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It's time to make it clear racism is never acceptable

Date: 24/07/2019

Racism has been a hot topic recently, both internationally and in New Zealand. We have no doubt all heard enough about Trump’s idiotic statements regarding four freshman American congress women of colour, who he insisted should go back to where they came from. The fact that 3 of them were born in the US did not stop Trump inciting chants of “send her back” at his most recent rally.

In New Zealand, we have had our own controversy in this space. Just this month retiring Gisborne mayor, Meng Foon, was announced as the new Race Relations Commissioner after a long running judicial challenge by an unsuccessful appointee.

In 2018, Colin Henry applied for a judicial review of the process the Ministry of Justice undertook in selecting the new Commissioner, whilst also seeking an interim injunction to stop the appointment while the proceedings were heard.

Henry, who has practised law in the United States and the Caribbean, was one of a number of applicants who applied for the role and were told they were under consideration. However the position was then re-advertised, and Henry was subsequently informed that he had not been shortlisted to proceed to the next stage of the process. He then filed judicial review proceedings.

In November last year the High Court rejected Henry’s application for an interim injunction on the basis that his claim had a low prospect of success. This meant that the Ministry could proceed with its selection process and ultimately appoint Foon to the role. Meanwhile Henry continued with his legal challenge which was finally dismissed in May.

Foon has been the mayor of Gisborne since 2001, speaks three languages and is the only New Zealand Mayor to be fluent in te reo Māori. He has built strong relationships with his local Māori and Chinese communities. Despite the somewhat rocky start, Foon seems well placed to lead and promote race relations in New Zealand at a time when there is heightened awareness and also tension in this area.

Reports about instances of racism are on the rise in New Zealand according to the Human Rights Commission, where a third of all complaints to the Commission are related to racial harassment or discrimination.

Racial harassment is language or physical behaviour that expresses hostility against a person or brings them into contempt or ridicule on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins. The conduct must be hurtful or offensive, and either repeated or serious enough to have a harmful effect on the person subject to it. The Human Rights Act 1993 makes racial harassment unlawful in employment, union membership, education and health services, access to public places, housing and accommodation.  

There have been a number of cases in the employment area where racial discrimination has been claimed. In Singh v Singh & Scorpion Liquor, the Human Rights Review Tribunal awarded Satnam Singh, an Indian national of the Sikh faith, $25,000 in damages for distress and lost wages as a result of racial harassment by his manager.

Singh had arrived in New Zealand on a student visa, which allowed him to work up to 20 hours per week. He began working part-time at Scorpion Liquor in Auckland, which was managed by Shane Singh, a Fijian Indian. Singh claimed that his manager regularly made derogatory remarks about Indians and on one occasion deliberately hit him on the head with a clipboard and knocked off his turban. This incident led to the end of his employment with Scorpion Liquor.

The Tribunal found that Singh had not satisfied the evidentiary burden of proving that his manager had made the derogatory comments claimed. However, the Tribunal did find that his manager had deliberately knocked off his turban using a clipboard, which amounted to racial harassment under the Human Rights Act. The Tribunal stated that this act “expressed hostility against or brought [Singh] into contempt or ridicule” on the ground that he was an Indian of the Sikh faith. 

Whilst this case involved an overt display of racism, one of the criticisms of the unsuccessful candidate for the role of Race Relations Commissioner is that racism in NZ exists in a “casual” or pervasive form, which makes it difficult to prove.

New Zealand, like many countries, has allowed a culture to develop where racist comments and behaviour can be passed off as just banter and humour. An example of this is our own Deputy Prime Minister who said, chuckling, “As they say in Beijing, two Wongs don’t make a white”.

Societal attitudes towards racism are slowly changing but we still need to get to the point where a zero approach to racism is the only acceptable standard.  Give Nothing To Racism.