I don’t have much else to say about Labour’s Chinese-Housing-Market story but thinking about it this morning reminded me of something an Asian-New Zealand student in my lab said a few years ago about racism and politics (I can’t remember if it was related to one of New Zealand First’s outrages, or possibly Paul Henry’s comments about the Governor General).
Her point was that she experienced racism on a pretty frequent basis, mostly from guys yelling insults at her as they drove past in cars, and whenever politicians indulged in politics about Asian immigration it always felt like they were siding with the guys in the cars over her simply because there were more of them and politics is a numbers game.
I thought about that after reading these columns by Tim Watkin and Chris Trotter in which they confidently decree that Labour aren’t being racist. Because race comes up a lot in our domestic politics. There was National’s Orewa speech, obviously, and ACT plays the race card every single election (last year it was then-leader Jamie Whyte announcing that Maori were comparable to pre-revolutionary french aristocrats). New Zealand First reliably whips up anti-Asian sentiment. Phil Goff gave a speech on ‘Nationhood’ that attempted to replicate Brash’s Orewa speech. One of National’s ‘spin-the-wheel’ distractions whenever there’s a scandal is to warn us that the boat-people are coming. And we’re never far from a debate about eugenics with various right-wing commentators routinely suggesting that we sterilise beneficiaries.
And every time race comes up as an issue all of our pundits – who are mostly white guys, like me, who have never experienced life as an ethnic minority – pontificate about whether the issue is racist or not. The ruling is routinely partisan. Right-wing commentators insist that the debate about eugenics or ‘Maori privilege’ is not racist, but are aghast at Labour’s race-baiting on Chinese property investment. Left-wing commentators who wanted Paul Henry hung-drawn-and-quartered for his comments about the Governor General insist that Labour’s ‘Chinese-sounding-surname’ stunt is just a genuine attempt to talk about the broader issue of foreign investment.
If that’s all it is then why are so many Chinese New-Zealanders so offended by it? Could it be that white people who have never experienced racism aren’t the best arbiters of it, while ethnicities who experience racism on a routine basis know it when they see it, and are pretty damn sure they’re seeing it now?
Labour’s latest stunt might work, or it might not – ACT’s never do. But our politicians keep making race a political issue and so long as they continue to do so it’d be nice if commentators based their judgments on whether something is racist or not on how the community affected feels about it, and not our own vague abstractions or tribal sympathies.