Tackling racism by taking it to the wall

It’s time we all stood up against racism, the organisers of a poster competition tell Tom McKinlay.

Racism has dogged the long history of Chinese and Asian communities in New Zealand.

Unfortunately a new chapter is being written.

Just last week, the Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon stepped in after a West Coast councillor characterised Covid-19 as "this Chinese virus".

The intervention followed earlier warnings from Foon about xenophobic finger pointing during the pandemic response.

"Chinese and Asian communities told us they have been targeted and harassed by members of the public," he said.

“Viruses don’t discriminate, and neither should we.”

But people have been. There has been a three-fold increase in complaints to the Race Relations Commissioner’s office by Asian people in the wake of Covid.

In response, the commission launched the Racism Is No Joke campaign.

Now a national poster campaign has come in behind the effort, among its organisers Dunedin man Bruce Mahalski.

"We thought we could add something to that," he says. "Particularly, I am keen to reach out to young people, to high school students. I know they are busy but it is often those young voices who can really cut to the chase and make great posters.

"We are looking for posters that either celebrate cultural diversity or address racism in Aotearoa, particularly against the local Chinese community."

Aotearoa Poster Competition organisers Bruce Mahalski and Veronica Brett. Photo: Linda Robertson
Aotearoa Poster Competition organisers Bruce Mahalski and Veronica Brett. Photo: Linda Robertson
Racism had gone "crazy" since the Covid-19 pandemic began, Mahalski said, not helped by US President Donald Trump’s apparent desire to blame everything on China — which was only likely to intensify in the lead-up to the US presidential election.

Mahalski said the racism had struck him in part because of his own many friends in the Chinese community. It was clear those perpetrating the abuse were ignorant of the long history of Chinese and Asian New Zealanders — those on the receiving end were often New Zealanders of many generations’ standing.

"When I get upset, I think, ‘how can I direct that into something positive?’ Art is the only tool I have."

The website for the competition, aotearoaposter.com, includes links to the history of Chinese in Aotearoa New Zealand, accompanied by a "pop quiz", and resources for responding to racism.

In Dunedin, Mahalski, well know for his street murals, has teamed up with Dunedin comic artist and tattooist Veronica Brett to create posters to publicise the competition.

It’s a new avenue for Brett’s art, who describes herself as otherwise fairly apolitical.

"So I am really excited to step into something that really matters and means something."

Among the themes their posters pick up is the ability of New Zealanders to confront racism in their own daily lives, by intervening when they encounter it.

"Rather than ignoring it, pretending it is not happening, let’s actually try to put ourselves between the racist and the victim, is what we are suggesting," Mahalski says.

His collaborators in the poster competition also include fourth-generation New Zealand Chinese Wellington-based social psychologist Bev Hong and University of South Australia psychology professor Bernard Guerin. That expertise has been put to good use, providing guidance about what goes into a good poster — and what should be left out. For example, the competition website advises that repeating racist themes, even to rebut them, can actually increase racism. Sarcasm and irony are also unlikely to be helpful. On the other hand, appealing to feelings of empathy is a tried and tested approach, as is portraying an inclusive Kiwi identity.

Competition judges include artist Michel Tuffery and writer Lynda Chanwai-Earle.

Mahalski says posters lend themselves to addressing racism by affording people a voice.

"We are inviting people into this space to say what they think about the subject. It gives them as much of a chance to vent as it gives me a chance to vent, ‘Hey, I’m not happy with this and I am standing with the Chinese community or I am standing with cultural diversity in Aotearoa’.

"I want a multicultural society. I like living in a multicultural society."

The competition

The Aotearoa Poster Competition is open until September 21. Go to www.aotearoaposter.com

There are three categories — 13 to 17 years old, new and emerging artists, established artists — and a people’s choice section. Winners will take away cash prizes and have their posters displayed nationally, courtesy of Phantom Billstickers.

Judges: Mark Amery, Lynda Chanwai-Earle, Kerry Ann Lee, Michael Tuffery.


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