No justification for racism

Recent events in the Strath Taieri might have some wondering: Just how friendly are New Zealanders, after all?

Our location, far removed from most other countries in the southernmost reaches of the Pacific Ocean, does us some favours.

We are a long way from wars and geopolitical fighting in the northern hemisphere and, when Covid-19 first reared its ugly head, it was relatively easy to raise the drawbridge and stop the bugs from streaming across the border.

But that distance can also be something of a curse. New Zealanders have grown up over the generations not being as aware of, and as comfortable with, other cultures and other ways of doing things as the worldly-wise kith and kin living in more crowded parts of the world.

This isolation can also breed suspicion about others who may not fit the longer-term stereotypes some hold about what it means to be a Kiwi. Anyone of a different race, religion or gender identity can soon find themselves on the outer in those less-tolerant communities where even just being unique or quirky might be frowned upon.

We need to be honest. It would not be too far off the mark to suggest that, generally, pockets of intolerance in this country become more widespread the further south you go.

The fair-minded people living in Middlemarch, across the Strath Taieri, Otago and New Zealand will be horrified and united in their revulsion over recent comments made by Strath Taieri Community Board chairman Barry Williams.

There can be absolutely no excuse for the racist slur Mr Williams made against a female hotel worker who had apparently mixed up his food order. What he said was abhorrent and reflects in an extremely embarrassing way on all the people of the Strath Taieri and the South.

Unfortunately, there will always be some people with repugnant opinions and big mouths. Thankfully, not all these people open their mouths without thinking of the consequences.

Mr Williams’ comments, however, show he certainly didn’t stop to think first. The woman who he racially insulted has reportedly left Middlemarch, and while Mr Williams has apologised to her, one can only imagine how shunned and dejected she must be feeling.

Barry Williams
Barry Williams. Photo: supplied
Dunedin Mayor Jules Radich has also been swept up in the imbroglio. His bumbling initial trivialisation of the slur did him no favours, saying in an RNZ interview that the comment "happened in a pub, and he didn’t even remember that it had happened, so it was just a relatively minor thing".

Mr Radich has since apologised for his remarks, which have been criticised by some Dunedin city councillors. They are now the subject of a code of conduct complaint, lodged by the city’s deputy Mayor, Sophie Barker, and Cr Jim O’Malley

Earlier, Cr Barker said all councillors had to be mindful of their responsibilities, while Cr O’Malley said he believed the strongest response was needed and said Mr Williams should consider resigning as chairman.

The community board is due to meet on Thursday next week and should come to a decision about Mr Williams’ future on it.

One board member, Robin Thomas, has spoken out, calling the racist slur "reprehensible" and embarrassing.

There was no place for racism or sexism in the community or anywhere else. Apart from the matter of whether Mr Williams should resign, the board and community had to consider how it could recover from the debacle and be more inclusive in future, Mr Thomas said.

Another board member, Terina Geddes, said in an email, leaked to the Otago Daily Times, that Mr Williams had yet to apologise to the board. However, she would not be calling for his resignation, as she considered he was not on official duties when made the remarks.

Our view is that should really have no bearing on the issue. It doesn’t matter where or when he stamped his feet and had his racist outburst.

As a representative of a community, and a city and region, Mr Williams has to live up to higher standards than this and inspire those who might have racist or outdated views to use their hearts and minds and do better.

Instead, he has brought nothing but shame on his community and the region, and left the self-esteem of a former resident of his area in tatters.