Owning Up To Our Racism

April 2, 2017
16 mins read

To ANDREW JOHNSTONE’s Aunty Eva, Maoris were “dirty ill-kept thieves… lazy and untrustworthy.” In this piece, he discusses the implications, the issues, and the history.


Maori were considered dirty, poor and untrustworthy

Great Aunt Eva was a figure on the family’s periphery, and not long before she died at the age of 92, I sat down with her, curious to learn more about her life. I asked why she had never married and she explained that there had been someone once, but her intuition warned her against it. He was a heavy drinker who later turned into an alcoholic and drank himself to an early grave. “A close escape,” she mused. For many decades a chain smoker, evident in her heavily wrinkled skin and gravely voice, she cadged a cigarette off me – her last, as it turned out – and after a couple of puffs stubbed it out, remarking that it held no interest for her anymore.

A career dental assistant and sometime nurse, she gave up work to nurse her aged mother through dementia, an all-consuming 15-year affair that came with a high personal and emotional cost. In return for giving up her career to care for her mother, her siblings gave her family’s dairy farm (at Waharoa near Matamata, in the Eastern Waikato) because of her sacrifice. And with the farm income she lived out a long and comfortable retirement playing golf, spending time with family and travelling the world.

Her mother was Irish and her father a Scot who had been in New Zealand for several decades living on land he had procured by ballot. (The Liberal government of the late 1800s had broken up the large family-owned estates that dominated the NZ rural landscape at the time, and through various schemes had enabled people with few means the opportunity to acquire land on easy financial terms). He had developed the land into a productive dairy operation and raised a family and buried a wife before he met my great grandmother, who had secured the farm next door, also by ballot.

She was infamously canny with money and she paid for the development of her land by handling the accounts of her neighbours, including the Scot next door. Eventually they married, combined the farms and produced five children. Eva described a happy and carefree childhood and revealed her parents to be kind, hard working and practical.

As she described farm life, her thoughts fell to a small group of local Maori who lived in whare made from fern and Manuka down the back of the farm where it ended on the banks of the Waihou River. They were the former owners of the land, though Eva would not have considered them as such. The orthodox logic of the time held that Maori did not understand the economic potential of land, and were therefore poor custodians. A remnant population of a much larger tribal group that had been displaced by the land wars of the 1860s, this small isolated group lived on eels fished out of the river and whatever else they could glean, which included milk, fruit and vegetables from the Johnstone family farm.

“They were dirty ill-kept thieves,” she informed me. “Lazy and untrustworthy.” A harsh assessment I thought, as I considered their condition. They had only recently lost their land, their culture had been subsumed, and they had been banished to the fringes of the new social order. Being from a co-operative tribal culture, I assumed that they saw anything growing on the land as mutual property. I imagined them living in their whare, somewhat bewildered by the momentous changes going on about them, unable to engage because of a lack of education and appropriate language skills, and surviving as best they could in the only way they knew how. I explained this perspective to Eva, whose eyes widened. She seemed startled at this idea and gathering her thoughts, she looked squarely at me and said she wondered if I might be right.

She died suddenly two days later, the last of a pioneering generation whose immediate forebears had fled social oppression in search of freedom, opportunity and in the case of some at least, a desire to create a nation free of the hierarchical constraints they had left behind in the old country. In many regards they succeeded spectacularly, but this was nation of two halves.

Besides the liberal voice seeking social equity there was a more potent and powerful voice determined that this new nation maintain a cultural balance firmly tilted in favour of white, Christian and British. This was to be a progressive society but only for the chosen few. It was also a society determined to undermine its founding document, a formal declaration of partnership between Maori and the British Crown called The Treaty of Waitangi.



The heyday of colonialism was stuttering to a close and the Maori encountered the British at a time when that Empire had become somewhat more enlightened as regards its responsibilities as a ruling power, and in this light the Maori managed to negotiate a treaty the likes of which had not been achieved by any colonised people anywhere through this age of cultural subjection. In brief:

‘The Treaty is a broad statement of principles on which the British and Maori made a political compact to found a nation state and build a government in New Zealand. The document has three articles. In the English version, Maori cede the sovereignty of New Zealand to Britain; Maori give the Crown an exclusive right to buy lands they wish to sell, and, in return, are guaranteed full rights of ownership of their lands, forests, fisheries and other possessions; and Maori are given the rights and privileges of British subjects’.

– Te Ara Encyclopaedia of NZ

NZ was a brand spanking new democracy and Maori were full participants from the start, and here on these isolated islands at world’s end the two peoples worked and lived side by side fully equal under the law, a state of being somewhat blighted by the European world-view of the time. The wisdom was that the white races were somewhat superior and deserved inheritors of the world, a methodology of thinking that led to outrageous treaty breaches as regards land ownership. As a result, Maori were often violently disrespected, insulted and manipulated endlessly by a system that promised much but seldom delivered on those promises.

