The shocking and tragic events of the white supremacist terrorist shootings in Christchurch have ignited a debate about white supremacy in Aotearoa (or New Zealand), but as Jill Johnson writes, it’s not surprising in light of a violent history that has not yet been faced up to
Featured image: Jacinda Ardern is welcomed by Kaahautau Maxwell at Rātana – the first major Māori political event she attended as prime minister
I wouldn’t want to be Jacinda Ardern right now, and not just because of a white supremacist, semi-automatic gun-toting terrorist, whose name she will not say.
As news of the Christchurch atrocity trickled in, like the rest of the world, I was horrified that this could happen in such a peaceful country. 50 men, women and children murdered whilst at prayer, dozens more injured. It was unbelievable. Then I heard that the shooter was a white supremacist and I began to think about New Zealand’s history and maybe it wasn’t so unbelievable after all. And I began to think, ‘Wow, what a wake up call for Jacinda’.
Her knee jerk reaction of ‘This is not New Zealand. This is not who we are,’ and ‘He is not from here, was not raised here, did not develop his values here,’ was predictable. She was in shock but also in denial about the prevailing racism within her country.
New Zealand – or to use its indigenous name, Aotearoa – does not have a great track record when it comes to race relations. As with so many colonised countries, it is scarred. Marred by land confiscations, and cultural, religious and language suppression. Places of worship were destroyed or desecrated, healers were forbidden from practicing their traditional medicine and Māori were denied the health care and education freely enjoyed by the white settlers. In the 1940s, my Māori father was beaten by his teachers if he was caught speaking his language when he was a child. As a result, he refused to teach his own children te reo, the language of Māori, believing it to be a dead and therefore useless language.
“They do not know that the Māori were duped because their translation of the treaty was different to the English version. They do not know about the compulsory land purchases and confiscations, and the resulting displacement of Māori that caused lives to be blighted by disease, poverty and squalor”
There are many, many historical instances of atrocity carried out by the Crown, too many to write about here, and certainly too many for the current government of Aotearoa to acknowledge. Indeed, after the publication of Origin of Species in 1859, Social Darwinists in government believed that it was natural for inferior races to melt away as a result of European contact and that the Europeans’ role was to ‘smooth the dying pillow’ during the Māori’s inevitable demise.
Most people outside Aotearoa know about the Land Wars in the early 1800s, which led to the Treaty of Waitangi. They do not know that the Māori were duped because their translation of the treaty was different to the English version. They do not know about the compulsory land purchases and confiscations, that the government insisted was a stipulation of the Treaty. They do not know about the resulting displacement of Māori that caused lives to be blighted by disease, poverty and squalor. And they do not know that at the turn of the century, after 60 years of European settlement, Māori numbers had declined to less than 40,000, whereas the white settler population had surged to almost 800,000.
I can’t help wondering if Jacinda knows these things as well, and I can’t help thinking that she does. Even though she has given her baby a Māori middle name (Te Aroha, which means ‘Love’), and she wore a kahu huruhuru, a cloak made of feathers traditionally worn by chiefs and dignitaries when she visited the Queen in April 2018, I can’t help thinking that deep down, underneath her left wing sentiments and her denials that Aotearoa has become a breeding ground for white supremacists, she knows that Aotearoa rests on an historical bedrock of racism which her government is perpetuating today.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the Kilbirnie Mosque, Aotearoa
For those who do not know, Jacinda Ardern is the leader of the Labour party in a coalition government with New Zealand First, the anti-immigration party, led by Winston Peters, her Deputy Prime Minister. Her party campaigned to reduce immigration with a stringent policy to reduce immigration by 30,000. This doesn’t sound much to us in the UK but when you consider the population of Aotearoa is only 4.794 million, it is a significant number (incidentally, the population of London is almost double, at over 8 million).
As recently as last October, her coalition partner, New Zealand First voted to present a controversial bill to parliament designed to subject immigrants to ‘Kiwi values pledges’.
“They’re in our turf now and they’ve got to respect our rules.”
“Nothing’s worse than going into a shop and going to a person behind the counter talking a foreign language to you.”
To be fair, Jacinda has distanced herself from this kind of rhetoric but we all know how easy it is to normalise racism, especially when it’s coming from one’s own government.
“It’s also important she faces those ever increasing voices within her own country who are drawing parallels with what happened in Christchurch and the treatment of the indigenous Māori population in Aotearoa’s past”
Then came the nameless white supremacist, semi-automatic gun-toting terrorist, plunging Aotearoa into existential chaos. Immediately ‘This is not who we are’ memes sprang up on Face Book and Jacinda was quick to explain that – ‘He is Australian. We are not racist. This is not our fault’. To quote the Labour party immigration policy website page, ‘New Zealand is a country based on immigration.” Oh, the irony.
And to be fair to Jacinda… again, when you compare her response to the shootings, with Teresa May’s response to Grenfell, she absolutely wins. She was on the scene quickly, was respectfully wearing a headscarf, was being tactile and emotional with the mourners. She was responding with empathy and kindness. The photographs showing her grief were patently authentic. She was truly grieving, as is the whole of Aotearoa. But two weeks on and Jacinda is facing difficult questions from the world’s media.
Aotearoa, and its immigration policy is a hot topic, and Jacinda’s role as ‘empathetic leader’ is under scrutiny. She is, quite rightly, saying that white supremacy is a worldwide problem and must be dealt with on a world scale. But it’s also important she faces those ever increasing voices within her own country who are drawing parallels with what happened in Christchurch and the treatment of the indigenous Māori population in Aotearoa’s past. No, I wouldn’t want to be Jacinda Ardern right now, not for all the kūmara in the hāngi.
Jill Johnson is an author of Māori heritage. Her debut novel The Time Before The Time To Come explores the suppression of Māori people through European colonialism whilst opening a window to and celebrating Māori culture.Follow @WriterJJohnson