Sunday, 6 May 2007

Racism, angst, culture, experience - Wong Liu Shueng

Recently I did a presentation at the Chinese Youth Leadership course, and someone asked me ‘You are so forthright, I’m not sure I can be like that”. My reply was that ‘I was not born like this.’ When I recall this pathway, I see that this is the way I have developed within the context of the New Zealand environment, and my own realisation of the impact of personal experiences of racism and identity deprivation.

I grew up in Carterton, one of those mono-cultural centres of the world. Chinese was something others told me. For me it was like the unspoken surround sound of my life, I assumed that if Chinese meant living a life, then everyone was Chinese. As a youngster I could not imagine how any other person could live in any other way. I remember commenting that one of my classmates was off to the beach for 6 weeks Summer holidays, and pondered on what would someone do at the beach for so long. I mean, I could never stay away that long, after all who would stack the boxes, who would open the newspaper to wrap up the vegetables, who would stack the fruit, and most important, who would serve the customers?

However, after repeated episodes of being ‘hounded down’ and pelted with stones while returning from school, I also figured that this kind of behaviour was about my being Chinese. My parent’s solution, shared by so many at that time was to ignore such acts telling me to chant ‘sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me’. A 6 years old, I realised that this was a load of nonsense. Instead, the seeds of activism were sown. I would ponder about why would someone target me because I was Chinese, and what would be needed to stop such action. It has been my life’s work.

During my university education, I came across a course about racism. It was to be the most relevant paper I ever did at University. I was to write an essay about the treatment of Chinese in USA, and for the first time I had to get an extension. I simply could not write it. Reading about the treatment of racism on the Chinese was a kind of emotional torture within me. I read and was outraged. I felt compassion for the Chinese. I could not believe that people could treat others in this way. It was not that it was not around me in New Zealand, but it was not written down. I could not mull it over in my mind. Now I suddenly understood some of the dynamics around racism. Until then I thought it was something that was related just to me, that it was something I had done wrong, that I needed to be ‘nicer’ or I really suppose ‘whiter’. This part of my education has had a lasting effect for me.

The next light that was turned on in my head when I travelled. In China, besides learning about the history of my own people, I also saw that racism was not necessarily a colour issue but definitely a power issue. Up until that time, I thought racism was a White issue but after my China experience I saw that all people have the capacity to be racists. Everyone has prejudices and some of those prejudices are around race.

Being a person with multiple work experiences, at the time I was teaching English as a Second Language and decided that this is not where I wanted to place my end focus. It was all very well helping new migrants to live and settle in New Zealand, but unless something was targeted to the institutions I was not so sure anything would change. And I desperately wanted to seek change in some way. That motivated me to start my business offering training and development to a whole range of organisations. There is something about working in this field. You simply get beyond being shocked. The forms of prejudice, the way it is perceived, the way individuals react to words like consultation, negotiation, difference, new migrants, refugees and customer services to those people shows that prejudice is learnt early, often never examined or re-examined. What more it is often confused with a travel experience that consists of a shrouded package tour where people do not in fact mix with anyone else than those NZers whom they left the shores with, or OE in places that speak English. These experiences are fine and wonderful, but they do not necessarily make people look at their own prejudices. Why? Because prejudices are triggered in such a variety of ways. I remember a participants of one of my seminars telling me the number of Asian countries he had visited on holiday yet here in New Zealand, what puzzled him was his clear discomfort of his Chinese neighbours, the growing Chineseness of the neighbourhood and the loss of the sameness of what his neighbourhood had meant to him. Prejudice for him was an issue of distance. The same is often experienced when a new culturally different potential partner is introduced to a family. Parents tell me of their ‘cultural shock’ and what I know is in the tool kit of skills to get on with life, the tools kit needed to identify, work with, to understand what racism is, and what can be done about it is lacking. It is clear that the very real struggle involved in managing prejudices seem such a rocky path. I am not sure why this is so, but I have over time developed a couple of ideas. Firstly, there is a real sense that Kiwis should know everything, and I am not sure where the ‘should’ comes from. But the end result is that to ask shows some kind of failing. Maybe this stems from the isolation of a country that had to be self sufficient, and had to take on Number 8 wire like it or not. But the hang over, seems very unforgiving. To ask seems to be equated with being an ‘idiot’ where as I personally consider someone asking for clarification is an indicator of interest. The other pattern is one of guilt. Guilt of making a mistake, guilt of the history made in New Zealand by our ancestors, guilt of former treatment, and of negotiations and resolution in present day for the misdemeanours of the past. It could be the Christian model of ethics, but I know that as long as people feel guilty, they are unable to move on. Guilt has some kind of glue that makes us live in yesterday.

Over the decades, I have seen society change, and racism continue. Now it tends to be less covert which actually means that it is harder to identify. So my time spent working at the Race Relations Office and the Human Rights Commission allowed me time to understand the legal requirements. New Zealand must have a robust complaints system. However, I personally would like it see more exposure. Most complaints are resolved through mediation and while this is both a tool for reconciliation and education it usually includes as part of the process to grant the perpetrators confidentiality thereby hiding from public view. Society needs to know who is doing what and what is not acceptable. These are society’s standards of behaviour and I think that we would all benefit for greater clarity in this area.

This brings me back to my perspective on racism, and I have five points to make.

