Mouths Wide Shut

First published in Metro Magazine, New Zealand, 2012 by Leilani Tamu in collaboration with artist Janet Lilo

My husband easily fits the Crimewatch stereptype. He is Polynesian, tall, stocky, wears hoodies and ripped jeans, has multiple tattoos and long hair…..the list goes on. He is also University educated, articulate, respectful and kind. A few years ago I dragged him along to a writers’ event at a library. He wasn’t overly keen but agreed to come, to show his support for me. When we arrived, he walked over to the librarian to ask whether he could use the bathroom. She told him they did not have a bathroom and he would have to walk a block down the road to use the public toilets at the local soccer field. Busting to go, he explained that he was with the writers’ group and pleaded to use the bathroom in the library. The woman said, “No the library’s bathroom isn’t available tonight,” and directed him outside. Five minutes later (after he had departed for the soccer field) that same person stood up in front of the other 20 or so guests (all fair-skinned) and said that if anyone needed to use the bathroom, it was just around the corner to the left, in the library.

At the time, the situation seemed clear cut. My husband was the only person of colour in the room (my own skin is fair). He was the only person sent outside to use the toilet. Surely the motivation behind this woman’s actions was based on ingrained racial prejudice. The problem was, how could we prove it? We didn’t have any hard evidence. At the time we also lacked the financial means to seek legal advice. So we did what a lot of New Zealanders do when confronted with situations like this. Nothing.

How often does this happen? In July 2012 the Human Rights Commission released a discussion paper A fair go for all? which puts the issues on the table. The report states “there is strong, consistent, evidence that structural discrimination is a real and ongoing issue in New Zealand….In health, education, criminal justice and public services, Maori, Pacific peoples and ethnic communities are disproportionately disadvantaged by a “one size fits all” model of provision”.

Having only recently left the public service, and being a woman of Pacific Island descent, I was not surprised. While working for my former employer, I wrote two papers and convened several meetings to discuss practical equal employment opportunity initiatives that could be implemented to address the issue of poor organisational diversity. I was trying to get my organisation to rethink how it marketed itself to top Pacific Island post-graduate students looking for work. The problem was not to do with the calibre of students. It was that they weren’t even applying for the jobs we had available.

Despite high-level support from one senior manager, I encountered considerable resistance from mid-level human resources officials. Equal employment opportunity was not a policy priority. I will never forget the day I was pulled aside by a HR adviser who said, “Don’t you realise we have a lot of priorities and a lot on our plate? EEO isn’t the only thing we have to do, you know?”

The pertinent questions for bringing about positive social change to combat discrimination are: What can the average person do about it? What responsibility do individual citizens have to address the issue when confronted with it?

I was on a plane recently when I overheard a well-dressed Pakeha businessman talking to a young Asian student. The Pakeha said: “Don’t get me wrong, I mean, I know all about China. I lived in Hong Kong and Shanghai for a long time….It’s just that there are far too many of you here and New Zealand is a small country. We can hardly afford to pay back those Maoris, let alone take in all of you.” I wanted to interrupt. My companion felt strongly that I shouldn’t get involved. There’s validity in both of our positions but I believe the cumulative effect of people doing and saying nothing condones the prejudices.

Making a decision to speak out against racism is tough. There are personal risks, including losing a job, being publicly humiliated and ostracised by peers. But keeping silent means those same realities are borne by the victims of discrimination every day.

This issue is not going to go away. We all have to make the call: how long will we keep our mouths wide shut?

One thought on “Mouths Wide Shut

  1. Pingback: Poem Friday: Leilani Tamu’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ — I love the mesh of surprise and political bite | NZ Poetry Shelf

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