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April 6, 2009 | by  | in Opinion |
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A Natural Progression

Race has always been a fuzzy area for me.

I was raised in Southern Florida, an area blessed with vibrant cultural diversity. Black Americans, white Americans, Cubans, Haitians (sak pase zanmi mwen yo!), people from all over the Caribbean, Central and South America, Asia, proud Southerners, Yankees, French Canadians, a healthy Jewish population, a growing Muslim community—all call sunny South Florida their home.

I’m also mixed, which often led to some confusion. In kindergarden, I remember my mother asking me, after hanging up the telephone, “Why did you tell your teacher I was black?”

It made sense at the time. I knew Whitney Houston was black; I knew my mom was darker than Whitney: totally logical in my five year-old head. “It’s complicated,” being her answer to why she was, in fact, not black. “…I’m confused,” being my reply.

Photos of my sister and I at the beach with white-blond hair and near-black skin, my father’s green eyes, my aunt Roseni’s afro, the rainbow of children I went to school with… none of it made any sense.

I first encountered racism not directly, but through the struggle of my black friends. I was sickened when I witnessed first-hand that people actually were pulled over for “driving while black.” After that incident—livid and set for revolution—I asked my friend, who seemed saddened but not too fussed, how he could be alright with what just happened. “It’s okay, Andrew. That’s how these things are.”

Racism is still alive and well. You know who can attest to that? Black people. They know because they encounter it every day of their lives. It’s white people who think they’re doing everyone this big favour.

It was only when I came to New Zealand that I discovered just how “white” white people could be, and not only New Zealanders but other Americans. Foolishly, I’d always assumed that “my” American was the same as the rest of American; in many ways, it was more of a culture shock meeting students from Minnesota and Tennessee than it was meeting Kiwis. You always assume that your ways are the ways of the world…. or at least your own country. This is why we travel; it’s a big world… and a big country.

New Zealand has its own struggle with racism.

There’s a healthy dose of stereotyping on TV, especially the ads: Instant Finance commercials—predatory lenders—marketing directly to Maori and Pacific Islanders. “SPLAY AND WARK AWAY!” Melanesians talking American jive, trying to get their phones reconnected, “It’ my cousin’ fault. Mmm-hmm.” What’s the reasoning behind this? What does it serve?

This appalling ‘warrior gene’ theory—which says more about the motives of the ‘scientist’ than about any claim to science—was a basic human rights infringement. Did you ever ask yourself why someone would sit down and try to ‘prove’, scientifically, that Maori were more prone to violence than other races? Where do you even go from there? “Oh, just flag ‘em… they’re built wrong.”

It’s a convenient diagnosis which allows for no prognosis, to make that status quo appear more acceptable. The real solutions to these issues—for which there are no shortage of examples, the world over, whenever one group is marginalised by another—involves a questioning of our societal values, our moral framework, challenging our assumptions, and a genuine willingness to meet in the middle. Racism is more convenient.

There’s this nonsense about the ‘h’ in Wanganui, with morons saying they’ll fight the decision all the way. “It is an attack upon the integrity of my city. […] an affront to democracy and every concept of equity.”

What? There’s no need to wrap yourself in the flag; just spell the word right.

It’s not as if Wanganui is some bastion of racial equality. Shall we shamelessly pander to people’s prejudice for political reasons? Do you know where that road leads?

Whether it’s those ‘white power’ boys or the Mongrel Mob, their racism and hatred all stem from the same place: ignorance, intolerance, and a demonisation of the Other. You really wanna keep fanning the flames?

“Oh, but the local dialect doesn’t even pronounce the ‘h!’” Good, you’ll have less to change; you can keep calling in ‘Wanganui’. But spell the damned word right!

This is meaningless conversation… absolutely meaningless.

It’s not as if we’re in an era of economic prosperity where you could actually afford to play the wedge issue, Mr. Laws—to which we’re now all grotesquely accustomed. That’s what this is, a wedge issue designed to keep you divided.

You stick the wedge to the wood, bang on it with a hammer and the wood comes apart. It’s breaking your house—trashing your house—and when the foundation’s gone you’ll have to lay a whole new slab. You all live in same house; do yourself a favour, stop it.

Mum was right; it is complicated. To be completely fair, New Zealand, you’re doing better than a lot of places. Of course, these things aren’t easily changed. But the change has to start somewhere. Let it start with you. We’ll get there eventually. Early days now… baby-steps.

That’s the beauty of this Obama presidency. A young, African-American family now lives in big White House built by slaves. I’d never thought I’d live to see a black President in my lifetime; I’ve never been prouder to call myself an American. We’ve finally started the 21st century. This is the natural progression of things.

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About the Author ()

Andrew Mendes is an American studying International Relations and Public Policy at Victoria. He enjoys following politics and reading lots of news.

Comments (12)

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  1. Kerry says:

    If you think Welli has challenged your version of ‘white’, you need to visit Auckland, and not just on the flight out, at least once.

