even for some western style meals.

My children did experience overt racism as youngsters, principally from their peers, and if they are subjected to racism as adults it’s more likely to be covert in nature. If racism has been directed at the wife, she has been oblivious to it, although she has described incidents where I suspect racism has been a factor.

However the issue at the heart of the article is not about race but about custom and culture.

Cultural oppression

While in Japan, I knew it was inappropriate to blow my nose into a handkerchief or to eat an ice cream while walking along the street. Japan is very much a monocultural society, and while I attempted to adapt to the subtleties of Japanese culture, many I were oblivious to, and as a Gaijin visitor I was given much more leeway than I would be given if I had had a more permanent residence there.

Aotearoa New Zealand claims to be a “bicultural multi-ethnic” society. Our founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, guaranteed Māori as Tangata whenua (literally “people of the land”) equal partnership with the British Crown and specifically protects land, customary rights and traditions. For most of this nation’s subsequent history the treaty has been ignored. Only in the past fifty years have the descendents of those settlers and more recent arrivals begun to recognise the significance of that founding document, and then, often grudgingly.

I don’t believe racial discrimination is a significant issue in this country although it does exist and can deeply affect those subjected to it. On the other hand cultural oppression is vey significant. Any law, regulation, requirement or expectation that diminishes, devalues or denies aspects of cultural identity is effectively cultural oppression. This particularly applies to Māori, given their status as tangata whenua, their rights under the Treaty, and as they constitute a significant minority within this country.

A hundred years ago, the accepted view, including by some Māori leaders was that the best hope for Māori was assimilation – effectively making Māori into brown Pākehā. The practice and teaching of Māori knowledge and wisdom was suppressed as was the use of Te Reo Māori (the Māori language). No room or recognition was given to Māori custom or values. Some Pākehā still hold the same view today.

It didn’t succeed. It created a downtrodden, demoralised subculture that has and continues to have serious repercussion for Māori and to a lesser extent for the rest of society. Thankfully the last fifty has seen an almost miraculous revival of Māori culture, and some of it is rubbing off on sections of the Non-Māori population. This is, in my opinion, healthy for our society.

With that background out of the way, let’s return to MP Rawiri Waititi and his “missing” tie. I believe the Speaker made the wrong call on several grounds. I’ll go through these in the order they come to mind, not in order of importance.

Letter of the law versus spirit of the law.

I’m a firm believer that the spirit/intent/purpose of of a law/regulation/rule is just as important at the letter of the law. Why was the law drafted in the first place? I would argue that the tie rule was not simply an arbitrary rule enforcing a culturally biased dress code, but part of package to maintain the dignity and respect that Parliament deserves as the highest court in the land. The tie rule should be applied in a descriptive manner, not in a prescriptive manner.

Clearly, the wearing into the House of a dirty singlet, a wrinkled pair of stubbies and worn out jandals (thongs to Australians and flip flops to the rest of the English speaking world) would lower the dignity of Parliament. But so too would the wearing of a weather beaten food stained tie and jacket retrieved off an old scarecrow that had been in a cornfield for several years. Yet it would meet the letter of the law as the standing order is currently worded.

Instead, Waititi wore a dress shirt, a business suit and replaced the tie with a culturally significant alternative adornment. I fail to see how this could possibly have negative effect on the dignity of Parliament and in fact I believe it enhances that reputation by not imposing the preferences of one culture onto another culture.

Freedom of expression

The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act (NZBORA) guarantees the right to freedom of expression in any form and this should not be restricted. An example of this that NZ law prohibits the desecration of the national flag of any nation. However the courts have have taken the view that the public desecration of a national flag is a legitimate way of expressing an opinion regarding the actions or stance of a country or its representatives and so is protected by the NZBORA. I think it would require that the only motive for the desecration was to cause offence before there was any likelihood of a prosecution being successful.

