The Ignorance On Display Every Waitangi Day

As January comes to a close, media attention is increasingly dedicated to Waitangi Day. We will hear a lot about the Prime Minister’s attendance, be given a ‘who’s who?’ of key individuals and shown speculation about the possibility disruptions and protests. Following this, we will be exposed to a range of perspectives on the relevance of Waitangi Day from political commentators, iwi members and a range of other local ‘celebrities’. We know this because it is the same thing that happens every year, with little variation except the level of controversy that can be extracted and exploited. In typical fashion, the media has already begun stirring the pot, as demonstrated by Newshub’s poll Should we change ‘Waitangi Day’ to ‘New Zealand Day?, in which the ‘Yes’ vote is depressingly winning with 52%).

While the media’s role could be discussed in depth, it is important to address another Waitangi Day tradition: the predictable resurgence of ignorance and racism. Emboldened by the media, a handful of outspoken Kiwis will lecture us on the dangers of Māori entitlement and the need for a new public holiday. Dig deeper into the comment threads on NZ Herald and Stuff articles and you will see the more overt sort of racism that actively denigrates Maori. Racism has long plagued New Zealand and many Māori, myself included, have experienced it on many occasions, whether it is having judgments made about your personality and capabilities or being chased out of a store for ‘looking suspicious’. This treatment is to be expected from time to time, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing. It is those experiences that make it hard to ignore racism when it rears its ugly head because while only a handful air their bigoted views publicly, you know that many more share those views but choose to stay silent. This year, for the sake of my mental health, I thought it would be helpful to pre-empt the onslaught of ignorance by going over some of the opinions that are regurgitated each year.

“Why not replace it with ‘New Zealand Day’?”

The argument is based on the idea that Waitangi Day is a public holiday that celebrates the birth of our nation, and in some ways, that makes sense. We pride ourselves on being a harmonious nation in which indigenous people and settlers came to an accord to coexist peacefully, a feat that compares favorably to the colonisation of other lands. However, as those who know just a fraction of our history are aware, this perspective is fundamentally flawed. The forging of this country into the one we know today was anything but peaceful, as demonstrated by the loss of life and land during and after the Land Wars. Some seem unaware that Waitangi Day is commemorated the way it is, with the political spectacle in the Bay of Islands, because the consequences of what occured following the signing of the Treaty, including broken promises, are still being felt today. While many celebrate the public holiday with a beach trip and BBQ and believe the purpose of the holiday is to be grateful for what we have, the reality is that for everyone to be able to do so, time needs to be spent acknowledging the wrongs committed and trying to heal the wounds of history. What better day to do so than the anniversary of the signing?

“It’s in the past, get over it”.

You will notice that it is very rarely Māori who say things like this, and for good reason. When you are privileged and afforded a more favourable social status by virtue of birth, it must be difficult to see that others are less fortunate. To gain a bit of perspective, one needs only to glance over a few negative statistics and see that Māori are severely over-represented in problematic areas like economic inequality, homelessness, incarceration rates and substance abuse. These statistics show that it is not that easy to “get over it” because it is not the past for many Māori, but the present. The acts committed in colonial times are still being felt today, for example, stripping Māori of land or obtaining it by duplicitous means deprived Maori of the ability to grow food, to self-govern and maintain cultural practices. They were forced into colonial society, required to conform to a set of laws and ideologies often antithetical to their own and forbidden to speak their own language through the education system. Systematic attempts to destroy their culture left Māori struggling to adapt to a European society, and the disadvantages they experienced were passed on to their children, then to the next generation and so forth, until we get to where we are today, with Māori still severely disadvantaged compared to most non-Māori. While many can and do, not everyone is able to escape these intergenerational cycles of deprivation and disenfranchisement because the odds are stacked against them. So no, Māori won’t just “get over it”.

“It’s just a chance for Maoris to protest”

Portrayals of Māori around Waitangi Day show them as disruptive and ‘undignified’, supporting the idea that Waitangi Day is an excuse for Maori to complain as though they have nothing better to do. You hear so often that it is mainly ‘rent-a-crowd’ protesters that go to Waitangi, which they also supposedly do at every protest where the status quo is being challenged, like anti-TPP marches. This tired line is dragged out to diminish or dismiss the legitimate reasons behind voices of protest without having to apply logic or independent thought. In the case of Waitangi Day, those dismissing Māori grievances are appealing to their misguided perspective on history which maintains the facade of a harmonious joining of two cultures which gave birth to our nation. This justifies the position of privilege they hold and absolves them from thinking critically about the discontent surrounding the Treaty, which is desirable because if they were to think about it, they would have to acknowledge that the current issues facing Māori are not the consequences of laziness or bad decisions as some like to say, but are the result of structural injustices that need to be addressed.

