|RACISM Setting the history book straight|
Land of the long white cloud
HERE is a story told in New Zealand of Maori tour bus driver who would tell his passengers of the great defeats of the British soldiers inflicted by the Maori at various points in their tour. One day a passenger said timidly ‘Isn’t that the hill where the British massacred a lot of Maori warriors?’ The bus driver said, ‘As long as I drive the bus I will tell the history.’
It doesn’t matter whether or not the story is true. It illustrates the situation in New Zealand between the Maori and the pakeha. For 140 years the pakeha have been driving the bus and telling the history. It isa fabricated history, full of omissions and distorted perspectives.
The ‘official’ white history begins in 1840 with the signing of a Treaty between a representative of Queen Victoria and the indigenous tribes of Aotearoa. That Treaty has been the source of confusion, pain, anger and white justification ever since. The Treaty had given a guarantee of possession to the Maori -people over their lands, forests, and fisheries for as long as they wished to retain them. But most pakeha people viewed the Treaty as a basis for the gradual integration and eventual assimilation of Maori people into a European-based culture and society.
However the Treaty is a valid agreement which still lies between the two peoples. Maori dissatisfaction about their place in New Zealand society is persistent and widespread. Their anger at the failure to honour the Treaty continues. But successive pakeha governments have claimed racial harmony second to none in the world. Maori voices of pain and anger have been dismissed as not representative.
Even the most casual observer reading statistics put out by those same self-satisfied governments would see that a situation of grave injustice and inequality exists in New Zealand. The statistics tell a frightening story of a people in pain. A story of over-representation in prisons, of ‘failure’ in the education system; of a high unemployment rate; of appalling health statistics; of a shorter life expectancy.
Pakeha New Zealand has remained uncaring and unmoved in the face of this evidence. One reason for this is that most of us were taught a ‘sanitised’ version of New Zealand history. So much was left out. The British massacres of Maori people including women and children. The nonviolent resistance by Maori people against land-grabbing settlers. The corrupt land deals perpetrated by white settlers. The punishments Maori people faced for using their own language and customs. Subsequently we have a whole history of a people hidden from us. Meanwhile our own history has reinforced our feelings of superiority, our sense of the ‘rightfulness’ of our attempt to assimilate the peoples of Aotearoa.
But that doesn’t mean we should now dissolve into a long period of guilt. This is a self-serving emotion that may excuse us from taking any real action. Racism may not have been the intention in the colonization process of New Zealand and the greater part of the Pacific region, but it has surely been the outcome of the invasion process. We must remain clear about whose problem it is. It is ours.
It has come as a shock to some pekeha people that, in the quest for a bi-cultural society, it is -they who must change. The Maori and Pacific Islander are bi-cultural already. One of the most common pakeha reactions to any focus on the effects of racism is either to deny the evidence or to blame the victim. For example some whites would say that the large drop-out rate from the education system is because the Maori is lazy. They do not question the effects on them of an English-language European-centred school system. Instead they point to individual Maori people who ‘succeed’ in the white system.
One real danger that anti-racists face is that we may just try to improve race relations but ignore the structure that keeps racism in place. For many decades New Zealand has exported the impression that we are a country of extremely harmonious race relations. There is a high level of intermarriage and there is no overt discriminatory legislation.
Faced with growing Maori voices of protest and pain, there is a tendency for pakeha people to assume that their main response needs to be to improve their personal relationships with Maori people. This has seen an upsurge of interest in learning the Maori language, seeking invitations to visit traditional Maori tribal areas and a new pakeha interest in Maori art. There is no denying that this is extremely helpful in creating an understanding of another culture and goes some way towards building a caring community. But it does very little to counter racism. The real thing to tackle is the institutional power, wielded mainly by white males, which regularly ensures an outcome of discrimination.
The voices of protest have to be given more attention. Maori people have been voicing their grave concerns since soon after the Treaty was signed in 1840. Deputations of Maori leaders have travelled to London to present their grievances to the Queen, but have been prevented from making their petitions. Within the last two years the Kotahitanga Movement of the last century has been rekindled to present the Government with a united Maori voice
But the onus for change is now on us. We must face up to and challenge our own racism and that of our society. We have to stand in solidarity with the Maori and shed ourselves of our power. We must be actively anti-racist We have to be aware that racism destroys the oppressor as well as the oppressed.
Martin Maguire is Executive Officer of the