The Maori Battalion

Perhaps this fight for Maori equality is best exemplified through the story of the Maori Battalion, a much-eulogised unit of the NZ army that fought valiantly on several fronts through World War Two. Maori leaders at the time hoped that by fighting harder, faster and better than anyone else Pakeha would wake from their dream of superiority and start to treat Maori with more respect.

It didn’t happen, and as late as 1960 the South Auckland town of Pukekohe banned Maori from hotel bars, barbershops and general seating in movie theatres. This was neither standard nor unusual and wholly against the spirit of the law and the Treaty of Waitangi. It was also a glaring reflection of the attitudes at work in the hearts of many Pakeha, and by the time the 1970s rolled around, Maori had had enough and started asserting themselves to the fright of the nation. Almost 40 years later, Maori are now compensated, consulted and recipients of all manner of formalised apologies, but are still considered by much of mainstream culture as second rate, though few in their right mind would ever dare say so out loud.

A friend recalls being on a course with a Maori guy who she described as pleasant but somewhat haunted. Though they talked extensively and got to know each other well he would never meet her eyes, a trait that upset her. She queried this and he confided that next to Pakeha he felt like a second-class citizen and a lesser human being. To him this feeling was visceral and kept him from fulfilling his potential as a citizen, which was why he was on this particular course: seeking a solution to his pain and confusion.

One hundred and twenty years of land confiscations and cultural subjugation had taken a psychological toll of the sort that scars the intergenerational psyche, and this troubled man was but a symptom of this scarring. This pain has manifested itself through mental illness, as well as anger and emotional dislocation serving the behavioural dysfunction that many Pakeha identify as a Maori trait.

The Maori were not the only people to suffer from Pakeha notions of racial superiority. Until the 1960s immigration laws were covertly structured to exclude or dissuade anyone not of British or Irish origin – including Indians, a policy that was seriously questioned by the UK, who considered Indians to be British subjects. While Scandinavians, Czechs, Germans and French got a relatively easy time (NZ often struggled to find enough suitable migrants and when quotas were not filled, Western Europe was the next best stop, though few could be persuaded to travel so far from home) the more exotic Dalmatians (a major migrant group originating from Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast) found themselves restricted and frequently victimised by laws designed to favour people of British heritage.

During the Second World War NZ accepted 734 orphaned Polish children at the behest of the Polish government in exile. These children infamously found themselves in a climate informed by suspicion and prejudice and were hardly able to cope, unlike the robust working class Dutch adults who, fulfilling NZ’s requirements for white similarity, flooded a post-war country desperate for skilled tradesmen. Many came from the former Dutch colony of Indonesia and some unfortunates discovered that even a drop of Indonesian blood disqualified them as suitable migrant material.

Anti-Chinese ‘yellow peril’ propaganda

Early Chinese migrants lured here by the prospect of finding riches on the Otago goldfields in the 1860s encountered appalling racism and a tax designed to discourage them. The nation was wary of the ‘yellow peril’ (it was feared that the Chinese might overrun us through sheer force of numbers) and besides, they were heathen opium smokers with strange ways. In 2002, the NZ Government formally apologised to the local Chinese community for past injustices, yet despite this acknowledgement the Chinese remain the first port of call when the media need someone to blame for whatever trouble is about – everything from bad driving to property prices.

That same year the Government also apologised to Western Samoa for the abuse this community suffered while a colony of New Zealand (1920-35), which brings to mind the 1970s and the lot of Polynesian migrants who had arrived in droves through the 1950s to fill labour shortages in factories. By the 1970s, the economy was undergoing decline and these same migrants were now a useful scapegoat for governments seeking easy solutions to complex problems.

These events, much like our cosy relationship with apartheid era South Africa stand today as rank examples of how low Pakeha can sink when given the chance. With South Africa, we reached a kind of nadir when we succumbed time and again to requests from the apartheid-era South African government to exclude players of colour from touring the country with the All Blacks.

The Springboks, South Africa’s national rugby team, played their first match against the NZ Natives during their 1921 tour of NZ, and it was reported that it disgusted them. The All Blacks excluded Maori players from their 1928 South African tour at the request of the South African government, and though the Springboks refused to play a ‘native’ team on their 1937 visit to NZ, Maori were not excluded from the All Blacks.

In 1959 the All Blacks were invited to tour South Africa and again were asked to leave out players of colour. The outrage at this grievous insult to Maori reached fever pitch with 160,000 people signing an anti-tour petition and thousands more marching down the mainstreets of the nation in protest, all to no-avail.

