“They are us.”
Taken from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s address immediately following the Christchurch attacks last month, the phrase was quickly plastered onto front pages of New Zealand’s major newspapers. The simple slogan, ostensibly radiating inclusivity and a pushback against Islamophobia, accidentally revealed an uncomfortable, ironic truth.
The media’s need to quickly declare that the victims — many of whom were New Zealand citizens — were legitimate Kiwis reflects the pervasiveness of the alternative viewpoint: that they were outsiders. If the victims were white Protestant churchgoers, the phrase “they are us” becomes ludicrous. Of course, they are.
I am from New Zealand. Over the last few weeks, media frenzy surrounding my home country’s response to bigotry has breathed hope for an inclusive future into liberals around the world. Now a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, I started my life in Philadelphia almost three years ago. During this time, the United States has taught me that my home can be a cozy bastion of progressivism. But it has also taught me that sometimes, New Zealand is outright pretending. Many Americans envied New Zealand’s swift turnaround on gun-control reform just days following the massacre. But as a nonwhite Kiwi living in the States, I’ve discovered that there’s one thing New Zealand can learn from America — a willingness to discuss race and confront the messy struggles for inclusion.
Of course, Ardern’s response has been graceful. Many Kiwi women chose to mirror Ardern’s choice of donning a hijab at a vigil service to show support. But the country’s response in quickly declaring ourselves as tolerant and inclusive has unfortunately pushed real incidents of everyday discrimination further under the rug. What happens on the streets of Christchurch when the country is not bleeding from a mass shooting?
Even Ardern responded: “I think probably you’d be hard-pressed to find a country that didn’t have racism in it.” Although she acknowledged that we can "do better,” her response minimized the multiracial director’s concerns by generalizing them as global.
This is the reality for immigrants on the ground when the country is not overcompensating with tolerance rhetoric.
Many New Zealanders do not realize that we aren’t as religiously and racially inclusive as we claim to be until we leave the country. For me, living in the U.S. became an eye-opener. The fundamental difference is not that people are less racist in the U.S. — the countries’ contexts are not comparable. The key is that most Americans, and the mainstream media, admit their own race-relations problems. Discourse persists.
Sixty-four percent of Americans say racism remains a major problem in society. My discussions on campus about racism in America slot into the ongoing national political conversation about race in dominant media. Back home, as an Asian New Zealander, I never heard about race-relations issues on the news or talked about race at school, despite struggling with my racial identity throughout my teenage years. Our lack of appetite for exploring identity politics left me to struggle alone with my self-rejection. Because there was never discussion of minority empowerment, I desperately wanted to be white in order to conform to the unquestioned identity of a “New Zealander.”
The American conversations I’ve had in the last three years dramatically transformed my self-perception. I saw Asian Americans being proud of their heritage. I saw Asian Americans fighting for media representation. Back home, in 2017, “perhaps at some point we will no longer be asked to justify our presence or prove our worth,” pondered author Emma Ng, who hopes to stir up discussion on the issue.
I am proud of the outpouring of support shown to New Zealand’s Muslim community in the last month. Our leader has exemplified the best ideals of our country. But American conversations have reminded me of the strides we must take to make the ideal an everyday reality. I want my country to live up to its international reputation. To get there, we need to start talking about minority empowerment every day.
In New Zealand, I suppress my ancestral identity in anticipation of white elected representatives knighting me with those golden words of validation that I shouldn’t need to hear: “You are us.”