Hard News by Russell Brown


We should stop being surprised about racism

Fourteen years ago last month, Bic Runga flew into a storm. Down near the bottom of a glowing profile headed Is this the next Norah Jones? in Northern Ireland's Belfast Telegraph, these lines appeared:

She says her childhood was tough and racism was a constant feature.

"Relationships can be really bad between Maoris and others," she says. "The Australian situation is probably better known abroad, but unfortunately New Zealand can be a racist place too."

As luck would have it, she landed back in Auckland the day after the profile was published, to the Herald headline NZ a racist place, Bic Runga tells Irish paper. And this opening paragraph:

Christchurch singing sensation Bic Runga, who left New Zealand to further her career in Paris last year, has labelled her homeland racist.

The musician, who is half Maori and half Chinese, was quoted in the Belfast Telegraph as saying "relationships can be really bad between Maoris and others".

No welcome home, no congratulations on rave reviews on both sides of the Irish border; just a "please explain". She issued a press release the following day in which she assured the country:

"No country is without racism, I grew up with it, that was my experience. It has not made me bitter or ashamed.

"New Zealand is a beautiful and unique place. I love my country and I am proud to represent it internationally."

She declined to be interviewed by the Herald, but did come on the 95bFM Wire show I was hosting and was clearly a bit rattled by events. And understandably so. She was entitled to talk about her experience without the implication that she was somehow selling out the country.

As I wrote at the time, we should hardly be surprised that a Maori-Chinese kid growing up  in Hornby in the 1970s would experience racism. And on contemporary Māori-Pakeha relations? Don Brash had delivered his Orewa speech that same summer, for goodness sake.

The parallels a decade and half later with this week's Taika Waititi furore are quite striking. I actually included the link to his joint interview with UMO's Ruban Neilson in Dazed and Confused in last week's music post, excerpting a part I thought cast some light on the themes of Ruban's new album. I didn't make anything of Taika and Ruban exchanging notes on growing up brown, because why would I? It wasn't my experience – that's the point.

And yet, here we are again, in a predictable set-piece furore. I guess it's good that we have the discussion again, and that there is some counter-argument (although leaving Stuff comments open rather takes the shine off  that). But we really need to accept that our creative stars are not paid ambassadors and that they are as entitled as any of us to share their views and, even more so, their experiences.

We should stop ripping quotes out of context (I mean, in the part where Taika calls Aucklanders "very patronising" he's ragging on an Aucklander – what's more Kiwi than that?). And we really need to stop professing shock when well-known people observe, off the back of their own experience, that racism remains a blight in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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