By Arama Rata, Māori spokesperson for the Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign (MARRC).
In my quiet hometown, nestled at the foot of Mount Taranaki, Guy Fawkes celebrations have begun early. Bursts of colour brighten the sky, as booming canon fire reverberates through the streets. For local Māori, these sounds reverberate through history too, reminding us of the canon that was, on this day in 1881, trained on the peaceful settlement of Parihaka during the invasion.
The contradiction that we in Taranaki should celebrate Guy Fawkes’ failed attack on centre of British imperial power, while remaining largely ignorant to atrocities committed much closer to home at Parihaka is symptomatic of larger issue faced by Indigenous peoples globally: the denial of our colonial histories and ongoing racial oppression.
2017 has in some ways been a significant year for addressing New Zealand’s ‘national amnesia’. On October the 28th, the anniversary of the signing of He Whakaputanga (The Declaration of Independence), the first official New Zealand Wars Commemoration Day was held. On that date, we at MARRC (Migrants and Refugee Rights Campaign), alongside other anti-racists, staged an aukati (blockade) to both commemorate our history and stop a march on parliament by white supremacists. The aukati was a success. We stopped the neo-Nazis entering parliament grounds, and received good media coverage. However, some of that coverage revealed serious issues with the way we talk about racism in New Zealand.
There is a perverse tendency here for racism to blamed on oppressed ethnic minorities themselves. Reporting of our aukati demonstrated this. We at MARRC recognise that racism – the ideology that underpinned European imperialism – continues to this day, to the detriment of Māori and all people of colour in Aotearoa, and that we can unite to stop racism. The aukati was strong show of solidarity between Māori and migrants. Yet One News chose to run with the headline “How can I be racist if I’m Māori?” quoting one of the white supremacists, who happened to identify as Māori. In this way, Māori were pitted against other people of colour as perpetrators of racism. Even more concerning than the One News headline though was an article from our Race Relations Commissioner.
On Halloween (another imported tradition with little connection to the South Pacific), children on my street donned improvised ghoulish costumes and ran amok. On that day, our Race Relations Commissioner, Dame Susan Devoy, decided she too wanted to play pretend. In a Spinoff article, she dressed the nation up as tolerant multicultural society with world leading race relations, all the while pitting ethnic minorities against one another, and denying our colonial history. Although Devoy responded to a genuine problem, her simplistic framing of the problem requires unpacking.
In her Spinoff article, Devoy accused Iranian diplomat Hormoz Ghahremani of anti-semitism and holocaust denial, based on a speech he gave at an Islamic centre in Auckland, earlier in the year. Devoy’s article draws much needed attention to hate crimes committed against Jewish people here in Aotearoa, detailing the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, and attacks on Jewish people. These behaviours are abhorrent, and we at MARRC commend Dame Susan Devoy for denouncing such acts.
We cannot commend, however, the divisive discourse she employed in the article, which serves to create tension rather than unity among oppressed communities in Aotearoa. Our Race Relations Commissioner has a duty to represent the interests of all who experience racism in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Yet her article firmly positions Muslims as ‘other’, as outside of the National identity, and overlooks Māori altogether.
In describing Jewish Holocaust survivors she, quite rightly, employs the term ‘Kiwi battlers’, including Jewish people in the National identity. Yet, when addressing the Islamic centre (and by extension, Muslim communities), she demands that they “…let the rest of us know… let New Zealand know that they won’t help spread hate and lies.” This makes us question whether Devoy sees Muslim communities as part of her New Zealand.
What’s even more problematic is that Dame Susan Devoy addressed the wrong Muslim. She accused Hormoz Ghahremani of denying the Holocaust. Only he didn’t. In fact he didn’t even mention the Holocaust. The speaker who followed him, Sheikh Shafie, did. It’s unfathomable that our Race Relations Commissioner would make a public statement accusing a person of hate speech, without investigating the comments first. Of course, it’s possible that Dame Susan Devoy has conflated two entirely different Muslim individuals, with the assumption that the difference is inconsequential and that, regardless, readers won’t care enough either way. We question whether she believes all Muslims are culpable for the actions of one. Her demand that Muslim communities explain themselves for the actions of one of their members makes us think that she does indeed hold this racist view.
The targeting of entire communities based on suspicions held against a select few of its members is all too familiar for Māori. The Suppression of Rebellion Act 1863 allowed entire Māori communities to be targeted in Taranaki, just as the Suppression of Terrorism Act 2002 was used to justify the inhumane treatment of Tūhoe at Rūatoki. There is potential for this same 2002 Act to be used by the State to harass Muslim communities in Aotearoa.
While Devoy is happy to attack Muslim communities, she rushes to defend her New Zealand. She writes that she is appalled that this type of hate speech could take place in New Zealand, which she positions as a world leader in race relations, and asserts that, “All of us are responsible to ensure we live in a country where hate is never normalised. We can never let our country become one where racism goes unquestioned.” The problem with this statement is that it denies the entire history of New Zealand from the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi Act in 1975, when breaches of the Treaty finally began to be explored. Holocaust denial is salt rubbed into a painful wound for Jewish communities, as is colonial history denial for Indigenous peoples.
In June of this year, the people of Parihaka received a long overdue apology from the Crown for responding to “peace with tyranny”. This November the 5th, we remember the atrocities committed at Parihaka, which were part of relentless, systematic, colonial campaign to subjugate and dispossess Māori across Aotearoa. We reflect on the recent gains we have made in coming to terms with our Nation’s past, and look to the road ahead towards ensuring our colonial history receives proper recognition, and all communities in Aotearoa can live without fear of racial discrimination.