In the recent furore over Paul Henry’s unwise comments about the Governor General there is an aspect of the following public debate which is largely overlooked by the media. The public perception of New Zealanders being largely free of racism is not borne out by history or contemporary observations and for many this may lie uncomfortably closer to the surface than we care to admit. It might even be argued that there is a biological urge for groups within species to promote their own interests at the expense of rival groups as a basic survival mechanism. Since some of this behaviour is ingrained by social norms and learning from a variety of sources, large sectors of society cheerfully depersonalise what they see as rival groups and pass these views to successive generations. Remembering back to my own childhood in the largely white community of British extraction in Christchurch it was almost second nature to scoff at our recent war enemies – the Japs – the Nazis and Huns – and to fear the so called yellow peril and the commies. At the time, in public thinking, the British Empire was only gradually being transmogrified into the Commonwealth. The Treaty of Waitangi of the fifties took second place to a school history which certainly did not portray the Maori as equals no matter what the theoretical position might have been.

Previously when New Zealand had been settled by the Europeans, the resulting settlement was far from uniform. Attitudes to the Maori were consequently locally shaped by such matters as competition for land. Several historians have for example noted that in areas where the settlers were struggling to get a foothold, the local newspapers were reflecting strong antipathy to the Maori describing them as “conniving”, “scheming”, “dishonest” whereas in other areas where there was comparatively little threat the local newspapers were happy to use terms like “noble savage”

In the later half of the 19th Century there was also a loose scientific justification for such views. Even Darwin, who may be better known for his abolitionist views wrote of a future time when the gap between humans and apes would be seen to increase by the extinction of intermediates such as chimpanzees and Hottentots.

The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian and some ape as low as a baboon, intead of as at present between the negro or Australian (sic?) and the gorilla

(Darwin Descent of Man 1871:201)

Across the Atlantic, Louis Agassiz (1850:111) had already defended his consignment of blacks to a different species writing:

Naturalists have a right to consider the questions growing out of men’s physical relations as merely scientific questions, and to investigate them without reference to either politics or religion.

The New Zealand setting for social Darwinism came very early for some in that soon after Darwin’s work reached the shores of New Zealand the land wars had broken out between the colonists and the Maori. Some excused the killing by reference to Darwinism. Arthur Atkinson, a Taranaki militia man and settler-politician went so far as to record in his journal shortly after he had finished reading Darwin’s Origin that shooting Maori had now become “a sort of scientific duty.”

Stenhouse reviews a number of statements by early New Zealand scientists which pick up this theme in a more measured, but still clearly strongly racialist manner.

For example he quotes William Travers as saying “wherever a white race comes in contact with an indigenous dark race on ground suitable to the former” then “the latter must disappear in a few generations.” James Hector finding much merit in this observation congratulated Travers for his eminently Darwinian outlook. Travers went on to give his observations a evangelical gloss by reminding his readers including “the most sensitive philanthropist” how the ennobling impulses of the European were thereby transforming a dark and savage land. Similarly the ornithologist Buller argued in an address to the Wellington Philosophical Society that the “inscrutable laws of Nature” decreed the aboriginal races give way before “more civilised ones”. He then went on patronisingly to suggest that the “good compassionate” colonists might “smooth down” the Maori’s “dying pillow.” Both Buller and the physician Alfred K Neuman rejected the possibility that the Maori and European race might ever mingle on the grounds that half castes and their children were typically so enfeebled that they rarely reached maturity. (quoted in Stenhouse The Wretched Gorilla Damnification of History, New Zealand Journal of History 18 No 2 October 1994:33)

This was a persistent theme and as McGeorge has pointed out, found its way into the school texts from the early colonial years. (McGeorge 1981:14) eg

Whites form by far the most important race, for they have the best laws, the greatest amount of learning, and the most excellent knowledge of farming and trade. There are five great races of men, and of these the white race is the highest. (Ward 1879:44)

While it can be argued that textbooks no longer have these same prejudices, our great grandparents passed on their beliefs to their children and thence to succeeding generations as is witnessed in Northern Ireland and countless other centres of dispute no matter how illogical it might seem.

At the turn of the century we find Sir Fredrick Truby King arguing strenuously for a whites only immigration policy, since in his eyes the virility of the Anglo-saxon race depended on it. In the New Zealand observer of 1914 “The mayor said he did not object to Hindoos on the score of their colour or nationality but because they were objectionable as citizens….They may use New Zealand advantages to make a living, but in sympathy, in feeling and in morals they remain sons of their forefathers”. Again in the New Zealand Observer of 1919 there was a lament for the degree to which the immigration laws had allowed too many non whites into the country. “There is a tobacconist Shop in Queen Street, and in it many white people get cheap shaves. They are shaved by Hindus…. There are many acres of bush and many miles of roads in the King Country that are being respectively felled and maintained by Hindus…in the white man’s pay. They have beaten white men for a job, because they work for less. They can work for less because they live for less.”

