The recent racism accusation by Ngozi Fulani in her home, England; when being asked where her people were from is troubling. The words or situation by itself does not look racist but I can’t judge the situation as there is a whole lot of tone, and non-verbals that go into what the truth is. But I can speak of a situation I experienced that sounds almost exactly the same and I hope it will make people think and hopefully not be worried.
On a Zoom call at work there was a large group of participants and there was one new to work very black young guy with an American accent. He was interesting because he was different. I was interested in, what was his story, his experiences, just generally what he thought and moving here, why, what he hoped for? As he was a little bit nervy, new, as I was interested in him as a person. And a gap came up in the session I tried to engage him in talk. I can’t recall the early first few words, but I then asked very politely ‘I was wondering where you came from?’ He reacted a little funny and said ‘I’m a New Zealander’ and I said being very polite and no aggression I ‘no, I mean where’re from’. He reacted stiffly and largely non-verbally, and just very quickly shut down in terms of an answer and sort of said something like ‘I’m here’. I instantly recognised he was reading something into the situation that was nothing I had deliberately introduced. But the Zoom call moved onto a break into group session and then he didn’t come back into my group again, which was strange. And I didn’t see him at the end of the session so I assume he asked not to come back to the group I was in. So, I can’t fix that.
I’m an old white bald guy so I can understand why young people wouldn’t want to talk to me that much. But a work environment is not a hermetically sealed where your private life is left at home. You bring your personality, flaws, warts, and strengths. It is okay for people to try to understand and engage with each other.
This situation made me think of identity and another conversation where this young woman at work who simply described herself as Indian, made me really reflect on identity. She said New Zealanders were the only group of people she knew who described themselves in terms of fractions. And that is exactly what I used to do. I would say I was half Irish, a quarter Scottish and a quarter Yugoslav. This was all based off my grandparents and it’s completely ridiculous. Go back one generation and there was english! AAARGGhh who wants that. And of course go back only 70,000 years approx. and we are all African. I saw other people do this fraction thing to. So I assume it could be an immigrant culture where the ancestry gets partially lost. So identity links to some sort of knowledge of the past. Not much knowledge in my case and I suspect in a lot of other people.
And how flexible identity can be. I recall getting trees pruned at the back of a property and one of the guys who came was a very black guy. Lovely, polite, dignified. I asked him where he was from and he said South Sudan. I asked him about independence and the vote. It just blew me away that he thought they shouldn’t be independent. And I asked why, he said there will be fighting and war, the people are divided. It seemed the devil you know. So South Sudan did not mean much to him or his identity. And that he was here is another indicator of his understanding of identity. (There was so much I wanted to ask but work stands in the way).
And how fragile identity can be on both sides. In regard to my work colleague, I was initially offended that he thought I was being racist. For a while I felt the racism or ageism was in him. His assumption was; a bald old white guy must be being racist if he shows an interest in my background. Even if his experience was that this was the case then projecting it onto me seems a racist or ageist assumption. He made no attempt to understand my intention. But his experience whether lived, or something he got out of a text book, is what you base life on, and acting on experience is not a bad thing. So why judge him harshly? So I don’t.
And how we build identity. Contrast and difference is one of the ways we give ourselves identity, i.e., we do this, or that. We protect identity by assuming it is good, valuable and worth having. Well, not much point in having an identity and thinking it was bad. Why wouldn’t you change it then?
And identity can therefore create conflict because it’s based on difference and belief in the goodness of the identity. We saw this in the Kaipara District Council and a Karakia before the meeting. I’m no longer a particularly religious person but my institution the church was relatively easy to leave as I don’t have to associate with it. Not quite so easy being Maori and leaving the family community and the traditions you have left.
Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon wasn’t that inspiring saying ‘create the right space to encourage Maori to honour the Treaty of Waitangi, to provide a space to express their language and culture’ (TV1News). It sort of puts one side only as if they are better than everyone. He needed to also say secular society values of tolerance and community are represented by extending to Maori the right to express their traditions, and these traditions have a special place in our society through the Treaty. And we all live in New Zealand as a Pacific nation, we are a people of the pacific. Pacific culture will have a special status because of these facts.
There are things that I don’t like. In some marae women can’t speak. Or women sit in the back seats. But really it’s none of my business. I hope the younger Maori generation will be secure enough in their identity that they will push for change rather than just learning the tradition. But that’s easy for me to say. So I accept these things and I tolerate it because of the environments in which it happens.
So experience has taught me that before I ask the question, ‘where are you from’; i’ll intro the question even more carefully. But I’ll keep asking it because people are interesting and its fascinating hearing peoples stories. And please, nobody should ever be put off from genuinely, in little bit and pieces, with give and take, asking questions about another persons background and, we shouldn’t assume the worst if they do.