The rugby field was the one place where Maori and Pakeha found unity and common cause and with this decision the Pakeha-administered game of rugby, blinded by its own self-regard, handed Maori one hell of a slap in the face, proving once again that despite the promise of Waitangi, this was a Pakeha country and when push came to shove, Maori be damned. It took until 1981 for the Rugby Union to change its ways, and only after some of the most violent public protests this country has ever seen.

A Department of External Affairs memorandum from 1953 stated: “Our immigration is based firmly on the principle that we are and intend to remain a country of European development. It is inevitably discriminatory against Asians – indeed against all persons who are not wholly of European race and colour. Whereas we have done much to encourage immigration from Europe, we do everything to discourage it from Asia.”

By the 1960s, NZ began to re-examine its ideas about race and culture and in 1971, then Prime Minister Norman Kirk argued that our future as a people lay with Asia and the Pacific, and we should no longer judge migrants on colour, race and religion. Finally we had begun our long march toward a better standard of human regard.


Pakeha is a Maori language term for New Zealanders who are “of European descent.”

Eva, like many of her generation, had never stopped to properly examine the circumstance of the Maori, and her experience with a small and disparate band without means living on the margins had forever framed her outlook, an outlook not uncommon amongst Pakeha of that era. I remember as a child listening to adults publically describing Maori in less than generous terms. By the time I had become an adult the only thing that had changed was that now it had become unacceptable to voice these thoughts out loud and in public. The terms had changed but the method has become more surreptitious.

Maori had bent under the weight on the Pakeha onslaught but eventually sprung back and using Pakeha law, the same law that undid them in the first place, forced the nation to address injustice, and while Pakeha have finally acknowledged their treaty obligations, certain attitudes remain unchanged (though not unchallenged). Comments behind closed doors like “I am not racist but…” and devious jokes designed to belittle and reinforce stereotypical notions of Maoridom sadly abound. Despite our shared history, Maori remain in many minds the somewhat lesser cousin: tolerated, occasionally respected but somehow never quite up to the mark.

Ides of racial superiority have morphed into resentment about the cost of the Treaty, which really hasn’t cost much considering the current value of land and its bounty. Mostly, the treaty cash has given Maori enterprise capital, and across the nation tribes have been building profitable endeavours that have contributed not insubstantially to the overall wealth and wellbeing of the nation.

Pakeha judgement casts a long shadow and while we deny our racism, it is an undeniable undercurrent that haunts perception. Parliamentary speeches going back a century demonstrate that alongside discriminating and dissenting voices are other voices that recognise the plight of Maori and have long sought redress and redemption. It has been a long battle that remains unresolved in many hearts and minds here in Aotearoa.

There is a strain of decency running deep through the heart of Pakeha culture, but when confronted by challenges to the cultural status quo we often slip into racial cliché and confused garbling as we seek to reconsider the world and our position in it. Not all of us, but an aspect of us and this reaction is natural if misshapen. Eva was an average person of her time whose truth was shaped by a particular mythology about the world and the white person’s place in it. It is a mythology that no longer dominates, but regardless, Pakeha racism remains alive and active.

I remember my first day as Sales Manager for an Auckland company in 2010. I opened the previous manager’s company email to discover that some of the staff was sharing anti-Maori jokes. I confronted the people in question and was met with shame-faced denials. I understood that these actions were more to do with thoughtlessness than anything else, much like the words I encountered one day while travelling across Hamilton on a city bus.

I was the helpless and unfortunate witness to a very loud conversation between a group of Pakeha high school girls sitting in the seat immediately behind me. “Where do you get off?” asked one girl of another. The girl explained and her companion responded, “Oh, that’s a dirty Maori suburb.” “Yeah I know,” she said, “I hate Maoris.” Her friend laughs: “Oh me too.” Sitting behind them were several Maori, both young and old. Like me, I am sure they had no choice but to hear and I felt shocked and upset. Sometimes, ignorance is simply what it is and sometimes it is wilful. I hope in this case it was just plain old ignorance informed by youthful thoughtlessness.

On the bright side I spent several hours on the streets of Auckland talking to Asian and Indian students about New Zealanders and racism. The response was positive and along the lines of “Kiwis are very nice and helpful and no, I have not encountered any racism.” The only negative came from a group of Saudi Arabian boys who were angry at the way Kiwi men interacted with women. “They have no respect, they treat woman as friends and equals and this is against our culture.” To a tee they found this offensive and especially so in regard to their female compatriots. “Kiwi men should not talk with them in such a friendly manner, this is very bad and they insult us when they chat with strangers the way they should only chat with their sisters or mother.”

Culture is a complex thing and should be navigated with care and informed consideration by all sides. Too often this is not the case, and results are not pretty. My immediate mental response to these boys was to think ‘your cultural perspective is out-dated’, and perhaps I should have said something, but I remembered another conversation with a young Saudi woman who is in NZ studying computer science. (She chose NZ because of its reputation for peace, safety and kindness).