“Waitangi Day just causes division, it should be about unity!”

This underlies one of the key arguments of the “New Zealand Day” campaigners, which is that complaining Maori are the only ones stopping us from all getting along. The “Iwi v Kiwi” line is parroted, and it is insinuated that the Waitangi talks are about greed and money. Disregarded are the valid reasons for commemorating Waitangi Day, primarily that there is much healing left to do, and it is the intention of the annual talks in Waitangi to address Māori grievances so healing can occur. But it is often those that decry division that are in fact the ones responsible for any division. It is clear that some people are unwilling to care for Māori and appreciate the struggles they face, and that lack of empathy and understanding of history is the reason we are so divided. Unity will remain a distant dream if Māori are continually blamed for their own misfortunes while the larger forces responsible are ignored. Another thread of this argument is the idea that some Māori hate New Zealand, and again, rather than berating them for not being patriotic, perhaps those who think that way might want to consider giving Māori good reasons to be proud of this country.

This is not by any means an exhaustive list of the misinformed and ignorant arguments that are voiced, but is a selection of the most repetitive and frustrating. Omitted from this list is the subject of Te Reo, which makes headlines any day of the year, and some more extreme opinions such as how colonialism is supposedly good for Māori (Yes, I’ve been told that one several times). Obviously, we do not need to respond to such ideas. We can ignore them so as to deprive them of the dignity they crave and focus the narrative on the positive aspects of Waitangi Day. However, that usually only allows those views to fester and spread. I am in favour of constructive engagement, that is, having conversations without the name-calling and expletives that are so tempting to resort to. Although it may be like talking to a brick wall, we should try as much as possible to encourage those people to practice a bit of compassion and empathy and learn our country’s history so that we may stop being so divided and come together and all genuinely celebrate being part of Aotearoa.

The Importance of Speaking Your Mind

I’ve been trying to get this blogging thing started for a long time now but my tendency to procrastinate and criticize my own work has tanked every effort so far. Being too self-conscious to expose my writing to criticism hasn’t helped either. However, I am back at it again, and in this first post, I think it is necessary to first explain why I am doing this. Perhaps it is a habit from my brief teaching career, but I believe that to appreciate any task or piece of work you must first understand what it is trying to accomplish. I intend to do just that in this post by putting my cards on the table and trying to explain, without rambling too long, why I decided to do this. This post will be rather personal and idealistic, but hopefully it gives the reader an understanding of what makes me tick and offers an occasional nugget of wisdom or advice.

So why am I starting a blog? As those who know me are aware, I can be somewhat opinionated about social and political issues like economic inequality and climate change. Particularly in recent years, I have come to appreciate the power social media gives us to share, discuss and debate ideas, something I noticed when I wrote about child poverty and taxes. It was heartening to see people around New Zealand talking about what I had said and since I received positive feedback, I figured I should keep writing about issues that matter and hope others either relate to what I say or consider things from a different perspective.

Silence isn’t always easy.

Part of why I have become more vocal recently is because I am tired of feeling like it was wrong to speak up, which is how I felt a lot of my life. I have always thought there were so many things wrong with the world, like how so many people lived in poverty and struggled through life while others had it so easy. It was especially difficult growing up and seeing that it was mainly Maori like me who struggled, at least in the Far North where I lived, with poverty, substance abuse and incarceration. It was even harder not understanding why this was the case. Worse, it seemed to me like no one cared, because if people really cared for others, wouldn’t something have been done about it? Or is this just how the world works; some are poor, some are rich, and that’s life? If that was the case, it wasn’t a world that I was proud to be part of. I felt helpless because I had no answers and didn’t know what I could do to make things better, so I bottled my emotions, put my head down and carried on with life.  

I knew even then that things only get better once we start talking about our problems, but I wasn’t comfortable talking to many people about how I felt for fear of being seen as different or weak. When you question the fundamental structure of society, or dare to suggest that things are wrong with the way we live, people will think you’re crazy or naive. For years, I thought that there was something wrong with me for always feeling sorry for the plights of others, strangers I would never meet or know, and I was given the impression that I would grow older, ‘become an adult’ and accept that injustices like poverty and inequality are just part of life and there is nothing we can do about them.

