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When I introduce myself using my pepeha (introductory remarks), I include the phrase "No Marehia ahau": I am from Malaysia. It places me for the audience and neatly sidesteps those questions of where are you really from?
Though, if I'm completely honest, it's awkward. I was a mere child when I landed in Aotearoa, and it is the only home I have ever known. I've visited Malaysia a handful of times; each time painfully and obviously a tourist.
I work for Ally Skills NZ. We bring diversity and inclusion workshops to Aotearoa's workplaces and communities. These workshops help people see, no matter the situation, how there is the potential to be an ally (because we still have a world where people are marginalised and made into targets!).
Aotearoa desperately needs allies right now. As the Human Rights Commission reports, "marginalised communities have always suffered from various forms of discrimination and hate in Aotearoa New Zealand. But the discrimination has a new reason for which to rear its ugly head. That was — and still is— Covid-19".
The report found that overall, 39% of respondents reported experiencing discrimination since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak. What was striking though, was the high rates for Tangata Whenua (55% of respondents experienced discrimination), Chinese (54%), Pacific (50%), and Asian (49%) respondents. The report, “Te Kaikiri me te Whakatoihara i Aotearoa i te Uruta Covid-19 — Racism and Xenophobia Experiences in Aotearoa New Zealand during Covid-19” was released in February 2021. They decided to do this research because by May 2020, "of the more than 250 Covid-19 related complaints received by the Human Rights Commission [since January], 34% of them were race-related".
Note that due to the specificity of Covid-19, the Human Rights Commission chose to separate Chinese from all other Asians.
But what does it mean to be an ally? Consider that oppression is a systemic, pervasive inequality that benefits some people and harms others. An ally, thus, is anybody who enjoys some of those benefits — that privilege — and works to learn more about their own privilege and takes action to end oppression.
As we start to think about big topics like privilege, oppression, and allyship, we should also take a quick temperature check. In other words, what are you feeling? Sometimes, through no fault of your own, you find yourself looking like the people you see in the media, perpetuating the harm. You might be feeling guilty about benefiting from this system that you had no part in creating.
If you're able to identify and be honest about what you're feeling, then I celebrate your self-awareness. These feelings are normal, and it's important to process those emotions and seek support if you need it.
In our workshops, we distinguish between two types of actions — situational responses and systemic responses. A situational response is when you respond to the harm in the moment, right there and then. A systemic response is when you think about how you can help change the system so that this kind of harm doesn't happen again.
So how can you respond in the moment? The number one way any ally can respond when the harm is racially motivated is to speak up. In the recent story of a Chinese family being attacked in a cafe, I was most pleased to hear of the Pakeha women who came to the family's aid. They didn't do much; they just comforted the family, and that was enough. At that moment, they needed the comfort of knowing that not everyone thought the same way as their attacker. These women were allies because they chose to take action.
You might not always feel safe speaking out or confronting someone in public, but sometimes, just being there is enough to reduce the harmful behaviour.
In addition to what you do in the moment, it’s also important to think about what you can do to prevent this type of harm from happening in the first place.
You can work towards an Aotearoa we all want to live in by contributing to bigger, systemic changes.
It’s also important to learn more about the systems we live in. Follow content creators and activists that don't look like you. It will give you a different perspective that you might not encounter in your day-to-day life. Learn how to be "anti-racist" instead of merely "not-racist".
If you can afford it, commit to donating to anti-racism organisations. Many organisations are doing the groundwork out there and often run only on the smell of an oily rag.
For me, allyship is the embodiment of our Government’s message to Be Kind. I’ve seen a lot of people express their frustration that Be Kind is too vague; allyship is a specific way to be kind.
Allyship, for me, is also the incarnation of hope. From when I was a young child walking home from the shops, experiencing a much older woman yell at me, “go back to where you came from”, to now when people in a professional setting joke about how I could do all the maths problems because you know “her people are good at that”.
While comments like these wear me down, my hope is that one day these stereotypes won’t matter anymore and that all of these areas of systemic and situational racism will disappear.
I ask that today you look at yourself and recognise all the ways that you could be targeted. If it isn’t race, it could be gender, or sexuality, or body size, or ability, or more. Moreover, all of us will experience ageism in our old age, and many of us will have disabilities in our old age too. Now, look at all the spaces in which you have privilege. Each one of those spaces presents an opportunity to take action as an ally.
Now act. And act today.
Do this work now so that in the future, it might be easier for you. And ultimately, do this work because we want to give future generations a world that works better for all of us.