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Resist Accusations of Racism

December 20, 2021

It was Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carrol’s Alice Through the Looking Glass who said “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less”.

There was a lot of hidden wisdom in that sentence, one of my favourites from the 1871 fairy tale fantasy. It gave me some comfort as a new school entrant struggling to keep Maori words out of my spoken English and English words out of my, very poorly spoken, Maori. In later years words became my stock in trade for the most part of four decades as a journalist author and historian.

We all use words, spoken or written, to communicate with each other and the more complex or controversial the message the more important it is to use the corrects words. Too often we use the wrong word or words but, because we speak or write contextually, many such errors are overlooked and often not even recognised.

In our every-day communications errors and misused word are usually not important as long the meaning is understood. However, when the exact meaning of words is important, we are often obliged to explain or interpret them to avoid misunderstanding or confusion. Such is the importance of accuracy most of our laws, or Acts of Parliament, have a list of interpretations at the beginning usually preceded by;

“In this Act, unless the context otherwise requires, these words will mean…” and there follows an extensive list of meanings for each word or phrase.

Some words also have powerful influences on those who hear or read them. The lyrics of a song can reignite deep emotions experienced when the song was first heard or shared with others. The words of popular music of decades ago may bring back fond or sad memories of long-lost loves and a hymn at the funeral of someone special will bring back memories of the departed. The lyrics of a song sung at a wedding can have special meaning for couples for the rest of their lives. Words can also be used aggressively or as an accusation and some people have developed the art of deliberately misusing words in this context.

In the first two decades of the twenty first century among the most misused words in New Zealand were racism, apartheid and separatism. Sometimes they were applied incorrectly or used interchangeably and too often they were used to stifle debate or denigrate people who dared to question a new political development.

One of those developments is a policy by the Government to give Maori more autonomy in the management of their own affairs, which was one of the guarantees in the much-maligned 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. Most fair-minded people would have no objection to that but, one result of that policy has been the emergence of an informal duality of citizenship in New Zealand based on ethnicity. That, probably unintended, result ignores the facts of history and the natural birth right of any people born in a country, regardless ancestral origins.

A good analogy is the status of Northern and Southern Irish people. No-one today would doubt the right of Northern Irish people to call themselves native Irishmen. Many of them however are direct descendants of an army of occupation installed by King William of Orange after the Battle of Boyne River in 1690. Their descendants today are without doubt native Irish.

More recently Fijian-Indians living in New Zealand have demanded to be classified as Pacific Islanders not Asian or Indian. They are descendants of Indian agricultural workers taken to Fiji by Britain in the 1970s. They claim, with some justification, that the New Zealand government classification of them as Asians and not Pasifika is wrong and must be corrected. In New Zealand that natural evolutionary process has also not been recognised and Pakeha are still considered by many people as English, strangers, visitors or invaders.

Two other results of the move to more Maori autonomy have been the establishment of Maori wards on local authorities. These give Maori guaranteed seats, and in one case unelected direct appointments to a regional council, in the management not just of their affairs but the affairs of the entire community.

It was easily predictable that there would be acrimonious division between some Maori and some in the non-Maori community with both sides making ill-founded accusations of racism, apartheid, separatism and tokensim. None of them are accurate or justified but all, or most, of that conflict could have been avoided if the nation had been fully informed and involved in a properly informed the discussion.

We have an absolute and undeniable right to question and debate such developments and any attempt to muzzle that conversation with accusations of racism, by either side, must be strenuously resisted.