Waititi feels very strongly that Māori have been subjected to “colonial oppression”, and who can blame him. The evidence is there for anyone who cares to look. Outside Parliament, Waititi stated that his hei-tiki is his tie of choice. It ties him to his tīpuna (ancestors), whenua (the land where his ancestors have lived and where their placenta are buried), and his people. He went on to say that the political party he represents will not be subjugated nor assimilated to dated colonial rules. “I will not be forced to wear a tie.. this is about standing up against subjugation or assimilation”. Is not the wearing of a hei tiki an expression of his identity and also a stance against what he views as cultural oppression by Pākehā.

Who decides what is “culturally appropriate”?

Waititi has described his dress as “Māori business attire”. Is it the place of the (Pākehā) Speaker to determine what is Māori business attire, or is that the domain of Māori? From my observations, a great many Māori businessmen display a hei tiki or other traditional forms such as a hei matau (stylised fish hook) instead of, (or sometimes over) a tie.

Rawiri Waititi listens to the Speaker’s reprimand (photo: ROBERT KITCHIN/STUFF)

Being culturally sensitive

Māori culture is going through a renaissance and there is growing sense of pride for their traditions and values and how those are expressed. What right have I as a Pākehā to say how Māori should express their culture? The Speaker suggested that Waititi take the tie issue to the Parliamentary business select committee for adjudication, but as Māori are a distinct minority on that committee, isn’t it still a case of Pākehā deciding whether or not a hei tiki is “appropriate”? I would consider it insulting if I were in Waititi’s position. Surely we’re all adult enough to listen to the aspirations of groups that are not our own.

Recognising the rights of others

We live in a pluralistic society with many cultures, religions, lifestyles, and outlooks. There’s more than enough room for them all. We all deserve to be able to live a life as we best see fit. There is no place however for one group to impose its values and practices on another, be it cultural, religious, political or economic.

Epilogue

I was going to rant on some more, but circumstances have changed. Today Rawiri Waititi returned to Parliament in the same attire as yesterday. When he rose to speak, there was an audible sigh from Speaker Mallard, but he did not prevent Waititi from speaking. I won’t speculate on why the Speaker had a change of heart, even if it appeared to be somewhat reluctantly. But I am pleased that he did. It was the correct decision. He should have made it yesterday.


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“Say I Slew Them Not” Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity, and the U.S. Response to COVID19 — The Inglorius Padre Steve’s World

If you haven’t read the article (below) by Padre Steve, do so. It has relevance to every nation, every community, every social group. This quote from one of the commenters on that blog ring true:

The quote by Martin Luther King comes to me often these days: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

jilldennison

Friends of Padre Steve’s World, I have to admit that the amount of ignorance in the defense of evil that I see daily is simply mind blowing. It makes me shake my head. But then I cannot be surprised anymore. Over the weekend I saw a poll in which nine percent of Americans said that […]

“Say I Slew Them Not” Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity, and the U.S. Response to COVID19 — The Inglorius Padre Steve’s World


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Adam Serwer, a staff writer for The Atlantic and a Shorenstein fellow, discusses the lasting appeal of white supremacist ideology in light of an avowed white supremacist’s attack on two mosques in New Zealand that killed 50 people and injured dozens more.

via Harvard fellow examines rise — and roots — of white supremacy — Harvard Gazette


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One Tree Hill

Some songs tend to haunt me. They get into my head and stay – sometimes long after the welcoming mat has been withdrawn. But there are a few that I’m happy to have stay for an extended period. One song in particular has bitter sweet memories.

It was written to honour the memory of a former work mate of mine. Greg became the fifth staff member of the local branch of the multinational I.T company I worked for.  He was around ten years younger than I was, and we worked together for around two years. He left the company around 1980 to join a local band, which from memory, was called something like Straight Flash.

Greg was very likeable. He was always charming, humorous and witty, always polite, and very considerate of others. In other words he was real gentleman, even though he was still in his teens. Travelling took up a lot of our work day and sometimes two of us might spend up to six hours in one day as we traveled between various jobs. We’d take turns at driving, and whoever was in the passenger seat usually did most of the talking. To be honest, I can no longer recall what we talked about, but I remember that I enjoyed his company as talk was not oriented towards sport and other topics that typically occupy the minds of teenage males.