    In the space of 3 days, I have arrived in AK CBD, shopped in Papatoetoe, been to a Fijian-Indian family celebration to welcome a new baby on the North Shore, and I’m tentatively booked to go to a full muslim wedding in a fortnight.
    It’s a blast, and it’s sometimes like being a tourist in my own country, because I’m seeing a suburban culture quite unlike my own academic, suburban existance in the fringe suburbs of the ‘Capital City University’.

    I’m a 7th generation pakeha new zealander; my son-in-law is a Fijian Indian Muslim … and in the past 12 months, we have discovered just how much racism we can expect from Joe Public in Aotearoa/ New Zealand.

    There’s only a tad over 4 million of us here, but we certainly have the pre-judgement gene turned up high. Some days, I’m just ashamed of the deference people in shops will offer me, while completely ignoring my son-in-law, trying to get retail service, standing by my side.

    Then there’s bureaucratic prejudice, and legislative prejudice, both of while memebers of recent immigrant communities are experiencing all the time. Ask anyone who’s trying to get work permits, residency or citizenship paperwork thorugh – try the local Translation centre, or the migrant resettlement organisations, if you really want to know.

    Newspaper headlines scream about outbreaks of notifiable diseases, coyly ‘protecting’ the name of the afflicted person, while disclosing the ethnic community to which the patient belongs. Passive-agressive racism, in all it’s turgid glory … Not just an American experince, my friend, not by a long way.

  2. Kerry says:

    aarggh, typo’s
    – Jackson, if you could swap this para for the offending one, ta:

    Then there’s bureaucratic prejudice, and legislative prejudice, both of which members of recent immigrant communities are experiencing all the time. Ask anyone who’s trying to get work permits, residency or citizenship paperwork through – try the local Translation centre, or the migrant resettlement organisations, if you really want to know.

    I need my afternoon siesta …
    Arrividerci, Salienteers!

  3. Mr Magoo says:

    Dear Kerry,
    Please read this: http://www.salient.org.nz/news/old-people-why-don%E2%80%99t-they-just-die
    That is all,
    PS you’re ooooooold

  4. Matthew_Cunningham says:

    Mr Magoo:
    “Dear Kerry,
    Please read this: http://www.salient.org.nz/news/old-people-why-don%E2%80%99t-they-just-die
    That is all,
    PS you’re ooooooold”

    Not cool, man. If you disagree with what Kerry has to say then construct a convincing counter-argument rather than resorting to name-calling. You don’t have to agree to be civil.

    Regarding the article itself:
    “There’s this nonsense about the ‘h’ in Wanganui, with morons saying they’ll fight the decision all the way. “It is an attack upon the integrity of my city. […] an affront to democracy and every concept of equity.”

    What? There’s no need to wrap yourself in the flag; just spell the word right.”

    I think the question of naming conventions goes a lot deeper than the mere addition of an extra ‘h’. The issue of civic versus cultural pride is only the most visible face of the debate, with neither side wanting to ‘pander’ to the other. There are also pragmatic economic concerns – updating maps, signs, business names – which, whilst hardly ruinous, raise the question of exactly who should pay for them. Whilst I understand and appreciate the Maori concern for tradition and mana, I can also understand the local business owner who feels outraged at the idea of spending several thusand dollars out of their own pocket to update their signs, advertising and the like.

    More broadly, there is also the issue of cultural right – that being, is cultural longevity the only gradient against which naming conventions should be validated? If a city is known by a particular name – albeit a misspelt one – for over a hundred years, does it not also have a claim to cultural right due to habit and tradition? Since both names are technically human ‘mental’ constructs used to represent a particular ‘physical’ location, propagated through widespread acceptance and usage, are there really any non-subjective grounds on which one name can claim precedence over the other?

    Or, more simply, it’s just a name, and the simple matter of an extra ‘h’ isn’t worth all this fuss. Note to self – stop reading Foucault.

    Cheers, Matt.

  5. Mr Magoo says:

    You’re a lame-o

  6. Andrew Mendes says:

    Interesting perspective… and I like the mental gymnastics.

    That should have sounded like a compliment.

    I was looking at it from the perspective that if this initiative is defeated, then it sets a precedent further marginalizing the importance of Maori traditional culture. This culture is a treasure; I can’t understand why people are so eager to see it die out. You’re so unique in that respect. Should we underpin its value to implementation costs? I suppose it’s a matter of priorities.

    Thanks for the comments.

  7. Kerry says:

    Andrew, Matt –

    I also studied Maaori reo in my undergrad days, and was a part of the 80’s swing to biculturalism that fell over during the last National government (1990-99).

    What the iwi in W(h)anganui want is a return to an orthographic standard that was evident in early surveyors’ documents, where the local dialect was used, but was deviated from when a ‘standard’ maaori pronunciation and spelling were created by the NZBC, not a century ago, but rather in mid-20th C.