Now that I am older and I understand the world somewhat, I know that believing something is right simply because it’s “just the way things are” is the craziest perspective one can have. There is nothing mature or ‘adult’ about blind conformity, and while others may understandably prefer the comforts of willful ignorance or apathy, I realised that I can and will never be like that. I know that I may be ridiculed for being such a “bleeding-heart”, but compassion is a strength not a weakness, and worrying about people’s perception of you seems silly when real people out there face such daunting challenges. It is important to speak because when we choose to be silent, we support the status quo and condemn those less fortunate and the environment to continual struggle and exploitation. Therefore, I plan to write to stay true to my myself and to promote empathy and compassion as it is my way of contributing to the better society I know we can be.

It is important to act…but how?

Now you might ask: “is being another keyboard/ social justice warrior really accomplishing anything?” I will try to explain how it can in the next half of this post. As I write, I hope I don’t come across as some holier-than-thou activist judging people for their decisions and for not doing their fair share because in all honesty, I don’t have a leg to stand on. I talk the talk, but my actions haven’t always reflected my values. Yeah, I’ve donated to a couple of charities over the years, but I haven’t gone down to the mission to help those less fortunate. My record of recycling properly has been patchy at best and I have contributed more waste than I care to admit. My food choices leave much to work on, and while I have no intention of going vegan, I can still make better decisions in regards to food miles and ethical considerations. I would like to imagine myself as a more conscientious and socially active citizen, but I have indulged my vices like laziness and far too often. I have lived a relatively privileged life, a position which obliges me to do more, so why haven’t I?

The problem is knowing where to start. If the actions you take will make no tangible difference, it’s easy to see them as pointless and just give up. Donating to charities like UNICEF was a noble gesture, but because the same systems and practices responsible for creating that poverty remained unchanged, the poverty would remain. My donation would offer temporary alleviation and little more. Yes, I could have volunteered to feed the homeless, but they would still be homeless after they ate because no radical social welfare policy to prevent further homelessness has  been discussed. We can take certain actions as individuals, but things will only truly change when we address the cause of issues, rather than tinkering at the edges. The neoliberal doctrine would have us believe that the onus is on us as individuals to change, but it takes more than that. People need to have a shared understanding of the causes of problems and what solutions there are for those changes to have a noticeable impact. With issues like economic inequality, you have to convince part of the public that they are wealthy at the expense of many other people, and perhaps they should share some of their wealth via taxes so everyone can lead a comfortable life, which is a fair request. But because this requires sacrifice and lifestyles to change, people will resist the idea that things even need to change and that the problem is not the system but the laziness and greed of others.  

Whether it is outspoken resistance to facts or the more subtle traits of indifference and apathy, trying to convince people to care about others and the environment is an incredibly difficult task. Values like greed, competition and the love of money have been ingrained in us through the education system, the influence of mass media and the heavy rule of public opinion, so to want to change the way we live is to challenge perceptions we have had all our lives. Because it is often like talking to a brick wall and invites such infuriating resistance, I have wanted to just give up so many times. However, that despair faded as I came to accept the fact that progress is hard. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and changing people’s minds is especially slow. It may be that we never see the change we hope for in our lifetimes or get recognition for doing the right thing, and that is hard to accept. Tiresome, draining arguments and ridicule are an unavoidable part of it all. But what gets me through is the reminder that it is not just about me, or even my generation, but it is about the generations that follow. It is making sure that our children and grandchildren do not inherit a world plagued by issues affects their ability to live long, happy lives. 

Finally…the point.

I am no expert on the issues I discuss and I don’t know for certain what the right solutions are, but you don’t need to be a genius or celebrity to feel like you can speak up. Too often, the media and influential individuals shape the narrative, which further entrenches power imbalances in support of the status quo. All our voices have power, and simply participating in conversation is the first step towards positive change. While I intend to work on my personal contributions, individual actions alone do not inspire others to act differently unless we are having conversations with each other about our values and aspirations and why these ideas and actions are important. To create a better tomorrow, we need to work past our differences and understand that we are all in this together, and I hope that by writing, I may plant even just a couple of seeds that help make that happen.