Yesterday’s Dominion Post reported that Matthew Tukaki, executive director of the Maori Council, was racially abused in a Wellington street.
Tukaki said a Pakeha woman called him a “black arsehole” as she walked past him near the corner of Willis Street and Lambton Quay.
If the incident happened as described (and what reason would Tukaki have for making it up?), then it suggests that race relations in New Zealand have taken a turn for the worse.
Of course it was just one woman, so we should be careful about overstating its significance. But while we may argue endlessly about what constitutes racism, given that its definition is constantly being stretched in new and inventive directions, most New Zealanders would categorise the reported remark as unambiguously, offensively and deplorably racist.
The big question is, how much longer will we able to classify such incidents as isolated or exceptional? Tukaki says while he rarely encounters such overt racism face to face, he gets racist messages every day. We have to take his word for it that these messages are indeed “racist”, but there’s no doubt that the temperature in the race debate is being cranked up. And more to the point, we shouldn’t delude ourselves about who or what is driving it.
The Dominion Post’s story frames the Wellington street incident in the context of the race hatred that infamously erupted in the Christchurch mosque massacres, but that outrage appeared to have nothing to do with the Maori-Pakeha relationship. The perpetrator was an Australian who drew inspiration from a global alt-right movement that sees itself as defending Western civilisation against mass immigration and Islamism.
The occurrence described by Tukaki, on the other hand, seems distinctly local in tone and should be viewed quite differently from the mosque atrocities. While it may suit some people to draw a link between a racist insult directed at a prominent Maori in the street and the slaughter of 51 Muslims, my guess is that the two events are either completely unrelated or connected only very tenuously.
If it’s true that a new form of overt racial antagonism is emerging in New Zealand, then its origins are almost certainly domestic. I’d go further and say that the primary provocation is coming not from shadowy white supremacists, as the Dominion Post story speculates, but from the opposite direction – from proponents of critical race theory, the Marxist view that societies such as New Zealand are built on oppressive, systemic racism.
To put it another way, the divisive, polarising race rhetoric that we are bombarded with daily is coming overwhelmingly from one side, and it’s not from Pakeha. If we really to want to identify what’s destabilising race relations in New Zealand, we should point the finger at those who relentlessly promote an ideology of apartness – conveniently denying, as I’ve pointed out in this blog, that even the most strident activists carry the supposed curse of European blood.
The activists want to be seen as victims of oppression, not perpetrators. How they reconcile this with their European features and Anglo-Saxon surnames, which testify to the existence of colonial forebears - who by definition were white supremacists, if critical race theory is to be believed - is something they never explain. (As an aside, I note that like most part-Maori leaders, Tukaki routinely lists his tribal affiliation, but he doesn’t mention that he’s descended on his mother’s side from Sir Charles St Julian, a former Chief Justice of Fiji).
The problem for these part-Maori agitators (should we call them Maokeha?) is that if they acknowledged their European descent, the ideological narrative that we are two races, immutably divided into exploiters and exploited, would be deprived of much of its force. But as long as they continue to identify exclusively with their Maori heritage, they lay themselves open to the accusation that they do it because it enables them to exercise power and influence that would otherwise not be available to them.
These are the people who are dialling up the heat in the race debate, and no one should be surprised if a redneck backlash develops. Nothing is more likely to give oxygen to the small minority of true racists in New Zealand – people like the woman Tukaki encountered – than the perception that New Zealand is being reshaped along race-based lines that would advantage those of part-Maori descent. The danger is that the vast majority of New Zealanders who are liberally minded and racially tolerant are likely to get caught in the middle of an unlovely clash between extremes.
Footnote: Anyone who openly opposes the activist agenda risks being defamed as a white supremacist – a casual slur that seeks to invalidate legitimate concerns about racial polarisation. The slander works, frightening a lot of decent New Zealanders into silence. I hear time and time again from people who are deeply concerned about the corrosive effects of race-based politics, but who don’t say anything for fear of being branded as racists. We are a fair-minded people, but we are spineless when it comes to exercising our right to free speech.