Although we might believe that these sorts of prejudice have not survived through to modern New Zealand society the treatment of immigrants suggests we have not moved as far as we may like to think. Many will for example know personally of cases where non British, non Australian or non US citizen post graduate professionals easily meeting minimum requirements for immigration into New Zealand arrive to find themselves blocked from entering the very professions with the proclaimed shortages. I personally have met a neurosurgeon whose only hospital employment possibility was that of a hospital orderly, several doctors driving taxis, a medical physicist painting houses – other professionals pumping petrol and even stacking supermarket shelves.

Although I had no way of quantifying my observations I certainly witnessed plenty of discrimination growing up in Christchurch in the fifties. With virtually no Maori visible in Christchurch, the only sizable group of non British immigrants were the Dutch who at the height of their immigration between 1951 and 1953 were somewhat uneasily accepted. Looking back I remember overheard comments about the Dutch foreign ways like working too hard, not understanding the New Zealand sense of humour and being too ambitious. When as a young secondary teacher I shifted to Paerata near Pukekohe in 1971 I encountered a very visible discrimination against the Maori. The local Picture theatre was Whites upstairs and Maori downstairs. An area of Pukekohe was termed brown by the locals, a Maori diplomat had been refused custom at the Jolly Farmer in Drury, and there was a primary school where the principal had greeted Maori parents at the gate on the first day of school with the news that their school was down the road.

Teaching at a high school in Mangere, I witnessed first hand the so called white flight from the area. When I started teaching there in 1981 the school roll was approximately one third European, one third Maori and one third Polynesian. When I finished there in 2004 there were only three European students on the roll! Although relationships between races had apparently improved over that period at times, the Samoan and Tongan groupings showed visible signs of mutual distrust and the Asian students were occasionally discriminated against in the playground. One instance remains vividly etched in my memory. The junior school was sitting in the assembly hall watching the Indian cultural group perform on stage. The year 10 Samoan next to me leaned across and whispered confidentially to me: “I hate the Curries, don’t you?” Perhaps a Television Breakfast show is not a good career option for that young man.

In one study in 2007 by P Spoonley, P Gendall & A Trlin (Welcome to our world: The attitudes of New Zealanders to immigrants and immigration, New Settlers Programme, Massey University, Occasional Publication No. 14) It seemed clear that at least in 2007 prejudice was still alive and well.

In their study it was pointed out that although the more direct contact people had with migrants, the more positive and tolerant they were on virtually all immigration issues, ninety-three percent of respondents had heard people in New Zealand make racist remarks about migrants at some point.
Seventy-eight percent agreed that many migrants stuck to their own and did not mix with others, and 47 percent believed the recent arrival of significant numbers of Asian migrants was changing New Zealand in undesirable ways.
Fifty-seven percent considered the number of migrants coming to New Zealand should be reduced, and only 14 percent agreed the government was doing a good job of managing immigration applications and policy.
Seventy-two percent believed new migrants who had not contributed to the country were putting too much strain on scarce resources, and almost 55 percent believed many migrants were a burden on New Zealand’s welfare system.
Fifty-eight percent of people did not believe the government should be responsible for helping new migrants for 3–5 years after their arrival.

M Ip in a paper entitled Conducting cross-cultural research: The Maori-Chinese Encounters Project delivered to the Pathways, Circuits and Crossroads Conference, New Zealand in 2007 suggested the Maori were no better than their non Maori counterparts when expressing prejudice against Asian immigrants. While Ip’s study only approximately verified Spoonley’s figures above, Ip found the view of immigration held by Māori tended to be much more negative than that of New Zealand Europeans. Seventy percent of Māori in her apparently representative sample wanted less immigration compared with less than 50 percent of New Zealand Europeans. In the same study well-educated Māori were more anti-immigration than less-educated New Zealand Europeans.
For their part the Chinese felt Māori enjoyed privileges and special status as a result of the Treaty of Waitangi, that Māori were not welcoming and were jealous, and that Māori might side with Pākehā, which would mean Asians would have nowhere to stand.
Māori felt Asians were not original Treaty partners, they arrived with money and skills (were ‘too smart’), and their arrival might be part of a government ploy to dilute biculturalism.

Discussing such discrimination is fraught with problems. A friend who was head of Social Studies at a South Auckland school recounted to me how he had once showed a senior class some statistics showing the high proportion of Maori in prisons in New Zealand and invited the class to suggest reasons why this might have occurred. His reward was being summoned to explain his prejudice against Maori to the race relations conciliator.

In the interests of a more tolerant New Zealand it was almost certainly appropriate to accept Paul Henry’s resignation, but pretending that he represented an unusual or aberrant position seems a little optimistic.

This entry was posted in In the news and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.