Sorry, it was a busy day



A few weeks ago I attended the opening of a spanking brand new facility in south Auckland. As the only person from my local board present, I was keen to stand alongside my colleagues just over the border who had worked tirelessly for some years to bring this project to fruition. It’s a great facility and I encourage people to pop over and check out Toia – the Otahuhu Recreation and Leisure Centre and library when you get the chance.

I arrived about 20 minutes prior to the official programme starting and thought it would be a good idea to get a sneak preview of the facility with time to spare. I approached the front desk and politely asked if I could go through and have a quick look around the pool facility before we got underway. The counter people told me that I couldn’t enter as I needed to wait for the opening to begin. Sweet as.

About to walk away two very well dressed palagi women walked right past me and called to the counter staff that they were going to have a look around before the opening began. To my surprise, not a word from the counter staff. As the 2 well dressed palagi women walked in, 3 well dressed palagi men came out of the facility (one being a councillor colleague), quickly stopping to greet me as they left saying that I should go in and check the place out. After our short greeting I turned to the counter staff who now looked very awkward but remained silent. I gently told them that they had to succumb to the stereotypes that Council officials look and sound a certain way. And further, that they held racist views and would do well to confront their prejudice. It took all my deep breathing techniques to hold back some descriptive words that would’ve been my preferred sentences, now walking away to join the official party.

Back at my desk on Monday, I thought to send an email to the manager to advise of my experience at the weekend opening. I decided not to name any people in the letter, but merely outline what happened with the view to improving practice and hopefully, internally held perception. The manager person came back a couple of days later apologising that that was my interpretation of events and it came down to the centre staff being “very busy on the day and trusted the incident was a one-off”. I couldn’t have felt more reassured!

Critical race theorist Gloria Ladson-Billings contends that racism is a normal part of everyday life for minority groups (2005). That race is never a focal issue for white, middle class and privileged groups because society is built on their accepted norms and traditions. Both the treatment I received and the subsequent (and supposed) letter of apology is evidence of the very dismissive, normative nature of how minority peoples’ daily racism is (mis)treated and poorly understood. Since being elected onto Council, this isn’t the first instance of this type of treatment and if recent history is anything to go by, it’s by no means the last.


  1. It runs deep eh?

    The really awful part is the “normalisation” of racism, done by taking things for granted and being completely blind to the fact that we are indeed doing just that.

    You gotta see the weeds before you can pull ’em out…

  2. Doesn’t get fixed overnight, eh : )

    Takes forever, one tiny step at a time. At least you got to face them with why they needed to feel awkward.

    If you knew their names, I’d say mention them next time it happens. They broke a law, after all.

  3. Oh dear. As an Otahuhu resident and member of the rec centre, I’m sorry to hear this. I applaud your forbearance: I’m not sure I would have been so polite.
    PS I think your board and ours are doing a great job, by the way.

  4. It happened here. Understood.

    And it happens in other countries where the majority population is not ‘white’. And where those who are considered ‘other’ are also not ‘white’.

    Having been on the receiving end of ‘brown on white’ racist comments while simply walking down a street, working in a store, asking for directions – it’s shocking, the first few times. It’s ‘where did that come from?’

    Then it’s ‘pay more attention to courtesy and bridging the gaps’ because a helluva lot of people of any variety are prejudiced and scared. Because of history, experiences, stories.

    Laws might remind people to do their best to set those points aside – yet stories and unfamiliarity will kick in first. It’s simply how people are. Any variety at all.

  5. “The counter people told me that I couldn’t enter as I needed to wait for the opening to begin.”

    What you experienced here isn’t racism: it’s prejudice and stereotyping. I am white and middle class, but because of certain family characteristics, we’ve also experienced it. It certainly isn’t pleasant, and can be very intimidating.

    Racism is a system of laws and institutions of state based on the belief that certain ethnic groups are inferior. Racism is the preserve of the state; the individual citizen can be bigoted and prejudiced, and many are. But they can’t be racists.

    I might also add that prejudice is part of the human condition; all of us are capable of it, though most of us manage to keep it better-hidden than did those people working at the counter.

    • Interesting how often people who disagree with racism being called out love to include arbitrary definitions of what they think racism REALLY is. Of course, these definitions almost always either excuse or minimise the actions being called out. It’s like they know that “racism” is a really, really bad thing, but obviously don’t think that the action being called out was actually that unacceptable, so want to call it something else. But really, isn’t this kind of response just another version of the “I’m not racist, but…” trope?

      Good article thanks Efeso!

      • @ Simon: “Of course, these definitions almost always either excuse or minimise the actions being called out…”

        Rubbish. Go look at definitions of racism: it’s apartheid, and the system of segregation in the US southern states before the civil rights marches helped to change things.

        What happened to Efeso is humiliating and intimidating; it just isn’t racism. And in this country, we don’t have a racist legal system.

  6. I was a freckly, white skinned, red headed kid and I got absolute shit at school. Worse still, I’m of Irish decent with a little Scots sperm thrown into the spud pot. ( No doubt both literally and metaphorically )
    Do you have any idea how much I’d have rather been brown or better yet black? I could have played outside all day and not had these nice crusty little solar keratosis threatening to become bigger and scarier things. I’d a been able to strip off and swim with other kids without the usual taunts and teasing and to this day I’m dismayed that I’ve been kissed by so many gorgeous girls, women and now ladies despite looking like an old vanilla ice cream rolled in rice bubbles.
    Give me a brown or a black skin please? Are their skin donors?
    Racists are simple minded, sad bastards and the day will come when, if we see overt racism we will all crack up then ignore them until they come to their senses.

  7. Efiso, you must have this happen often enough to know if these staff were being racist or just officious? Either way I don’t doubt your judgement and conclusion.

    Getting a grip on our own inner racist has been a lifetimes journey. I once took a rather lovely Maori girl for a drink in a “nice” bar in Palmy only to realise that she was the only Maori in the place. Pakehas stared thinly, body language excluded. Says it all, that was 35 years ago and I can only hope it has changed.

    We good (I am assuming) well healed palangi are very good at projecting a nice liberal non racist front. When it comes down to it the reality is very much our their terms: “thus far and no further”.

    An example: I just read Deborah Coddingtons missive on living in the Wairarapa, lots of nice things said about the wonderful things the local iwi have done but when you read between the lines their is no intimate everyday social contact between Maori and Debs “type” of person. Then you read Deborahs gushings on the “nice” gentrified Greytown where the moneyed classes of Wellington can relax as they afford retail therapy…you have to be a certain type and I can tell you now chances are you are not from Cannons Creek. As a coup de grace Debs roundly slams Featherston as a place that will become gentrified when the crims (read bogans and assorted lowlife) are “cleaned up” by the law. Sort of defines the thinking, slips smoothly past class, race, economic reality etc into a definition of making it desirable for Debs and her crew.

    I struggle with the types you met Efiso, they are my people, so bloody PC and so exclusive to anybody who is not them. With “us” you dont even need to wear a stamp on your forehead saying, “Pasifika, please ignore”, its going to happen anyway.

  8. As if your experience was not depressing enough to read about, some of the comments from readers of the daily bog are just as upsetting.

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