“Where do you come from?” “Where were you born?”
Yes, I have been asked these questions many times over the years. On the surface it appears innocuous, but for me personally, I grow tired of such questions as it poses an underlying sense of prejudice and an assumption that I am not originally from New Zealand. Now I typically response with the answer “Middlemore Hospital, Otahuhu”.
The recent exchange on Waiheke Island between Peter The Mad Butcher Leitch and Lara Bridger brought to light the issue of casual racism, dividing opinion across many New Zealanders. “Waiheke is a white man’s island”… Leitch claimed it was light-hearted banter, but Bridger felt it upsetting and disparaging towards her sense of being Maori.
In the days after this incident, many high profile people have come out to support Leitch, saying that he is not racist. Bridger on the other hand has received a wave of negative feedback on social media.
What troubles me is that it seems like we are in denial that the very people we admire, respect or come into contact with, are capable of, or do indeed make racist comments. I recognise that Leitch is of the generation that grew up in ‘old New Zealand’ where it was probably commonplace to make underhanded comments about people based on skin colour. But how is this relevant, or acceptable now in the melting pot that is Aotearoa?
So what is casual racism? It refers to conduct involving negative stereotypes or prejudices about people on the basis of race, colour or ethnicity. Examples include jokes, off-handed comments, and exclusion of people from social situations on the basis of race. Casual racism concerns not so much a belief in the superiority of races but negative prejudice or stereotypes concerning race. Unlike overt and intentional acts of racism, casual racism isn’t often intended to cause offence or harm.
Here are some examples of the casual racism I’ve experienced:
- Being asked questions such as “Where are you from?” “What country were you born in?” “Where are your parents from?”
- Further questioning… “When did you first come to New Zealand?”
- Going to a party with my sister and we introduce ourselves to a lady. After telling her our names, she then asks: “Oh, those are your English names. So what are your other names?”
- Working with a colleague who says to me in a friendly way: “You look very exotic and oriental”.
- Being asked on the schoolyard: “Were you adopted, because your English is really good.”
- Attending a dinner and hearing crude imitations of how Pacific Islanders speak.
- When people ask me or assume I am Filipino, Chinese, Malaysian, Hawaiian, Maori, Indonesian, Cook Islander…
- Going into shops/places where I am given unwelcome looks, but this changes when I start speaking to them.
- Going out with my mum and noticing people talking slowly to her (she is a fluent English speaker!).
To be honest I have only experienced overt forms of racism when I have travelled overseas, but in New Zealand, my very place of birth, casual racism is common. As a New Zealand born person of Samoan and Chinese heritage, I know first-hand what it is like to feel awkward and uncomfortable in certain situations where all I can do is be polite and go through the motions.
So we are all guilty of making these comments. People only know what they know, right?
Well, no actually. A change is social attitudes in necessary for combatting casual racism. Having the courage to speak up and call-it-out, is important for removing the normalisation of offensive language. Conversations are powerful.
In my workplace I am very proud of how we are working towards creating a environment that embraces all cultures and ethnicities, removing the stigma and negativity surrounding race. The Courageous Conversations about Race (CCAR) programme has certainly opened up my eyes and made me examine my interactions with people of other racial backgrounds. Through vulnerability can we grow as humans.
So if I am asked “Where do you come from?”in the near future, I think I will likely say from Earth. Well, it’s true.