“This is not our New Zealand” — or is it?


By Louie Encabo. 

Illustration courtesy of Pat Campbell and The Canberra Times


In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that hit two mosques in Christchurch this month, the immediate reaction for many was to say “this is not our New Zealand”.

We were in disbelief that a heinous crime of this magnitude could ever occur here; New Zealand is a peaceful country. For the most part that is true; our country is still among the most peaceful in the world – no one ever imagined that this tragedy could befall us, until it actually happened.

The alleged Islamophobic, white supremacist attacks were reminiscent of the brutality of Anders Breivik’s massacre of Norwegian children in 2011. It was also said at that time that such an attack was beneath Norway, that they too, were a peaceful country that no one could imagine an incident of that barbarity ever occurring in.

In two different locations similar grave acts of terrorism occurred. In both places the locals believed that such acts of terror were not possible – but yet, they happened. Can we really say that both attacks were impossible, or have we merely been ignoring the warning signs?

The alleged Christchurch terrorist believed that his actions were done to ‘save’ the ‘white people’ and he saw his victims as ‘invaders’ in his land. It was not apparent to him that as an Australian he himself was an alien in our land; a land that can only rightfully be claimed by the Tangata Whenua or the Maori people.

While the person may have been alien to us, his ideology was not. White supremacists have existed in New Zealand for decades; skinhead gangs have always been rampant in Christchurch – we simply just accepted them as part and parcel of society.

When you ignore a problem and refuse to take decisive actions to tackle it you end up normalizing it instead. We know that white supremacists are dangerous and that their message is hateful and wrong; we only need to look back in history to see the actions of the Ku Klux Klan of the U.S.A. to understand that – so why have skinhead gangs been allowed to continue existing?

How often have you seen news media reports of a famous personality being asked to resign, or to apologize, for saying something deeply offensive and even racist, only for ordinary citizens to condemn the outrage and say that people are “too sensitive” or “too P.C.”?

Is it really being politically correct when you call out racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, or any other hateful rhetoric? Are we being too sensitive when we ask a person to re-evaluate their words, or to apologise for causing offence to entire groups of people? By shutting down criticisms of casual racism, we allow it to grow.

By ignoring the alarm bells from concerned individuals over the hateful speech by others, we embolden those people to become more outrageous in their speech, to become even more racist. Remember the incident with the ‘Mad Butcher’ Sir Peter Leitch, who told a Maori woman visiting Waiheke Island that it was a “white man’s island”? A segment of society was calling for him to apologize, and for his knighthood to be revoked, only to be shut down by an even larger group of citizens saying that those outraged were being “too P.C.”

Remember when Sir Bob Jones, former political figure, wrote an op-ed article saying that Maori should be “grateful to Pakeha” or white New Zealanders “for being able to exist”? The Press Council gave him a slap on the wrist, but he still has a free pass to continue writing articles.

Remember when the Lions Club of Hawera organized a float at a parade where its participants wore ‘blackface’? Not only was it regarded to be not racist by many social media commentators, but the float even won second place in the entire competition.

Those comments were undoubtedly racist and I’m sure many of us also felt that, but we chose to shut down those warning signs within our own psyches because we were afraid of being too sensitive, or felt that we did not want to be too P.C. In the process we normalized that behaviour – allowing casual racism to continue being accepted into the mainstream.

Reflecting on all those incidents and how we reacted to them, can we really say that the attacks in Christchurch “are not who we are”? Can we still say that it was a surprise that a racist white supremacist held that much rage and killed so many innocent people? ​

The Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is already making statements about changes to gun legislation, but equally important are changes to our cultural perceptions. Offensive comments to an entire race, religion, or group of people are wrong and should not be tolerated.

Giving an inch to racism allows it to grow, to a point where it hits a climax and explodes into a racist hate crime just like we saw in the tragedy of Christchurch.