I used to think television-induced outrage was reserved for the bitter elderly and the perpetually unemployed. I’ve realised in the past couple of days that it is now the right of every New Zealander to race into a state of hysteria without stopping to think that there might be something more important to worry about.
I am of course talking about Paul Henry’s latest controversy. The crux of the issue appears to be that him asking if Govener-General Sir Anand Satyanand was ‘really a NZer’ and then going on to ask the Prime Minister if he was going to appoint someone who ‘looked and sounded more like a NZer’ was deemed extremely racist. Judging from the sheer amount of outrage, media coverage and water-cooler conversation around the subject, I have to assume that it was more racist than Hone Harawira, a member of parliament, stating that he wouldn’t want his daughters bringing home a pakeha, or Winston Peters’ ‘Yellow Peril’ campaign from a few years ago, or Michael Laws opening his mouth. I don’t think that’s true, not even close.
Paul Henry may be racist. It’s highly likely that he is. Not in an overly malicious way, but from a number of his comments it’s reasonably clear that he holds different opinions for members of different races. However, the questions he asked were not racist, especially not as racist as everyone seems to think.
Firstly, ‘is he really a NZer?’. At it’s base, this is a sign of ignorance, if anything, rather than racism. I myself am a first generation NZer. My mother is Dutch and my father is British. People have said to me ‘oh, I thought you were German’. I wasn’t offended. I was a little taken aback, but that was it. If I did consider myself Dutch then I imagine being called German might be a little offensive, however I consider myself an NZer so I dismissed it as an odd observation. The truth is that in such a multi-cultural country, it is unclear who is an NZer and who is not. It doesn’t matter, but that doesn’t make it any more obvious. When Anand Satyanand was first appointed as Governer-General many people asked ‘is he an NZer?’. In fact, soon after his appointment Sir Satyanand himself said in an interview, ‘I imagine during [my term as Governer-General] there will be some who will say “there is one of us being one of them” while for others it will be a case of saying “there is one of them being one of us”. So even he acknowledged that his Indo-Fijian descent might cause a bit of confusion. The fact is that when you see a person of Indian descent (be it Indian or Indo-Fijian) with an Indian name, your first assumption isn’t that they are from NZ. With nearly a third of the World's population fitting that description and not being NZers, to make that assumption would be statistically ignorant (I’ll confess my own ignorance here, in that I’m not aware of the difference between Indo-Fijian names and those from countries in the sub-continent). It is also not a pre-requisite that the Governer-General be an NZer. So, assuming complete ignorance, that question in itself is not unreasonable, nor is it racist.
That leads me to the next question in question, ‘are you going to choose someone who looks and sounds like an NZer?’. Now I admit, that is a stupid and irrelevant question. It’s not racist, at least nowhere near the level of racism that it’s been elevated to, but it is stupid. It doesn’t matter if the Governer-General instantly portrays an image of being an NZer or not, that's never been a consideration in their selection, so why ask? Most likely it was blurted out to get a cheap laugh, which evidently was a bit of poor judgement. As for the alleged racism buried in the question, I don’t believe that Paul Henry was referring to Sir Satyanand himself. Rather, he was likely referring to the fact that Sir Satyanand looks Indian and has an Indian-sounding name. Given that the Governer-General’s parents are Indo-Fijian, I doubt that stating he looks Indian or has an Indian sounding name would cause him any offense, no more than calling me Dutch or British would cause me offense. The reference Paul Henry made was to the man on paper, not the man himself, and it most certainly was not a reference to every NZer of Indian or Indo-Fijian descent. Extrapolating a stupid question about a man’s name deisgned to get a cheap laugh into full-blown xenophobia is more than a bit extreme.
I like Paul Henry. I think he’s often very funny and is the only celebrity that regular calls out the media on its lazy practices. I don’t agree with everything he says, particularly his extreme right views of some things such as Government spending, and he can definitely go too far at times. On the whole though, I think television is a better place with him on it. I’m glad to see that Rick Ellis, CEO of TVNZ, has said in an interview that he has no intention of sacking him.
People in this country have become extremely sensitive, and often I feel that that sensitivity is extremely misguided. It’s like there are people in this country who just meet up for a protest, pick up a newspaper and decide what to write on their signs. And too often that newspaper is the New Zealand Herald, which makes matters that much worse.
I’m not condoning racism here, I’m saying that I don’t believe what Paul Henry said should be considered racist. I hope everyone moves on before October the 18th, so Paul Henry can come back to Breakfast and start gearing up for the next bout of over-blown controversy that will inevitably come. I expect nothing less.
Update (08/10/2010): Really India? You're angry at NZ because one TV personality laughed at the name 'Dikshit'? Newsflash India, sometimes your names appear funny to us because they contain certain portions that we consider to be rude words. That's funny. Was there a national incident when Billy Birmingham released any of the 'Twelfth Man' CDs, most of which contain jokes about the names of cricket players from the sub-continent? The name 'Dikshit' is actually quite funny because it contains two very closely related rude words. That's not racist. It's only funny when mispronounced anyway, so Paul Henry wasn't even laughing at her real name (although when pronounced properly it's possibly funnier; Sheila Diksit - sounds like an Aussie porn-star). It was childish, but not racist. When I was in London, I giggled to myself every time the voice came over the speaker and said that the train terminated in Cockfosters. And that only has one such word in the name. It isn't a racial slur if you laugh at someone's name. It's not a reflection of the person and it certainly isn't a reflection of their entire race. It's just a reflection of that inner child in all of us that still smiles when we see the word 'poo'. It might be insensitive if you laugh in their face, but the act of laughing alone simply denotes ignorance and immaturity, not racism. Maybe the bit about the name being appropriate because she was Indian was a little racist... If he'd just pronounced it correctly and gone with Aussie porn-star there wouldn't have been an issue.