Is New Zealand A Racist Country?

May 3, 2013
Iain MacLeod

That was the question put to viewers on a local TV show that aired the night I flew out of New Zealand last week. I didn’t get to watch the show but I read an online article the following day that suggested 76% of those that voted in their ‘poll’, said it was.

I confess I was very surprised. My experience is my friends are not racist. My clients overwhelmingly tell me that they have never felt racial discrimination either overtly or covertly in the work place, on the street or in any other part of their lives and New Zealand works so hard at maintaining a tolerant, secular, welcoming society that the outcome did not reflect the reality that I experience or my clients tell me they have experienced.

Naturally there are racists everywhere, but we are more known for being welcoming, tolerant and a genuinely friendly people.

Interestingly migrant groups that were asked for their reaction to this finding the next morning (and reported online) all said the same things as me – nope – NZ is not a racist country.

That tallies with the Government’s own findings – since 1998 the Department of Labour has carried out a Longitudinal Survey which seeks to track migrant experiences and outcomes. Fourteen years on, something like 95% of migrants confirm they have never been on the wrong end of anything ‘racist’.

I suspect that those who voted were not migrants. It was one of those – if you think ‘yes’ text 2354 and if you think ‘no’ text 9854 situations – prime time ‘who cares’ kind of programmes.

In the trailers that were airing in the lead up to the show I did notice that when people were stopped in the street (in Auckland) and asked ‘Is NZ a racist country?’ what struck me was that all those who looked like me and had my accent said ‘Yes’ (except one) and everyone who looked and sounded like they weren’t born in New Zealand said ‘No’. One did add, however, ‘It depends where you go in New Zealand.’ That might have been reference to the other end of the country…

I would speculate that those that think we are a racist country are probably not migrants.

Of course (and not having seen the programme I am speculating) those middle class born and bred locals might have been referring to race relations not between migrants and locals but between Pakeha (New Zealanders of European descent and others) and Maori – but I doubt it. There is no doubt that there is among a minority of both groups tension over Treaty of Waitangi settlements (a story for another day but in a nutshell that describes the Crown offering financial and non-financial redress for its acts in the late 1800s in respect of land confiscations and the feeling among some that ‘Maori get special favours’).

And therein of course lie the perils of unscientific TV polls.

I speak openly on racism at my seminars – after all New Zealand is increasingly home to people from (literally) all over the world. With 42% of Aucklanders not born in New Zealand and 20% of New Zealand residents or citizens not born in New Zealand we are increasingly a highly ethnically and culturally diverse country. It is inevitable then that there will be those who feel threatened by migrants but with hand on heart I can say I don’t hear much of it. In fact it is amazing to me that a city like Auckland which has the greatest concentration of migrants can be such a tolerant and friendly place to live without the racial tensions that can arise when the composition of a large population can change so radically over a decade or two.

I live in Mount Eden, an inner city suburb in central Auckland. When we moved into the area twenty years ago the population was young couples, crappy old ‘do up’ houses and the population was largely Pakeha and Polynesian. Over the years the Polynesians have largely moved out and the Chinese have moved in. I now sometimes joke that I live in Shanghai such is the overwhelming dominance of Chinese faces in my street adn local community. The local primary school when my sons were there had children from 41 different nationalities but they are now increasingly North Asian. All of them sound like little Kiwis when they open their mouths and they have values that might be a little different to their migrant parents.

I have often observed that with these new faces in my suburb in serious numbers, my life hasn’t changed one jot in the 20 years (except I now shop at the local ‘Asian’ Supermarket and eat more pork(!), we eat out more often at the plethora of Chinese eateries that have popped up like mushrooms (probably about 50 within ten minutes walk) and I am aware that to be a New Zealander no longer means being a rugby fanatic, being white and middle class. However, I still don’t eat dog. I prefer chickens feet on the chicken and not on my plate, I love a good curry and fried rice is more often on my home cooked menu than mashed potato and I don’t have congee for breakfast. I am not eating with chopsticks at home (except when I make sashimi…). Yet. I have not converted to Islam. I am not a Buddhist. Hinduism doesn’t much interest me. I have not been tempted to try Christianity as some cultural refuge from these migrants.

I am aware though that I live in a wonderfully diverse and exciting city that is all the better for the mixture of races and cultures that we now have.

My experience of New Zealanders is that most do not have a racist bone in their bodies. One on one we do not judge based on race, religion or ethnicity. While we are as quick as the next group to generalise (such as ‘Asians can’t drive’) my experience and that of my clients is that one on one we do not.

I’d be really interested in hearing the views of those who have travelled here, live here and have migrated here.

Have you experienced racism? If so I’d like to know the context of it, whether it is common and your thoughts.

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