during the weekend, the race unity speech competition was held in auckland. i had the privilege of driving talking to the waikato winner, naomi kumar, last friday morning. she's a lovely young woman who lives in my neighbourhood and goes to the same high school i went to. so you can imagine that i was giving her a whole lot of good wishes and really hoping she would win.
and she did - go her! below is a video and a transcript of her speech. i hope you'll take the time to listen to it or read it, and also to pass it around.
Fifty years ago one man, a black man, stood in the heart of one of the world’s largest democracies and told the masses gathered there that he had a dream. He dreamed of breaking down the barriers that set a people of one land apart. He dreamed for the heartbeats of the dispossessed, for the right to life, to liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The kind of dreams we all as humans share.
Kia Ora all.
Historically, difference has defined us. Given us a sense of identity. Culture. Religion. Race. We identify within the scope of these socially constructed brackets. We are designed in relation to our peers. I’m brown. You’re white. Differences are what make us individual. They can unite, or divide us. Because it is when these very differences provide the platform for a number of institutionalised biases to play out that the issue of disadvantage arises.
Racial disharmony is not what it used to be a generation ago. To think that people of different ethnicities could not share the same public spaces, ride the same public transport, or even learn in the same classrooms, is hard to fathom. We are very fortunate indeed to live in a society where we don’t have to face that anymore. So does this mean that race is not an issue in our times?
Certainly, it’s no longer the overt divide that segregates us or keeps us from the same entitlements we deserve. After all, we live in a multicultural society, don’t we? Everyone has equal opportunity. But it still is the elephant in the room that we need to address. Yes, we still confront prejudice in various forms. No number of personal anecdotes I deliver can relay the experience of what it is to have to deal with xenophobia on daily basis.
It’s the everyday alienation of being on the margins. Not always directly discriminated against, but not fully included either. It’s sitting in a class and feeling uncomfortable when one of my teachers jokingly remarks about getting us Asians off the curry and on to doing some work. And being told by my peers that I “can’t take a joke” when I raise my hand and speak out in objection. It’s looking through a magazine and that realization of knowing I’ll never be able to conform to that normative standard of Western beauty. It’s the disillusionment of wondering whether a person sees you for who you are or what you look like. But, like the change in seasons, you become accustomed to your difference.
I can’t take off my skin just as easily as I can take off my bindi. I can’t scrub away years of internalized anxieties the way I can wash off henna. But I can learn to love myself because what I have is a strong support network of whanau and community.
We cannot underestimate the work done by agencies like the Human Rights and Race
Relations commissions, in promoting harmony. We have come a long way in a span of a decade in recognizing and respecting difference. The efforts of our government have been significant.
2011 saw the refusal of a bus driver in allowing a Muslim woman to board a bus because of her veil. Reaction was swift. Widespread support was drawn from communities who immediately took a stand against the action. Our own Prime Minister spoke out and the message was strong. Discrimination is not acceptable in our society.
And that kind of support is not accidental, that was because of the work put into getting dialogue and understanding between people. Between host communities and newcomers. Between Maori and migrants. Between people of different beliefs.
We must keep on that track. We must go about fostering this ideal of inclusiveness. It begins with education and understanding. To not fear difference, but to embrace it. To teach love and empathy to our children. To promote Kiwi role models of diverse backgrounds. To challenge peoples’ and the mainstream media’s perceptions of culture and inform institutions on how to celebrate diversity instead of trying to ignore it. This comes with engaging people on a social and community level – and as a young person I believe that this change should start with youth. I believe in the grassroots advocacy of cultural acceptance.
The point is not to co-exist in a colour blind society. I want to live amid a diversity of sight, sound and colour. Cultures are part of each and every one of us, woven into our very identities. To not acknowledge that would be erasure. I am a Kiwi, just as much as I am Indian. And Hindu. And Christian. My life has taken me to be raised in mosques, churches, temples and monasteries; moving between continents, languages and beliefs.
And while some may think they should all in effect lead me to a dilemma of heritage, I feel I am instead strengthened by the various connections I hold now. We need to redefine acceptance. People do not fit into a cultural binary. And this is something employers, institutions and people need to be able to understand. This is the future as I envision it, a generation of global citizens, representing a future no longer restricted by geo-political boundaries, or arbitrary distinctions based on the colour of one’s skin.
In the future I envision, we are not defined by ethnicity. We are enriched by it, certainly. But it is never a measure of our value as individuals.
We are not defined by our religion, but it instils in us a faith in society. We are defined by our responsibilities to this world as persons, by our shared convictions and dreams of happiness. And how well we can work together to achieve that. That is the true nature of justice.
This dream is for my someday daughter, whatever strangely beautiful hue, or features she may possess. I came to New Zealand as an outsider. But for her it will be different. I experienced the disconnect. I carry the label of migrant. But she will belong. No matter our beginnings, we are the living, breathing tangata whenua of Aotearoa. There is but one eye of the needle through which the white thread, the black thread and the red thread traverse. But what of the brown thread? And the yellow thread? Each of us are the threads in this fabric of a collective human partnership.
Our generation shall inherit this earth and by our design we can choose to flourish. Together. No pain. No prejudice. Like Martin Luther King fifty years ago dreamed, we have the capacity for inspiring change within others and ourselves.
So my dream? As one of my fondest Indian poets Tagore puts it ““Where the mind iswithout fear and the head is held high, Into that freedom of heaven, let my country awake.”
Hillcrest High School