Time to give racism no oxygen anymore

Tuari Potiki is challenging people to speak up and stand up when they see racism in its many...
Tuari Potiki is challenging people to speak up and stand up when they see racism in its many forms. PHOTO: OTAGO DAILY TIMES FILES
Six days after the March 15 terror attack in Christchurch that killed 50 people, the University of Otago launched its participation in the national Give Nothing to Racism campaign. 

Otago’s office of Maori development director  Tuari Potiki  gave an impassioned speech reminding the audience of the history of racism he, his whanau and marae have faced. Importantly, he offers a message of hope for a new way forward. His speech from the event has been republished below, with his permission.

When I saw my name on the list of people who would be speaking, I got a bit of a shock and I wasn't really sure what I was going to say.

I thought I needed to obviously focus on the university, because that's what this campaign is about. But I can't really do that without firstly acknowledging what happened in Christchurch, as others have. I can't pretend that is not sitting with us here now because it is.

We go to Maori funerals, or tangi, all over the country and often you'll hear the same words in Maori. They say, "kua heke te kapua pouri ki runga ia tatou - the clouds of sadness have descended on us''. Usually it is said to the grieving whanau of the person who has passed away.

I think that's a really fitting description of the national sense of grief that we are all feeling and all experiencing as a result of what happened. The responses to what happened have been manifold and profound. Personally, one of the most profound comments I have heard was actually on the Friday afternoon as the enormity of this atrocity was unfolding. It came from our kaumatua Hata Temo. He stood there shaking his head and he said, "while they were having a karakia''. While they were praying. That still sits with me.

Some of the responses, I have got to say, have been hard to take. This idea of "that is not us'', talking about our loss of innocence. As the Vice-chancellor so succinctly put it in an email to me, "we were never innocent, we were blind''.

Some of you know the local history of this wonderful place we live in, Dunedin, and some of you will know some of the Maori history. Many of you will have been out to our marae at Otakou or Puketeraki. Some of you may have commented on the beauty of the place. But there is another history that some of you may not know.

I'll speak for my marae at Otakou. We have been the target of numerous racist attacks over the years. From having "nigger'' painted on our buildings to arson attempts, one of which resulted in us employing a security company which still operates there to this day along with alarms and sprinklers. There is a marae out in Kaikorai Valley called Araiteuru that was burnt to the ground in a racist arson attack. There was a marae in Invercargill that was burnt down three times. The day after the Ngai Tahu Settlement Claim was signed in 1997, the building here in Dunedin housing the Ngai Tahu Maori Law Centre and the Ngai Tahu Environmental Agency was burned to the ground in an arson attack.

On a much more personal level, there is my stepson whose father is Tuhoe. He is now 30 years old, but when he was aged 9 his mother found him in the bath trying to scrub the brown off because he didn't want to be called "nigger'' at school anymore.

Talk to our Pacific relations about their experiences. Talk to our students, Maori, Pacific, Asian, they will all give you recent examples and experiences of racism they have faced. Go anywhere around the country, any marae, any Maori community, Pacific community, Muslim community, any community will have their own experiences to share so yes - this is us. But we don't want it to be anymore - and it won't be if we take action.

The Give Nothing To Racism campaign we have launched is one step towards the future that we want by challenging us all to speak up and stand up when we see racism in its many forms. It is a small but important step. As Prof Hayne has mentioned, we also need to ask the broader questions. Maybe we could direct some of our enormous research power into asking some of these questions: Why Dunedin? What is it about this city that led a right-wing lunatic psychopath to think that he would be more at home here than in another city in New Zealand? Is it the prevalence of monuments to our white colonialist history?

When you look around, including Wellington and Christchurch, what do we see that sends clear messages that we value, respect and welcome ethnic, religious and other forms of diversity?

I know and I can assure you that these questions are being asked within the highest levels of this university, so please know this campaign is part of a much greater whole.

Part of that will be looking at our spaces and places and how we promote and show our commitment to inclusivity and diversity.

Earlier, I mentioned "kua heke te kapua pouri'', but we don't leave them in the clouds of sadness. The other part of the proverb is where we say, "Ma te wa ka whiti mai te ra ano. Whakapiri koutou kia koutou''.

That is, "stick together and in time the sun will once again shine on us and on you.''

Just as it is the action of the wind that parts those clouds and allowing the sun to shine, it will be the action of people, of us, who part those clouds and lead us all towards the future we want for our children and grandchildren.



Such a true everyday scenario, for minority groups and individuals that live in New Zealand.