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Racism in New Zealand runs deep

When American doctor Satra Browne came to work in NZ, she thought she was leaving the cultural baggage of racism behind. Here she speaks of how the rose-coloured glasses she was issued on arrival have been pried off.

As a black American living in Aotearoa New Zealand, I have found myself in a unique position after George Floyd’s death. I have been looked to to provide context and insight after yet another senseless killing.

In truth, there is nothing new about a black man being murdered by police. We have all been inoculated to the atrocities that people of colour face in the aftermath of slavery and colonialism. But it is also true that I have a clearer perspective on US racism than many in my New Zealand community. In the US, I was relentlessly reminded of my place as a black person.

I know what it’s like to go shopping in the mall and be followed by the attendant or called monkey by adults in the supermarket when all I was doing was giggling with my teenage sister.

I know what it’s like to be called n*gger by my neighbour while playing in our backyard.

Despite excelling academically and becoming student council president, when I was accepted to a prestigious summer programme, a white student’s father contested my placement and demanded my high school provide an official copy of my SAT scores.

I have been told over and over again in university and medical school that I was only there because of affirmative action and “special treatment”.

Here, there seemed to be freedom. The favorite team was called All Blacks. The national anthem was sung in te reo Māori as well as English ... I was given a pair of rose-coloured glasses. I put them on and clung tightly.

I have feared for my life because of the colour of my skin. After a long bus ride to a remote part of Virginia, I desperately needed to use the bathroom. I caught a cab then explained to the older African-American driver that I’d quickly run into a nearby bar – the only source of light in the pitch black darkness. “I wouldn’t go in there if I was you”, he responded in a slow, deliberate tone. I immediately knew what he meant. I wasn’t going to let racism stop this basic need, so protested, “But I really have to go and it’s 2011 and...” I suddenly felt his gaze piercing back at me from the rearview mirror. The sombre look on his face and depth of his eyes said it all. You won’t just be called n*gger, you could be raped or killed. I shut up, held my bladder, and we rode into the dark night in silence until we arrived to my destination 20 minutes later.

And it wasn’t just me. I personally and repeatedly witnessed the rite of passage of every single black man in my medical school class - spending a night in jail for absolutely no reason. Intelligent, articulate, well-dressed, future doctors - but black men nonetheless. Their crimes: driving into the campus of our medical school or walking into the apartment building where they resided. No explanation of charges. Sudden release the next morning. They hadn’t learned their place. Thank God they had all learned to stay quiet, deferential, calm, to give no suspicion of resisting, so as not to become an Eric Garner, Walter Scott, or George Floyd.

Denizens of Aotearoa New Zealand should not be lulled into thinking that the kind of racism that exists here is any less damaging or less severe than the 'more serious' racism I’ve experienced in the US.

Fast forward a few years. I first arrived in New Zealand because of my profession. I came to fill a doctor shortage, but also on a journey of self- discovery. I hoped to leave behind the cultural baggage of racism that I’d carried most of my life where it belonged – in the States. Here, there seemed to be freedom. The favorite team was called All Blacks. The national anthem was sung in te reo Māori as well as English. I even got asked for directions by old white men, something that never happened in the US. I heard New Zealanders repeat a mantra: “There’s no racism in New Zealand.” I was given a pair of rose-coloured glasses. I put them on and clung tightly.

But soon, my new reality became clearer, and boy have my glasses been pried off. I’ve been called n*gger in New Zealand not only by my patients, but also by a fellow doctor colleague, supposedly in jest. In and out of the hospital, I constantly hear blatant ignorance: “You can’t put a comb through your hair” or “I know where you’re from ... Rwanda”. No questions, just statements.

Sadly, it’s important to note that such blithe racism isn’t limited only to me. I’ve had a trainee tell me they were chosen to present a case by a senior consultant doctor reciting “Eenie, meenie, miney, mo ... catch a n*gger by the toe” so that it landed on her - the brown student. A Māori colleague is regularly asked if he’s the orderly, despite wearing a uniform and ID that both say 'doctor'. An Indian friend gets told by a prospective landlord that his Thai wife can’t cook her smelly food, despite being accepted to pay the costly rent.

The suffering of people of colour in Aotearoa has been silenced for too long. We are tired. We have lived this truth our entire lives only to be told things like “Get over the past” or “I don’t need to hear about race all the time”.

These daily insults, put-downs, and snubs are called microaggressions. They are well proven to exact a significant psychological toll on recipients, but more importantly they create the base that systemic racism and, worse yet, hate crimes and genocide are built upon. The type of racism that makes people of colour truly fear for our lives. Institutional bias that begets decreased life expectancy for Māori by five to seven years even when adjusted for income. Think about that - even wealthy Māori live fewer years than non-Māori who are impoverished.

Denizens of Aotearoa New Zealand should not be lulled into thinking that the kind of racism that exists here is any less damaging or less severe than the 'more serious' racism I’ve experienced in the US.

I was heartened to see how quickly Black Lives Matter protests were organised here despite being so far away. The solidarity and compassion for the cause of enslaved and oppressed people has been truly astounding. What is becoming clear is that people here, in Aotearoa New Zealand, are protesting not just in solidarity, but also to express their own pain and suffering. The suffering of people of colour in Aotearoa has been silenced for too long. We are tired. We have lived this truth our entire lives only to be told things like “Get over the past” or “I don’t need to hear about race all the time”.

Something about George Floyd himself, the brazen way in which police officer Derek Chauvin killed him, and the timing of his murder, has opened up a deep abscess. After a lifetime of pretending that the pain will pass or that if I could just be a little less sensitive and adjust my ears so I didn’t hear what I just heard - the exposing cut has now been made. The pus is copious, full of flashbacks of my experiences with racism in the States, but also here in New Zealand.

I long to hold my family as they remind me of the horrible ways in which we were treated that I had purposely forgotten. I yearn to be with friends as they protest in cities that burned. At the same time, I’m grateful to be here, and most of all hopeful that mainstream New Zealanders will also finally open up their eyes to the racism that exists here and begin to make steps to repair its legacy.

I too wish to get over the past and I too am truly sick and tired of talking about race. Sadly, that past still lives. White privilege still reigns and people of colour are still the target of racism which shortens our lives. As long as it’s our reality, we have no choice but to talk about it. As the author Zora Neale Hurston summed up: “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” We cannot stay silent.

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