    Once again, I can lay blame at the door of sloppy media thinking, not backed by academic rigour; it has to be said that this was in the days of ‘english will be spoken at all times’ teaching curricula, and a phase-out of every-day maaori language, as part of an assimilation process from the ’40’s onwards. The rise of the Kohanga Reo movement in the mid-80’s was abacklash from the rangatahi, to the previous generation’s thinking.

    Magoo: I am an historian, I look back further than my own lifetime, on a regular basis.
    Perhaps you could consider starting with Michael King’s excellent History of New Zealand, which is a very readable introduction for those who have not read any history during the course of their education.

  8. Matthew_Cunningham says:

    Kerry:
    Not being an expert on New Zealand history I don’t feel qualified to argue either way regarding historical precedent for a particular naming convention. However, I notice that the ‘Whanganui Proposal Report’ prepared by Ngā Pou Taunaha o Aotearoa for the consideration of the New Zealand Geographic Board does not support your assertion that the name Wanganui was not established in the “mid-20th C”. There are a number of historic land records dating from the 1850’s that utilise the “h’less” spelling.

    The confusion seems far more likely to have been due to an incorrect Anglicisation rather than a deliberate attempt to enforce an “‘english will be spoken at all times’ teaching curricula”.

    Andrew Mendes: I agree, the Maori culture of New Zealand certainly is a treasure. I feel the same way about the indigenous Australian culture (being an Aussie and all). I think the need to preserve and celebrate indigenous culture is vitally important, both as a contribution to national identity and as a means to come to terms with our often not so shiny colonial past. However, I often wonder if an overly strict approach to cultural preservation is detrimental to indigenous culture, in that a rigid adherence to the past prevents cultural change. I think indigenous culture is all too often perceived as a static thing, when in reality it evolves and incorporates new practices just as any culture does. The ‘Great Fleet’ and the ‘Io cult’ are prime examples of recent additions to Maori culture (see Alan Hanson, ‘The Making of the Maori: Culture Invention and its Login’, American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 91, No. 4 (Dec., 1989), pp. 890-902).

    Cheers, Matt.

  9. Matthew_Cunningham says:

    Edit:
    ‘does not support your assertion that the name Wanganui was not established in the “mid-20th C”’

    should be:

    ‘does not support your assertion that the name Wanganui was not established UNTIL the “mid-20th C”’

    :)

  10. Tristan says:

    Admittedly, given that the main written form of Maori until the 19th century was carving and weaving rather than our phonetic alphabet, the designation of correctness is fraught…

    that said, now that we have an established spelling system for each dialect, it makes sense to use our rationalised spellings, just as India renamed Bombay Mumbai.

    Regarding Whanganui, the New Zealand Company tried to rename the city Petre (after the Company’s chairman, Lord Petre) after it became the main spinoff from Wellington in the early 40s, but Wanganui stuck and became official in 1854. Given the tendency then, as now, for Pakeha to regard the “Maori” as a unified people sharing the same attributes and culture, rather than as a group of unique tribes, the settlers believed they were using the correct spelling, having learned that in generic Te Reo Maoir, wh = f.

    Nowadays, given that most of us whities ignore even the phonetic Maori pronunciations (re: Paraparaumu), it’s hard to see how introducing a correct spelling that upsets phonetic exactness is really a problem. Furthermore, most of my community – rural white Nelsonians – pronounce Atiwha as “ate-a-wai”, completely ignoring the Wh=f ruling even when it Should be applied. It’s a habit that took me many years to shake. The point being, given that most Pakeha (and many Maori) already ignore the way Te Reo Maori is spelt, how can we justify complaining that the dialectic spelling is weird?

    Yes, it means we have to change what is on maps. But the river officially reverted to Whanganui in 1991; and now we have Wanganui Hospital as part of Whanganui District Health Board, which is annoying. The change may require work, but it also removes the current inconsistency, so there is a purely practical – as opposed to cultural and legal – reason to revert.

    Of course, this isn’t about confusing dialects, or even civic pride, really. When Michael Laws discussed the issue in a “Wanganui” District Council meeting earlier this week, he simply used it as an excuse to rant about South African referees in the Super 14. The campaign against ‘h’ is not being driven by a genuine Pakeha cultural integrity; but rather, by a man who has said on air (as a Radio Live host) that the human race is splitting into a short/fat/brown/dumb line and a tall/thin/pale/smart line. Keep in mind that Laws is himself quite short, and you have the root of his “passion” for opposing the H. This is why option 4 in Salient’s poll is currently something like four times as popular as any of the other options.

    My point being simply to agree with what Andrew said. Shweet.

  11. Tristan says:

    and yes, i did misspell Maori as Maoir during a rant about spelling. My bad.

  12. Andrew Mendes says:

    Random thought—Isn’t it funny that we have to meticulously proof-read and cover our asses out of fear that our argument being pulled apart on the bases of spelling and punctuation? As if a good idea or a valid point is only so it its delivery’s good. That whole “emphasis on appearance rather than integrity” issue plaguing our world.

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