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Feeling the heat

From Ihumātao to armed patrols, Kathryn Kearney draws parallels between a burning America and New Zealand - a country that pats itself on the back for tolerating diversity while failing to promote anti-racism policies for all Kiwis. 

By the time I woke on Tuesday the 26th, George Floyd had already been murdered. As usual, I had become acquainted with his cause of death long before I learned anything about his life. I was introduced to his name – to his existence – via a hashtag. I’m not always good with names after having had to learn so many, but I vowed to commit his to memory.

That night, I scrolled desperately for answers to the hows and whys. I scrolled in the dark and into the next morning. I scrolled with tears distorting my vision until my phone battery failed. Staring through the gap in my bedroom curtains, I thought about the list of names in my head and wondered, is this how Black children count sheep? I said his name out loud. George Floyd. I imagined him joining Ahmaud and Breonna in an embrace. The newest entrants, knowing others soon will follow.

I refused to watch the video of George Floyd’s murder, but I certainly caught glimpses of it as it flashed beneath the brush of my thumb. From stills, I could see how his distress contrasted sharply with his murderer’s stoic and intentional calm. I read George Floyd’s chilling final words. I cried at the thought of him crying out to his mother. She had passed years ago and it is heartbreaking to ponder whether he expected to be reunited with her.

I wondered if those who did watch the entirety of the video did so to see whether George’s murder was warranted, or how intentional it really was. I made myself sick as I prepared to read rationalisations for police brutality by commenters, pundits, and even elected politicians. I already knew the rhetoric, the same arguments made following the murders of Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, and Philando Castile.

As one of seemingly few Black American women in Aotearoa, I unwittingly became a source of answers and reading lists for some, and a spokeswoman or spiritual guide for others.

I am convinced that George Floyd and Derek Chauvin knew as well as the other how their encounter would conclude. It had gone too far for Chauvin to allow George Floyd to walk away from this with a story. With a voice demanding change. He seemed ultimately undeterred by the prospect of being caught in the act. He knew where allegiances typically lie in the aftermath.

However, within a few days, it seemed the flames of fury had reached as far as New Zealand. Some friends and colleagues began to express their outrage and concern for my family back home. As one of seemingly few Black American women in Aotearoa, I unwittingly became a source of answers and reading lists for some, and a spokeswoman or spiritual guide for others who wanted to explain their thoughts and feel validated in their feelings. I soothed, commiserated, and welcomed my friends to be bold in expressing their anger. I took on the weight of their pain, finding it traumatic to sort through my own.

For my close friends, I felt gratitude for their willingness to ask and listen, and committed myself to being patient and honest beyond the extent of what I could manage while maintaining my mental health. But for others, those whose names hadn’t before appeared in my inbox, I felt discomfort, shame, and then rage. I had become a little too good at being the token Black friend. If, when an act of injustice occurs against a marginalised group and you can only think of one person from that group to talk to, then perhaps your social circle may not be wide enough.

Can Black Lives Matter in Aotearoa – or in the States – when Brown ones clearly do not? Will diversity training, renamed and removed monuments, and days of recognition suffice to protect our Black and Brown people from systemic racism? Our answer is a collective no.

From what I’ve seen in three years from the vantage point of Central Auckland, many Pākehā appear to be mostly moderate in their progressivism and tread particularly lightly when discussing race. Although the admirable governmental attempts to offer visibility to Māori are considerably better and more intentional than discussions of indigenous rights and reparations elsewhere in the world, there is hardly justice nor equity. Accordingly, there exists no comprehensive and consistent national message of what and who exists beyond bi-culturalism, nor the position of and protections for tauiwi in a system that already consistently fails Tangata Whenua.

Can Black Lives Matter in Aotearoa – or in the States – when Brown ones clearly do not? Will diversity training, renamed and removed monuments, and days of recognition suffice to protect our Black and Brown people from systemic racism? Our answer is a collective no.

As the black, red, and white flags were raised over kneeling crowds with raised fists at Auckland’s Black Lives Matters march, it became clear to me that Tino Rangatiratanga is the imperative solution for both Tangata Whenua and Black and Brown tauiwi. Our indigenous rangatira and Black abolitionists understand that we must demand a hand in designing and protecting our communities in the ways we see fit. Prisons and policing were not founded for nor by us, and reform cannot repair what are fundamentally broken systems.

From Ihumātao to armed patrols, I see the parallels to a burning America and I fear for the timeline in which New Zealand continues to pat itself on the back for tolerating diversity, but does not staunchly and explicitly promote anti-racism policies for all New Zealanders. Since our communities cannot thrive – cannot live – within the current system, we must urge our friends, families, allies, and leaders to broaden their imaginations and consider the ways in which they could sincerely work towards a redesign that puts the pen in the hands of the communities in question.

This riot isn’t the first of its kind, and I imagine it will not be the last. The world has long been on fire. We’ve been waiting far too patiently for others to feel the heat.

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