Unfortunately the branch manager was one of those people who can often be heard starting a comment with “I’m not a racist, but…”. To him all Māori were lazy, and incompetent of performing tasks that require intelligence and skill. While he acknowledged Greg’s courtesy, and reluctantly conceded Greg’s grooming was always immaculate, in fact better than anyone else our small team, he was always critical of Greg’s ability as an engineer. It was the criticism he was constantly under, I believe, that caused him to leave the company and seek greener pastures the music industry.

Eventually Greg became a very close friend of Bono from the band U2 after a chance late night meeting when the band was touring Aotearoa New Zealand. Greg took Bono to the inaptly named One Tree Hill (it’s a volcano, not a hill, and although there was a lone tree near the summit, that was removed for safety reasons several decades ago). The “hill” is of great spiritual significance to the Māori, and apparently Greg successfully conveyed much of the meaning to Bono.

Unfortunately Greg was killed in a motor vehicle crash in Ireland in 1986. This song was composed in Greg’s memory and the vocals were recorded in a single take because Bono didn’t feel he would be able to do more.

I often think of Greg, and wonder what he could have achieved if his life wasn’t cut so short at the young age of 26. Hearing this song as I did this morning, always brings his memory back to the front of my mind. I still miss him. R.I.P. Greg Carroll.

One Tree Hill

We turn away to face the cold, enduring chill
As the day begs the night for mercy love
The sun so bright it leaves no shadows
Only scars carved into stone
On the face of earth
The moon is up and over One Tree Hill
We see the sun go down in your eyes

You run like river, on like a sea
You run like a river runs to the sea

And in the world a heart of darkness
A fire zone
Where poets speak their heart
Then bleed for it
Jara sang, his song a weapon
In the hands of love
You know his blood still cries
From the ground

It runs like a river runs to the sea
It runs like a river to the sea

I don’t believe in painted roses
Or bleeding hearts
While bullets rape the night of the merciful
I’ll see you again
When the stars fall from the sky
And the moon has turned red
Over One Tree Hill

We run like a river
Run to the sea
We run like a river to the sea
And when it’s raining
Raining hard
That’s when the rain will
Break my heart

Raining…raining in the heart
Raining in your heart
Raining…raining to your heart
Raining, raining…raining
Raining to your heart
Raining…raining in your heart
Raining in your heart..
To the sea

Oh great ocean
Oh great sea
Run to the ocean
Run to the sea

 


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I’m not White, I’m skin coloured!

How do I know I’m not white? My six year old grandchild told me!

This morning I was hanging up the washing. It’s a task that has fallen to me as I have a 35 cm (14 inch) height advantage over my wife. Anyway, young T was with me and we were taking turns naming the colour of items as I hung them up. On hanging up a particular towel, I called out “Brown”.

“Don’t be silly, Jii-chan. It’s skin colour!”

(Jii-chan means grandfather in Japanese, and distinguishes me from their paternal grandfather, who they call Opa). The towel was a light brown, almost beige colour, and it never occurred to me to think of it in any other terms.

So I corrected myself and said “Well, it’s really a light brown colour, don’t you think?”, to which he again asserted that it was skin colour and not brown – not even light brown.

In light of a recent post by Clare (Why I’m talking to white people about race), I was struck by the fact that instead of describing people in terms of colour, young T was describing colour in terms of people.

“But not everybody’s skin is the same colour”, I reminded him.

“I know that! You’re a silly Jii-chan.”

“So, if you told someone that you dried yourself with a skin coloured towel, what colour would they think it was?”

A moment in thought, then a lightbulb went off. “Oh yeah! I’d have to say whose skin colour it was like!”

“When I visited America, everyone said I was white.”

“That’s silly, Jii-chan. Nobody’s white. Nobody’s the same colour as that towel”, said young T pointing to a white towel I’d just hung up. I have to agree.

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“You’re not white, Jii-chan!”