Her widowed father, guardian to a family of daughters, did not see the world in this way at all, and his daughter described him as “enlightened” and “encouraging”. This, and stories I has been reading about female activism in parts of the world give me hope that the outlook of these boys is essentially doomed. History is against them and the wars raging across the Middle East at this time are in part but a response to the momentous changes sweeping through the hearts and minds in the Middle East. New ideas about culture and society are displacing the old and the old is responding with anger, the only method it has left in its fight to remain relevant.

The racism I have encountered in NZ is mostly the bluster of ignorant people frustrated with their lot and seeking easy targets to express their anger. Distasteful and unfortunate, yes. Ideological and pathological hatred of cultural difference – seldom.

NZ has come a long way over the last 50 odd years. This once racist society has overcome its worst tendencies and is now ranked consistently among the world’s most open and progressive societies. It is a socially bold young nation and our ability to overcome our worst tendencies is a great lesson for the world at large. We must never forget the wrongs that we have perpetuated and the ease at which we often gravitate toward the lowest common denominator, but nor should we underestimate our strong collective impulse for better and fairer.

This is a nation without a formal document to define us, our constitution is unwritten but it exists deep in our communal heart. It asks us to be fair and decent, to live and let live, to be trustworthy, virtuous and honest, to consider those with less and to be compassionate in our approach to all things. Pakeha follow this method vigorously as regards other Pakeha but sometimes forget that ‘me’ is actually ‘we’ and that ‘we’ includes Maori, Asian, Polynesian, Indian and all the other diverse peoples with whom we share these islands.

Resentments and misunderstanding still discolour the relationship between the two peoples central to the life of this nation and there is still much healing required before Maori can properly stand tall amidst humanity’s vast cultural swirl, and as for Pakeha… a little more self-reflective soul searching would do us all a world of good.

The future is a world where humanity is not defined by colour, religion or sexuality but by the quality of our actions. Some of us already know this, some are still learning it, others deny it and some have yet to consider it. This is humanity in motion today, an evolving broader culture fuelled by better access to information available beyond the old physical and mental borders that defined us before the age of super-fast communications.

Racism is composed of many factors, some being informed by an instinctual mistrust of strangers (those whose colour and culture are different to our own) and others being informed by social conditioning. I remember as a child being possessed of negative racial notions toward Maori and others, notions inherited from my family and community, but as I grew into myself I discovered that these feelings were not my own and I was able to easily shuck them off. To my relief I discovered that I was essentially colour blind, and that I viewed culture not as an irrefutable natural law set in stone but rather as a series of habits: some good, some bad making culture – in my mind at least – a malleable method of social organisation capable of positive evolution.


Though I did not agree with her brand of middle class Pakeha politics, I always liked Eva and we became great friends towards the end of her life. I will forever remain grateful to her for that conversation, as it sparked something in me that facilitated change. I lived and worked in a small community whose conservative social views clashed with my own liberal inclinations, and still young and unsure of my own voice I had gotten used to nodding my head in agreement with things I did not agree with in order to maintain peace. After that encouraging talk with Eva I felt less inclined to do so, and with her death following soon after it freed me of the need to consider regard when discussing difficult topics with loved ones.

Besides the sunroom, kitchen, bathroom and one bedroom, Eva kept the rest of her 1940s brick and tile house in the Hamilton suburb of Hillcrest effectively sealed. She had no need of it and kept the heavy curtains tightly drawn. The house was dark, cool and quiet, an odd oasis of peace. She was dutiful, cared for her extended family and possessed a good heart capable of grand sacrifice, and I could not help but think that had she been born back in Ireland she might have spent out her days serving as a nun.

Whenever I called in National Radio was playing in the background and the Herald and the NZ Listener were spread out on the little table in the cosy sunroom out the back. She loved Winston Peters and his brand of opportunistic politics: “I like what he says,” she would say, but I was never going to agree with her on that topic so I kept my mouth shut and let her talk.

She was a champion of the golf player and several engraved cups in the cabinet at the Walton course where she was a member are probably the only physical proof left outside her gravestone to remind us that she once walked the earth. Those who knew her in person are now few and far between. Eva is buried at the cemetery off Morrinsville Rd near Hamilton and lies next to her beloved mother, Mary. Her time was due as were her generation’s general attitudes toward non-Pakeha peoples.



Andrew Johnstone is Witchdoctor's Film & TV Editor. He also writes and produces music (with creative partner, legendary Waikato music producer Zed Brookes), is an avid gardener, former dairy farmer and food industry sales person. When he isn't making up stories he writes about the stories he sees on television and at the cinema. He is also fascinated by politics (the social democratic sort) and describes The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as his religion.

1 Comment

  1. You just want Maori to act like pakeha because you reject yourself as a Maori and Maori people. We are our full potential your ignorant

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