The first of these is about labels. It is my experience that labelling people as racists is the very same behaviour that I have felt offended by, when others have labelled me as Chink, slit eyes, ching chong chinaman or Banana. Individuals do not like to be targeted with negative labels. And, I always have a sense of little hope if someone is labelled. It is as if human being find it hard to wriggle out of labels, even positive ones. And negative labels stick, for generations, and I sense that this is where the damage is done. To have to hold a negative stereotype is your community forever reason, but not of your own making seems to be like sour milk. It hangs around for long long time. To give you an example, this has been the very reason why the use of the word Bananas has been used for the Going Bananas Conference series. It is the role of the Chinese Community to turn a negative into a positive. No one else is going to do this, as the Black found in making Black is beautiful. Victims of labelling have to do it for themselves.

Secondly, I do not stand for any racist jokes. Here I target the joke not the person. I know there are people who believe that the business of putting down one ethnic group against another is somehow prejudice-free. That a joke is a joke, and that my sensitivity about this shows that I lack some kind of humour. Far too serious, they would say. And they are right; I take this kind of put down seriously. Which leads me to define the difference between what a stand up comedian does like Raybon Kan, and recently in a show called ‘Allah made me funny’. Here the comedians show an internal way of communication. They show the relationship between parents and children, or internal expectations and the relationship between themselves within the environment of the other. As a Pākehā said to me when walking out of one of Raybon’s show – ‘It great, he shows us our prejudices’. I agree, everyone’s prejudices.

And perhaps I need to make a little clearer the difference between the behaviour and the person. I believe that people are not up for targeting, regardless of what they have done. I believe it become the beginning is self fulfilling prophesies. There are gangs in New Zealand who delight in behaving against society because that is their identity. But I do believe that telling them to stop behaviour offers a lot more hope. Behaviour can be changed and believe that people are likely to change on their own realisation. Our job is to assist in the realisation, not the person. They have to do this themselves.

Thirdly, within our own community there are strong feelings of racism against others. Racism is so often used as a comparative tool to say that ‘our race’ is better than ‘your race’. This is in my mind simple not true. For an example, Chinese who have for generations in New Zealand taken on the mantel of being a model minority have been eluding both themselves and the society they were living in. We as Chinese have our own ratbags. There are Chinese in prison who has clearly broken the law. There are Chinese non-achievers at school. There are Chinese on the dole, and in our mental health systems. Pride of one own ethnic group is not to be at the expense of others. Pride in Chineseness is not to make us superior, but is about our identity. It is not just to horrify our parents, that we pick up the good and the bad from our families. Identity is so much more encompassing and internal in our lived reality. It is like the unique flavouring that forms the backdrop of what we achieve or fail. It is what can bring us together to form a collectively and special voice. And as we define our identity more clearly, our voice will get stronger.

Fourthly, as an Intercultural facilitator offering courses in this area, another consideration for me is about the teachable moment. These must be formed within a course to facilitate any change at all. It is important that people are able to look at their own diversity, and they acknowledge their own experience of prejudice, both as perpetrators and victims. Since no one is prejudice-free, there is no end of experiences to reflect upon them. And good teaching no matter where and when is best when the learners are relaxed. I think that it our job to constantly teach people. I used to think this could be learnt through osmosis, but I now believe this is not so. Take mixed marriages for example. Most people I know end up acquiescence to a dominant culture rather than being encouraged to maintain their own cultural roots. The example of the Pākehā learning the language, getting to be comfortable in the other person’s country is not nearly so prevalent. So we all have a job to do out there, to be actively involved in this educational process

And before I sum up, can I say that I am heartened when I hear that the Soccer Association in New Zealand is at least making an attempt to stamp out racial abuse on the field. And I am genuinely pleased when a broadcaster is made to apologise for his remarks, and I certainly hope that the public of New Zealand will react in economic purchasing power when public figures blunder their way through their own prejudices. A no tolerance policy in public places has to be set, so we can all go about our lives with some kind of psychological safety.

And lastly, I would like to sum up about multiple perspectives. I do not have the expectation that others will take on this perspective laid out to you today. The journey I have made is unique to me. I am sure if I had been brought up with a wider Chinese community around me, and that a small gang of Chinese boys rubbed tiger balm into the eyes of the boys who threw the stones at me, my perspective would be different. And I often think if I was not the only Chinese student in my class ever, regardless of school, or the only Chinese person on the staff of all my working life until recently in OEA, I would be thinking differently. And then, if my parents did not work so hard to be accepted by the mainstream at their own personal cost and frustration, my journey measured in inches would have ended up at a different place.

In this day and age, where bloggers blog, where the internet shares so many ideas, where the exposure is so much greater, I believe that racism in its many forms need to be at the very least are pointed out, that perpetrators are made aware of the impact of their words. I recall getting on a bus in America and someone down the bus must have said something to a Black man. His response was to say in a very loud and fir voice ‘Hey man, that’s a racists remark, do you understand that?” The atmosphere on the bus changed, the man apologised. I am waiting to hear that in New Zealand. We all have to be the warriors of this war.

But most of all I also hope that each individual accepts their own responsibility to manage their own prejudices. For they pop up at unexpected times, often when face to face with new ethnic groups. It is something that needs constant internal work, and I trust your interest here might indicate your own willingness within your own self. It is without a doubt rewarding work, because the end result is an appreciation of the world that is enlarged rather than defined by fear.

Thank you

Wong Liu Shueng

Wong Liu Shueng can be contacted through

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