16 April 2012

NZ Racism and Sexism: The Sad Truth

by Dr Mark Keown

It is tragic that the scourge of racism has reared its ugly head in NZ society around Pat Lam, coach of the Blues rugby team. We all know racism is there, bubbling under the surface. We hear the anti-Asian comments, we see the marginalisation of people of colour. It is wrong! In my many years of interest in rugby I have heard many comments on talkback suggesting that Polynesian rugby players are not as intelligent as Pakeha, that they rely on brute strength, that they don’t train as hard, etc. Well this is incorrect from a human perspective, a Christian world-view, and from a sporting perspective.

A look at recent history of NZ rugby suggests that the evidence does not support claims made by social media “experts” – in actual fact, it cuts the other way. If anything, the All Blacks are over-represented with Polynesians/Maori remembering that Maori and Polynesian make up only 22% of the NZ population.

In last year’s RWC final for example, there were seven of the fifteen All Blacks with Polynesian heritage (including Maori who are Polynesian) in the starting line-up: Mealamu, Kaino, Weepu, Cruden, Kahui, Nonu, Jane and Dagg. In the 1995 RWC final nine started: Lomu, Little, Bunce, Bachop, Jones, Brown, Z. Brooke, R. Brooke and Osborne. Some of the real stand-outs in both tournaments were the Polynesian/Maori players; especially Jonah Lomu in 1995 and in 2011, Weepu, Nonu and Kaino. In competitions to choose the greatest ever All Black teams Island and Maori names come up regularly like Nepia, Muliaina, B.G. Williams, Lomu, Rokocoko, J. Smith, Umaga, Bunce, Stanley, Nonu, Little, Herewini, S.M. Going, S. Bachop, Z. Brooke, Shelford, Nathan, M. Jones, Kaino, R. Brooke, O. Brown, Mealamu etc. We need to remember that while many Maori have played for the All Blacks with distinction since its inception, the first Polynesian rugby players only began playing in the mid-60’s. Check out the NZ Sevens teams too, with four successive Commonwealth Gold Medals! Put bluntly, it is aberrant nonsense and disgusting to suggest that a rugby team is losing because it has too many Polynesians.

We can also note that the balance of Polynesian/Pakeha players in the NRL is changing radically, with more and more Polynesians across the teams. We see the same happening across rugby codes throughout the world. If we look more broadly, check out the Breakers starting line-up and that of the NZ netball teams. This is because, rather than being “inferior” and “dumb,” Polyneisans/Maori are, more often than not, exceptionally gifted and talented sportsmen and women. I would imagine we will see this balance continue to shift, and just as African Americans dominate American sport more and more, PI and Maori will dominate NZ and other nations’ sporting codes.

All people, and we as Christians more than any other, should abhor what has been said of the situation in Auckland rugby and speak out. And not just because Pat Lam is a brother in Christ! From a humanitarian point of view, what is being said violates his human rights. From a Christian perspective, we need to be gripped by the vision of Jesus Messiah to break down the long-existing barriers between nations and cultures and notions of cultural superiority and allow ourselves to be gripped by the Kingdom’s radical egalitarianism in which all humanity is esteemed as divine image-bearers and on a level playing field. What is happening all goes to show the terrible danger of social media; where the limits of free-speech are being tested anonymously – others must speak out when human dignity is violated, as in this case.

At the same time, largely unnoticed, in Otago, one of the casualties in the fall-out of the Otago Rugby Union financial crisis has been the axing of funding for the Otago Women’s Rugby Team. There is now a move to raise the $20,000 required within the Otago community. And rightly so! My wife Emma and I have observed for a long time the marginalisation of women’s sport in NZ in media and public psyche, and this despite glorious achievements since the days of Yvette Williams, our netballers, and more recent stars like Valerie Vili, Alison Shanks, the Ever-Swindells, Sarah Ulmer and more. Not to mention that the Black Ferns are unbeaten in all four successive women’s Rugby World Cups! And with plenty of Islanders and Maori!

This axing is a disgrace in my view, and shows how women’s rugby is really valued – it should never have happened. Again, all people and we Christians in particular should be up-at-arms at this. While the gospel is not about removing the distinctives of gender, it speaks of an end of oppressive patriarchy and a world of gender equality and opportunity. I hope that the good people of this nation get behind the campaign and in the future women’s sport is not seen as second rate to be cast aside when the purse strings are tight.

It all goes to show we have much work to do as a people and as a church to stand against racism and sexism in our seemingly egalitarian nation. Perhaps we should start by looking more closely at our own lives and churches and watch for our own racism and sexism? I suspect it is everywhere – do we need to repent?

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