Amicus: Investigating Taika Waititi’s claim: is New Zealand racist?

By Nithya Narayanan

Earlier this year, New Zealand director Taika Waititi (of Thor: Ragnarok fame) said: “New Zealand is the best place on the planet, but it’s a racist place”. Elaborating on this proposition, Waititi made reference to a number of features, including an unwillingness to pronounce Maori names properly, and widespread racial profiling of Polynesian individuals. He also alluded to the “patronising” attitudes that many New Zealanders take to Polynesians.

The comments stirred up a huge controversy. A swift response arrived from the AM show, where Mark Richardson and Duncan Garner launched an attack on Taika Waititi. Garner said that Waititi had “gone too far”, called the comments “sabotage”, and asked Waititi to “stop selling [New Zealand] out on the international stage”. Richardson seconded this, claiming that the assertion didn’t “represent our country as a whole”. To top things off, Garner argued that New Zealand is not racist because “that was South Africa under apartheid, [and] New Zealand is not as racist as that”. Soon after these comments were made, Lizzie Marvelly wryly pointed out in her column that if not being as racist as apartheid is the barometer being used, “the bar is so low that you could trip over it”.

Garner argued that New Zealand is not racist because “that was South Africa under apartheid, [and] New Zealand is not as racist as that”.

By responding to Taika Waititi in this way, Garner and Richardson have unwittingly proved his point. New Zealand certainly appears to have a culture in which we deride, deny and invalidate the experiences of others—particularly those of individuals who are not Pakeha. Let’s take a look at some examples.

In a recent controversy, Sir Bob Jones wrote a column for NBR in which he called for a “Maori gratitude day” to replace Waitangi Day, suggesting that Maori should bring Pakeha breakfast in bed and weed their gardens out of gratitude. The column claimed that as “[there] are no full-blooded Maoris in existence it indisputably follows that had it not been for migrants…not a single Maori alive today…would have existed”. The patently racist comments angered many, with Renae Maihi, a filmmaker of Maori descent, starting a petition calling for Sir Bob to be stripped of his knighthood. However, the Press Council simply noted that Sir Bob was known for authoring provocative columns and said his opinions were not to be taken seriously. “Freedom of expression”, they said, “is the most important of the principles that the Press Council is required to take into account…”. The complaints were not upheld, and Sir Bob defended himself by claiming he was only being satirical.

In 2017, fresh controversy erupted when Sir Peter Leitch (more commonly known as The Mad Butcher) told a young Maori woman, Lara Bridger, that Waiheke was “a white man’s island”. Bridger posted an emotional video on social media, following which Leitch commented he was disappointed that his “light-hearted banter” had been considered racist. The Race Relations Commissioner, Dame Susan Devoy, initially responded to the news by saying that Sir Peter was the “least racist person” she knew. These cases illustrate a clear, emerging pattern: powerful, well-regarded individuals in New Zealand exhibiting casual racism.

There is empirical evidence to suggest that systemic racism in New Zealand is having tangible impacts. This is particularly evident in our health sector

And that’s not all—there is empirical evidence to suggest that systemic racism in New Zealand is having tangible impacts. This is particularly evident in our health sector. A 2018 University of Auckland study has shown that Pacific children are over 50 times more likely to get acute rheumatic fever than New Zealand European children, while Maori children are over 30 times more likely. The study states that “there is no evidence to support Maori and Pacific people having an increased genetic susceptibility to RF”, and that the increased rates in these ethnicities are predominantly caused by “social, political and economic influences…and differing opportunities for appropriate and effective health care”. In a different study headed by Dr Ezra Cloete—a neonatologist at the Liggins Institute—doctors considered the effects of congenital critical left heart obstruction (LHO), a condition in which an infant’s heart does not function normally. It was found that although European babies were considerably more likely to develop the disease, Maori and Pacific babies were more likely to die from it. Once again, researchers felt that this raised the issue of potential bias by healthcare providers.

But it’s not all doom and gloom—Waititi’s comments have initiated a much-needed discussion. They have set us on the route to change, even if this is only in the smaller ways. Recently, Dave Ward—a voice artist for NZME—refused to voice a script when he was requested to pronounce Waimate “the white way”. In a tweet that received huge amounts of support, Ward explained his decision, pointing out that “low level racism is still racism”. The response to this year’s New Zealand International Comedy Festival gala performances—which included several racist gags—was overwhelmingly critical, suggesting that what we are willing to tolerate as a society has begun to change. The Auckland event featured, among other things, an Irishman making derogatory jokes about his Muslim wife. The humour was widely condemned, with a Human Rights Commission spokeswoman stating that jokes at the expense of racial backgrounds were not considered acceptable.

Ultimately, accepting that there is a problem is fundamental to finding constructive solutions. By drawing attention to New Zealand’s less-than-ideal culture, Taika Waititi has done all of us a favour.

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