(This is the text of a status I posted on my personal facebook. You might have seen it there. Aroha nui – Christchurch, we are with you. x )
As some of you know, I’m a New Zealand citizen. I was raised in Dublin, but I am proud of New Zealand, and I think I understand it as much as a foreign born person can about the country. I have recently taken to writing about the similarities and differences between Ireland and New Zealand in my plays and poetry. I am also an active member of my local mosque community. Not as a practicing Muslim (still can’t shake my early-acquired atheism) but as a drama teacher to a group of the most amazing girls you could hope to meet. I co-run a weekly class with Fatima and Abiola from the Islamic Cultural Centre Ireland, and I feel very lucky to consider them my friends after only knowing them a short time.
I have spent a lot of this morning crying with my Mum, who is a proud New Zealander, one who has retained her Invercargill accent and her appreciation of a Bluff Oyster throughout thirty five years of expatriation. She misses New Zealand, her brother and his wife, her sister and her husband, and her 89 year old mother Joan, her uncle Owen, and his daughter Leanne’s family. We messaged them, and they are safe.
I also messaged the ICCI youth leaders Whatsapp to see if Fatima and Abiola had heard the news. It occurs to me how often young Muslim citizens in Ireland must be expected to discuss international atrocities which are largely disconnected to them, but which have ripple effects on their community. I wonder if they find this tiring. I wonder if I should have texted.
I think about going in to work tomorrow, to teach drama to the girls with whom I am writing a play – this year’s theme is Travel. In December, the girls were excited to meet the Amber Curreen from Te Pou theatre in New Zealand, to hear all about this interesting, far-flung country full of flightless birds, and to listen to it’s native language, Te Reo Māori. Most of the girls I teach are also bilingual, also ethnic minority, so this matters to them. We were thinking of putting New Zealand into our end of term play. Now, I think about the conversations I’m going to have to have tomorrow, when the girls (who are never shy of interrogating youth leaders) ask me with renewed and transformed interest about my mothers country, Amber’s country, and the massacre.
I am shocked and saddened today, and deeply ashamed that a place I love will be associated in the minds of the children I teach with white supremacy and Islamophobia.
I am shocked, but I am also unfortunately not as surprised as some others are that something this brutal, this out of the blue, this out of character, could happen in New Zealand. This is because – just like Ireland – New Zealand is a small country, a relatively liberal country, a democracy, but also a country that tells itself national stories again and again that may not be 100% true.
One such myth is that New Zealand – like Ireland – does not have a problem with racism and white supremacy. Are New Zealands race relations better than the United States of America? Undoubtably. Are they less structurally racist than the neighbouring Australian state? Undoubtably. Are Kiwis known for being liberally-minded, easy-going and relatively forward-thinking? Yes, and nothing I am about to say makes these facts less true.
It remains an important and co-existing reality that the virulent Islamophobia which is present throughout the world is present in New Zealand. Neither of my home countries are any less susceptible to Islamophobia, and the resultant extremists which feed off it, than New York or Paris.
It remains an important and co-existing reality that kind, friendly, liberal New Zealanders – like Irish people, the ‘Nation of Emigrants’ – find it hard to talk about their problems with race and prejudice, at all. I experienced racism vicariously during my recent trip to New Zealand, as I was working with mainly Māori communities and learning their language. This change to the perceived ‘norm’ – me, a white woman, being more interested in New Zealand’s indigenous culture and community than the colonial culture and community – was the opening up of new conversations which I hadn’t been privy to before. People said things to me that they wouldn’t previously have said. Conflict occurred sometimes, conflict was buried at other times. I discovered that, like the Irish, New Zealanders find it very hard to have an informed, qualitative discussion about colonialism, religion and race.
I am complicit in this. I was a guest in the houses of many Kiwi’s when comments were made or jokes were made which shocked or upset me – I didn’t always know what to say, so I sometimes didn’t say anything. I found it hard to talk about. I knew they were good people, I didn’t want to be a rude guest (Kiwi’s are excellent and generous hosts) so I didn’t say much.
Going forward, I hope that Kiwis and white Irish people can think about how and when ‘casual’ racism and Islamophobia contributes to extreme racism and Islamophobia. It’s an uncomfortable conversation, but we need to have it. Ireland, take heed.
Here is something else about New Zealand that I greatly admire. Kiwi’s are excellent in a crisis.
There is a reason New Zealand is an apocalypse bolt-hole for half of Silicon Valley. EVERYONE WANTS A KIWI ON THEIR TEAM IN THE EVENT OF A GLOBAL MELT-DOWN. Generally speaking, I find Kiwis to be extremely resilient, level-headed people. I have every faith that Kiwis will not bungle the care and action required in the after-math of this atrocity.
The city of Christchurch has been through very dark days. Their community spirit and perseverance is second to none. I believe that if any community can rally behind the victims of this massacre, pursue justice, and change policy to stop targeted attacks against ethnic minorities from happening again, it is the Christchurch community.
For New Zealanders, our sense of identity as the kindest small country in the world might have been shaken today. Let’s not allow it to stay shaken for long.
Reject every form of Islamophobia you see in your community (I will start with my own behaviour, and I will ruin as many dinner parties as I have to) and let the outpouring of love, support and compassion in the aftermath of this atrocity be the starting point for solidarity and further, necessary action.