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Emma Espiner: Who speaks for us

As a country right now we’re seeking to promote ‘diverse' voices. This is great. It also presents us with an opportunity to be explicit about what that means.

A few weeks back I moderated a panel discussion where all the panellists were also Māori. This is only the second time ever that I’ve been on a panel with another Māori person. Typically, in my experience, there is one spot for a non-Pākehā panellist. You might be Māori, Pacific, Asian (any kind of Asian will do), Middle Eastern, but there’s only room for one of you.

I recall a festival organiser being affronted when I made a comment about the lack of diversity on a panel I took part in. She said to me "We tried to find an Asian but nobody got back to us.” A friend chaired a panel for a large institution last year and had to explain to them (at great length before they were convinced) why an all-male, all-Pākehā panel for a discussion on the state of the modern media might be poorly received. I attended a forum recently where a panellist kept running ‘Māori and Pacific’ together as a single word and then randomly throwing in references to South Auckland to demonstrate, I assume, some sort of authentic connection to brown people.

The contact books of those who decide who gets to speak are so thin. Our forums are so stingy in their allocation of space. We are so far from giving a truly representative voice to New Zealand.

I’m worried now that in the scramble to demonstrate visible action on diversity, shortcuts will be taken. I’m worried that what will eventuate is more airtime than ever for the handful of people who are in the contact books, and a limitation of the debate to those people’s perspectives alone. I’m worried that no change will occur in the places where it counts - among the ranks of funders, decision and policy makers. In 1986 for Metro magazine, writing in the wake of the awakening of New Zealand to race issues following the Springbok tour, Bruce Jesson said “The trick is to make the minimum adjustment possible, while talking of a bi- or multi-cultural society.”

I mention Jesson for a reason. After the white supremacist terror attack on the Muslim community of Christchurch I sought - not comfort - but the solidness of our experienced thinkers when there was little to be found in the screeds of digital column inches. All the hand-wringing from people who had no idea there was racism here frustrated me. As did - to be honest - some of the pontificating from people who seemed a little too triumphant to have been vindicated in such a horrible way.

I wanted to be reminded of the whakapapa of racism and the struggle for our national identity. Everything has a lineage and sometimes our most ardent contemporary opinionators seem so convinced of their own importance in the debate that they seem unable to countenance that anything existed before them nor that they should ever be criticised. That their opinion is inviolate and original.

Those that went before us stood up to unimaginable criticism. Livelihoods have been lost in the quest to tell the truth, violence threatened and reputations systematically destroyed in tangible and lasting ways. The rise of opinion columnists (this one included) has been a great way to explore perspectives and test ideas, but we shouldn’t believe this makes us impervious to being wrong nor protected from being challenged. I believe we should demand diversity of perspective and depth of critical thought. While there are obvious and urgent reasons to curtail the inexcusable hate speech that we’ve seen directed more frequently at women and minorities, this should in no way mean a silencing of critical debate. The right to speak without fear does not equate to the right to go unchallenged.

You could print the entire oeuvre of Ani Mikaere, Moana Jackson, Bruce Jesson, Linda Tuhiwai-Smith, Mason Durie and Tariana Turia without ever running out of utterly fearless material that speaks directly to the issues we’re facing today, and their whakapapa. Nationhood. Racism. Self-determination. Manaakitanga.

E-tangata, for example, is one of the few platforms that has a deep sense of the history of the issues that confront us, and they frequently feature experienced and expert thinkers that often get overlooked in the mainstream media. They also elevate new voices - but not without close scrutiny of their authenticity first. What’s different about E-tangata? Have a look at who runs things there and you’ll see.

Without radical change to the way that our media and institutions are run, populated and produced, the ‘diversity’ we’re gilding our external facades with right now will remain simply that - a facade.

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