 

In Aotearoa New Zealand it’s rare to refer to people in terms of colour. It’s more typical to refer to their ancestral cultural group or place of origin. Instead of hearing people described as white, black, brown, red or yellow, you’re more likely to hear them described as European, Pākehā, Polynesian, Māori, Native American, African, Chinese, Indian etc. So I’m not surprised he had no idea, that I’d be identified as being white in many other parts of the world.

That doesn’t mean that young T isn’t aware of cultural differences. Even at six, he’s aware that protocols differ depending where one is, and what might be acceptable within one group might not be acceptable within another. I want him to be familiar and comfortable in the cultures of his grandparents: Pākehā, Japanese and Māori, but I hope he never learns to associate those cultures and the differences between them with race. In fact I hope he never learns the concept of race. Culture and ethnicity, yes. But race, no.

On the other hand, when he’s ready, I want him to understand that history has not always been kind to some communities, and some ethnic groups have been disadvantaged by the actions of other groups, including our own. We, as members of humanity, have a responsibility not to allow the status quo to continue, but to take an active role in striving for a more equitable world.


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Who’s being racist?

Last year, there was a petition circulating calling for a boycott of a joint New Zealand Australian production of The New Legends Of Monkey because the petitioners claim the show is guilty of “whitewashing“. I refused to sign the petition at the time as I was unaware of the background behind it. However, if I had known the details, I still would not have signed.

The petitioner’s argument was that “media producers who replace Asian characters with white actors reinforce the idea that ‘whiteness’ is the standard and European features are the epitome of beauty, thereby convincing non-white children to loathe their own appearances and develop self-hate”. The four lead roles are played by Kiwis and Aussies.

The show is the latest in a line of fantasy TV series produced in Aotearoa New Zealand, some for NZ viewers and some for international audiences, including Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess, Legend of the Seeker, Dark Knight, and The Almighty Johnsons, among others.

With the exception of The Almighty Johnsons, which was set in present day New Zealand, the shows depict mythological worlds loosely based on legends that themselves are set in a specific place and time. However, the shows are simply themed on the legend and make no attempt to accurately portray a specific place and time in history.

The same can be said of The New Legends of Monkey. The story is loosely based on a Chinese legend, and while the legend was set in China (after all, the story tellers and audiences were Chinese and possibly knew little of other cultures), that setting isn’t essential for the retelling of the story. The theme of the show is not an attempt to recreate a historically accurate depiction of a particular time in Chinese history. In the words of its creators the story is set in a “magical fantasy world“.

If the the actors were made up to appear as though they belonged to a different ethnicity by changing facial features (often in exaggerated form), then I believe that would be inappropriate, especially if race (I dislike that word), culture or ethnicity was part of the plot. If the series was filmed in China, then I expect it would be natural for all the cast would be Chinese, including all the minor roles and walk on parts.

However, it was shot in New Zealand, and the the ethnic mix of the actors, both lead and minor are not that different from a typical cross section of Kiwi society. Two of the lead actors speak in a fake accent, but it’s not in a hammed-up Chinese accent, which would indeed be a case of whitewashing. It’s a North American accent to make the show more attractive to a wider Netflix audience. The rest use accents commonly found in New Zealand.

I also question whether “whitewashing” could be applied under any circumstance in relation to the show.  Josh Thomson (Pigsy) and Luciane Buchanan (Tripitaka) are Tongan Kiwis, and Chai Hansen (Monkey) is Thai-Australian, leaving Emilie Cocquerel (Sandy) as the only “white” actor. So the term is clearly inappropriate in the case of The New Legends of Monkey.

While I’m not claiming whitewashing doesn’t happen, as it certainly has in the past and still does to some extent, I really think those promoting the boycott were way off the mark with this particular show. In fact I feel like they are a “tiny bit racist“.

In Aotearoa New Zealand The New Legends of Monkey can be viewed on TVNZ On Demand and Netflix. I confess I’m a fan of this genre. Below are trailers for the six TV shows mentioned in this article.