Current Affairs

Why Taika Waititi should be applauded for calling New Zealand “racist as f**k”

The Kiwi director has made some polarising remarks on the state of our nation. Here's why we should listen to what he has to say.

By: Emma Land

This week, celebrated Kiwi film director and 2017's New Zealander of the Year, Taika Waititi, called New Zealand "racist as f..k" in an interview with UK magazine Dazed.

Cue the outrage.

The AM Show's Duncan Garner has been the most vocal. He labelled Taika's statement as "sabotage" and urged him to "stop selling us out on the international stage," saying he'd "gone too far" and to "change the record."

Garner said he didn't agree with what Taika said because "that was South Africa under apartheid. New Zealand is not as racist as that." But in the same breath he went on to say "if we're honest with ourselves, we're all a little bit racist."

So, being a little bit racist is OK, as long as we're not as racist as apartheid South Africa? Of course not.

Here are the comments that got Duncan so worked up.

Taika held a joint interview with Ruban Nielson from Kiwi band Unknown Mortal Orchestra. They talked about what it was like growing up Polynesian in New Zealand.

The whole premise of the interview was to get the two of them together to discuss, as the magazine described it, Polynesian excellence. It was celebrating two men of mixed race who are doing well on the world stage. It was a relaxed conversation between the pair.

Speaking about his home country, Taika said "it's racist as f**k. I mean, I think New Zealand is the best place on the planet, but it's a racist place. People just flat-out refuse to pronounce Maori names properly.

"There's still profiling when it comes to Polynesians. It's not even a colour thing – like, 'Oh, there's a black person.' It's, 'If you're Poly then you're getting profiled."

When Taika speaks, people listen.

As Kiwis we have a desperate need to be well thought of by the rest of the world. We're like the proverbial third child, vying for attention, shouting out to be noticed and craving praise and acceptance.

So when someone says something bad about our country, we're not happy. But when a Kiwi is the culprit, we're incensed.

There is one thing, though, that is glaringly obvious in the people calling Taika out on this. Most notably, of course, Garner; they're white and middle class. What on earth would they know about the challenges Maori and Pacific people face, or anyone else in an ethnic minority for that matter.

To his credit, Garner did recognise this. He went on to say that "when you are white, you can't actually say if we're racist or not. It's up to the people who are at the end of the racist taunts…to actually have the view."

And that's exactly why he wasn't qualified to take exception to what Taika said. He wasn't disagreeing with the statement, he was just worried about how it would make us look to others.

Taika Waititi has been propelled onto the world stage thanks to the success of Thor.

I'm Pakeha. I've never experienced racism towards myself, but I'm under no illusion that it happens to others. Racism isn't just the obvious things like using derogatory terms or holding people back because of the colour of their skin. It is subtle and often deep-seated.

I grew up in Grey Lynn in the 80's. These days the central Auckland suburb has an average house price of over $2 million. The families living there now are mostly white and middle class, much like Garner himself. But in the 80's the population was heavily Polynesian.

Historically, that's where many of the new immigrants from the Islands settled – the golden triangle of Grey Lynn, Ponsonby and Freemans Bay – and was the epicentre of many of the 'dawn raids' in the 70's, where police targeted Polynesian 'overstayers'.

It was a rich and multicultural environment. We had Rastafarians living next door to us. It was Kiwi singer Che Fu's dad's house. Every year they held a fantastic all-day Rastafarian celebration in their back yard, putting up a big tent, playing music, cooking amazing food and singing and dancing. It's one of the standout memories from my childhood because it was so different to anything else I'd known.

Che's dad Tigi is a political activist and musician. Born in New Zealand to Niuean parents, he championed Polynesian and Maori rights. He protested the Springbok Tour and was one of only five protestors to be jailed, converting to Rastafarianism during his nine-month sentence.

There were two families living in that house and I was friends with the other boy next door, Fidel. We went to primary school together. Only years later after watching The Motorcycle Diaries did I understand the significance of the names Che and Fidel.

Tigi (Tigilau Ness) receives a lifetime achievement award at the 2009 S3 Pacific Music Awards.

I felt lucky to have grown up there. But years down the track I was at my auntie's house in small town New Zealand when she was telling visitors about the family home I grew up in. She described the suburb as "unsafe."

Why? Because there were Polynesians living there? And what were the implications for my parents with a comment like that? That they'd willingly brought up their three children there in blatant disregard for our safety?

I wish I'd challenged her on it but I was only a teenager at the time and didn't feel confident enough to speak up. Sadly though, even if I had it wouldn't have made a difference. It is a shining example of the racism we don't think is racism. It's the 'casual racism' that is ingrained in our culture.

Waititi starred in a satirical 'pro racism' campaign for the Human Rights Commission in 2017.

Television and radio presenters in this country receive plenty of feedback from irate viewers who take exception to them using Te Reo. There's a certain faction of the country who believe it has no place on air and that everyone should speak English.

Last year former National Party leader Don Brash launched a social media rant, saying he was absolutely sick of presenters on state funded Radio New Zealand using Te Reo in their "primarily English-language broadcasts." He described presenter Guyon Espiner's efforts to interject Maori words as "virtue signalling at its worst."

What he was suggesting by that comment is that Espiner has no interest whatsoever in championing the Maori language and trying to be more inclusive. He was simply focused on enhancing his social standing and showing how much better he is than everyone else.

But what Brash had spectacularly failed to realise is that Espiner's wife is Maori. She speaks the language well and Guyon is learning it so that together they can teach their four-year-old daughter Te Reo with the aim of her becoming fluent. He wasn't grandstanding - he has a genuine interest in keeping the language alive.

Guyon Espiner with his wife Emma and daughter Nico.

We can't talk about racism in our country without singling out people like Janice, the Breakfast viewer who angrily wrote in to the program last year in response to Labour MP Kelvin Davis' proposal to set up a prison run on Maori values.

"I'm sick of hearing that Maori need different treatment," she wrote. "If they don't want to live in our society, then maybe we should put them all on an island and leave them to it."

Host Jack Tame couldn't contain his exasperation when responding.

"Janice, that is literally what happened. That is the history of our country. Last I checked Maori were on an island, they were left to it, and then Pakeha turned up and look how that turned out!"

Race relations commissioner Dame Susan Devoy has taken Waititi's comments for the manner in which they were intended.

"When someone like Taika Waititi comes out and speaks the truth and talks from experience, we as New Zealanders need to sit up and listen," she told TVNZ's Breakfast.

"Good on Taika for having the courage to speak up and tell the truth. We need to actually understand racism is an issue in New Zealand and what are we going to do about it."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has entered the debate as well, telling the AM Show "I think probably you'd be hard-pressed to find a country that didn't have racism in it, New Zealand is one of them."

"Is there racism in New Zealand? Undeniably. Is there racism in most countries? Undeniably. Can we do better? Yes."

And that's the point. We are no different to any other country in the world and anyone who thinks we aren't racist is kidding themselves. It doesn't mean we aren't a great country, Duncan, it just means we've got a bit to work on.

For all of the people that are offended by Taika's comments, there are others out there who agree. And it has sparked debate, which was most likely his goal in the first place.

So instead of getting up in arms about the comments, let's use this as our opportunity to take a long hard look at ourselves and work out how we can do better.

The last word should go to Taika who, in typical fashion, responded on Twitter to Garner's comments with three simple but powerfully dismissive letters: LOL.