Recently Christchurch has been in the news again for being racist. Oh, ho, ho! What will those cricket-fetishist, First Four Ships-worshipping WASPs be up to next? But “Christchurch is New Zealand’s capital of racism” as an established storyline that everyone understands doesn’t sit well with me.
Just to fill you in, local asian-fusion restaurant Bamboozle had a very negative review that was mostly about the food, and partly about the godawful, “how on earth can they think this is clever?” racism in the names of the menu items which played on stereotypical “asian” pronunciations. So far, so terrible. The Race Relations Commissioner chipped in in an “I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed” kind of way, and then a bunch of people who obviously wouldn’t know a worthy cause if it jumped up and yelled “RACISM” in their faces decided to support said restaurant because:
a) The beef rendang is actually really good there
b) Don’t tell white people what to do, OKAY?
c) I thought this was a protest AGAINST racism, but I’ve already ordered now and I’m quite hungry… but I’m not leaving a tip or a positive review on TripAdvisor.
So, yeah. It’s pretty shit. It’s gross and frustrating and all the nice non-racist people in Christchurch are basically only one more opinion piece away from cringing their own faces off.
But here’s the thing that always bugs me about these stories (other than the racism which, make no mistake, is definitely the worst bit) – it’s the ease with which everyone seamlessly slips into, “oh, Christchurch this is so like you” mode. You’re so white, and staid, and conservative and racist, Christchurch.
As a part-Māori person who grew up here I have some issues with this narrative.
The first is that Christchurch is definitely racist… because it’s in New Zealand, which is also racist. If you’re in a different part of the country and think that Christchurch has cornered the market on bigotry and ignorance you are very much mistaken. It’s everywhere. Someone not very far away from you is probably saying, doing or thinking something racist right now. If you think otherwise you’re deluding yourself.
It always makes us feel better to be able point the finger at somewhere we perceive as having a worse problem than us, *cough* Australia *cough*, but that just makes it easier to ignore what’s happening just down the road. While you’re busy rolling your eyes at Cantabrian intolerance you might be (conveniently) unable to focus on what’s right in front of you.
The other thing that bothers me about the “white, racist Christchurch” trope is that it erases me.
I don’t fit into that. It’s true that I have on occasion watched cricket at Hagley Oval, and indeed, I have partaken of a cucumber sandwich from time to time but that’s where the similarities begin and end. And as someone who’s been asked plenty of times, for what I’m pretty sure were racial reasons, where I’m “really from” this is no small point.
This characterisation of Christchurch helps to make me and people like me invisible. Confirmation bias means that you’ll remember every shitty racism story that comes out of Christchurch but not that Bic Runga, Anika Moa, Tiki Taane, Scribe and Ladi6 all come from here. It means you’ll forget about, or never even hear about Pacific Underground, or amazing Ngāi Tahu artists like Nathan Pohio or Fiona Pardington or Lonnie Hutchinson. That staid, conservative Christchurch was also the backbone of New Zealand’s suffrage and peace movements might fall from your memory. Because none of those things fit the narrative of white, cultural elitism.
But now, more than ever Christchurch is a lot of other things. It’s a city morphing and changing day-to-day, trying hard to become something beyond “the most English city outside of England”.
Ben Goldacre is an author whose work I have enjoyed over the years. He’s something of an expert in the way that science is reported in the media. His rule of thumb for any and all “Is grapefruit a cure for cancer?” or “Taking paracetamol during pregnancy might turn your child into a serial killer” headlines is to always approach them with the following assertion: I think you’ll find it’s actually more complicated than that.
Ōtautahi is more complicated than that too, I’d say.
PS: Racism is still shitty. And there’s nothing complicated about that.
Featured image: NASA astronaut Robert L. Curbeam, Jr. (left) and European Space Agency astronaut Christer Fuglesang, both STS-116 mission specialists, participate in the mission’s first of three planned sessions of extravehicular activity (EVA) as construction resumes on the International Space Station (with Banks Peninsula and Pegasus Bay in the background – they are possibly not discussing racists). NASA Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons.