Korero and a kapu tea: Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon on tackling prejudice in a pandemic

By Jennifer Little

Reading time: 16 minutes

At a recent public talk in New Plymouth, guest speaker and race relations commissioner Meng Foon was introduced as “made in China, born in Gisborne, and working for Aotearoa”.

A succinct bio, it captures the unique concoction of his origins and current focus. Added to these, it has been said that his legacy as Gisborne mayor (2001 to 2019) coupled with being a fluent speaker of te reo, Cantonese and English make him the ideal contender for the job at hand – tackling racism in our increasingly racially and ethnically diverse society. “When I got the job, many people said: ‘you’re the perfect person for this time’ - given March 15 [the date of the Christchurch mosque shootings in 2019 in which 51 Muslims were murdered], and the topic of racism being debated in communities. I’m humbled by that support, and I try to treat people fairly in terms of my time,” says Foon.

By Jennifer Little

Reading time: 16 minutes

At a recent public talk in New Plymouth, guest speaker and race relations commissioner Meng Foon was introduced as “made in China, born in Gisborne, and working for Aotearoa”.

A succinct bio, it captures the unique concoction of his origins and current focus. Added to these, it has been said that his legacy as Gisborne mayor (2001 to 2019) coupled with being a fluent speaker of te reo, Cantonese and English make him the ideal contender for the job at hand – tackling racism in our increasingly racially and ethnically diverse society. “When I got the job, many people said: ‘you’re the perfect person for this time’ – given March 15 [the date of the Christchurch mosque shootings in 2019 in which 51 Muslims were murdered], and the topic of racism being debated in communities. I’m humbled by that support, and I try to treat people fairly in terms of my time,” says Foon.

He’s been in the role since 2019, just before the pandemic hit, and at a period of our nation’s evolution when we might’ve assumed racism is on the way out. Except we are often reminded it isn’t.

Just one example made news the same week in May that Foon spoke to the Taranaki Chamber of Commerce. Jay Scott (Ngāpuhi), a young Māori woman in Havelock North, was approached by two Pakeha women at a playground where she had taken her four children. The women challenged her about her facial tattoo, or ta moko, telling her she should cover it because it was frightening other children, or else leave the playground.

Foon joined voices of outrage at this blatant disrespect for an expression of indigenous culture, especially as wāhine Māori with moko kauae (tattoo of lips and chin) are increasingly visible and in positions of influence. They include the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Nanaia Mahuta, and Newshub prime time news reader Oriini Kaipara, who made headlines around the world last year for being the first female indigenous news anchor with a traditional facial tattoo.

In early November 2020, Foon defended Minister Mahuta’s facial tattoos after right-wing blogger Olivier Pierson mocked them as the “height of ugly, uncivilised wokedom”. Foon stated that kauae moko was special to Māori and should be celebrated. He also urged people to abandon their racism and prejudices and to accept that the world is changing.

Since 2019, complaints received by his office have been on the rise. Radio NZ reported that last December, the commission was receiving close to 1,000 complaints a week, a dramatic increase from the 200 that normally came through. Many were Covid-related.

“The last two years have been extremely stressful for Asian and Māori – and also Pacific Islanders when Omicron arrived earlier this year,” Foon says. Bigotry against these communities can arise in response to media reports that, he says, focus on “who’s got it and where they come from”.

Covid-19 was initially dubbed a Chinese disease because it originated in Wuhan, China, so Asians got targeted. To counter this, and divisions over vaccine mandates and passes, the office of the Race Relations Commissioner launched a Dial it Down campaign, in which Foon asked Kiwis to “dial down the heat a notch and keep conversations civil, whether online or in person”.

“It’s okay to be passionate about topics like Covid, but it’s not okay to personally attack people,” he said in a press statement when the campaign went live. “You may feel like you are banging your head against the wall because of an argument, but keep in mind that you have more in common with the person on the other side of the discussion than you have differences.”

Is a there a remedy for racism?

Trying to get rid of racism sounds like a gnarly task. What can be done in practical terms to overturn deeply entrenched attitudes? Foon is working on a National Action Plan against Racism that will be adopted by the government through the Ministry of Justice. “Our role is to communicate and get feedback from our ethnic and our Māori communities.” He anticipates the draft plan will be presented to the Government mid-year. His focus is on civil society while government will work with iwi and government ministries.

Feeding into the plan, he has been reaching out to the business community to ask that they examine diversity in their organisations. “We can say from research that diversity definitely brings better opportunities to an organisation, because it reflects the communities of Aotearoa now.”

He’s talking to banks, insurance, real estate, accountancy, and law firms, to name a few. “We’re seeing the change in terms of having more diverse frontline staff reflecting their customers. We’re also lobbying for boards in high level management to be diverse as well.”

Diversity is not only colour, but about different thinking – where you are from (rural, city), and different experiences, he explains. “Some people think diversity is only between white people and brown people. We need to make it clear – it’s not just the colour of the people on the board, but also to have their life experiences that can add value.”

This project also addresses structural and systemic racism in relation to government policies, resource allocation, co-governance, participation, as well as casual racism in the street, workplaces, and other social and public settings.

Despite the rise in the number of complaints, he observes that progress is being made. “People are more aware of the need for a more inclusive society, to break bamboo ceilings and glass ceilings. Government is taking a big lead in this area.”

Meng Foon visiting a Wellington primary school to talk about inclusion and against bullying.

The education sector is a key concern for the commissioner, not just in terms of racism and bullying but in addressing multiple reasons behind a reportedly high absentee rate: an estimated 40 per cent of school-aged children do not attend class regularly. The economics of unsustainably low wages on families, sub-standard housing and poor nutrition are among factors preventing too many children from becoming part of a community and building a sense of belonging, he says.

His office is looking at producing a survey this year, which he hopes will create a benchmark of how people feel about race relations in Aotearoa. “It will give us a base to work from. I’m heartened that we are talking and debating about how we can improve things, especially in last two years.”

The previous such survey was conducted ten years ago. “We need one every three or four years to get a pulse of the nation, otherwise we don’t know if our work is improving the situation,” says Foon.

He commends the efforts in mainstream media, including Stuff, NZ Herald, TVNZ, Radio New Zealand, and others, for increased commitment to presenting Māori perspectives, stories, cultural values, and use of te reo.

Market gardening and Māoritanga – a Te Tai Rāwhiti childhood

Foon’s cultural awareness was forged through circumstance – growing up on a Tairāwhiti/Gisborne market garden created by his migrant Chinese parents, and the connections to local Māori customers and marae his family supplied with produce. He developed a strong affinity through his interactions with local iwi that enabled him to learn te reo and tikanga in a holistic fashion as well as studying Māori language at school later.

He told E-Tangata, an online magazine specialising in Māori and Pasifika stories: “My whole life has been with Māoridom. Fifty per cent of Tairāwhiti are Māori. Our customers were Māori. And most of what we did was with Māori. There’s reciprocity in this game. So, George, my father, used to take truckloads of vegetables to tangihanga (funerals). They’d remember that. And, when I was standing for mayor, this was one of the kōrero that came out. ‘Yes, we remember George and him being kind and generous’.”

Foon was first elected to Gisborne council in 1995 and became mayor in 2001, serving five consecutive terms. One of a handful of people of Chinese descent to have become a mayor in New Zealand, he was – at the time his mayoral position ended – also the only mayor in New Zealand who was fluent in Māori.

As commissioner, he’s advocating for te reo to be compulsory in schools within the next five years. Foon’s of the view that new immigrants arriving here would benefit too with knowledge of our history, cultural characteristics, values, and policies – namely democratic values, the place of the Treaty of Waitangi, and of Māori as tangata whenua (indigenous people).

Responding to ‘casual’ racism in everyday life

While Foon is committed to the task of eliminating racism, it is also a collective responsibility, he believes. And while most people wouldn’t like to think of themselves as racist, it is worth pondering how we should react when someone in our midst makes a racist comment or joke.

Don’t be afraid to call it out, says Foon. “If you call them out, they are likely to think about it and not do it again. Sometimes people don’t know through ignorance, perhaps, that they are causing hurt because they’ve been doing it for years and no one’s actually said anything.”

In a work setting, you need to be confident, says Foon, who experienced racism at high school. “Stand with the victim, ask if they are OK and support them.”

“To be a silent bystander sometimes is as good as being the abuser themselves. It takes a brave person and not everyone can do this, but we applaud those people that can. In a workplace, we suggest you don’t immediately complain to the boss but find a coalition of people – work friends – to front with the person making the complaint. Take notes when you’re facing a manager or boss on time, place, what’s said, and frequency. Racism is not always a one-off, it is a continuum of bad behaviour,” Foon adds. “Some people are hard core, and you can’t change their minds, though they’ll still go and eat a Chinese takeaway or a nice butter chicken.”

“I think one of my biggest jobs is to encourage the majority of New Zealanders – generally Pakeha – to stand by minorities to bring about change.”

He compares this to when women were seeking the vote when 100 per cent of parliamentarians were male. “It’s no different to Parliament voting for gay marriage, or end-of-life legislation. Even in the 1970s, setting up the Waitangi Tribunal, or making Māori language official – it still needed the majority [to vote] even though they weren’t Māori.”

He feels hope for a future when, perhaps, a race relations commissioner may not be quite so busy. Becoming a more mature society through intermarriage, and a greater focus on local history in schools are developments that he envisages will bring people together in respectful ways. “We could be a great example to the rest of the world in managing indigenous struggles and moving forward.”

But even if change doesn’t happen in mainstream sectors of government or business, “I can tell you from the bottom of my knowledge and heart that Māori enterprise will be the biggest influencer of public policy going forward in Aotearoa,” Foon asserts. He notes the success and burgeoning of indigenous business, with flow-on effects of Māori looking after their people and assets.

“I encourage all New Zealanders to learn about Māori, their history, their language, and culture, and to participate and support Māori going forward – it’s the world we are going to be living in,” he says.

He’s heartened to see that many organisations are “starting to grab hold of Māori values and names as well as spiritual values”.

This affable 62-year-old Asian Aotearoan speaks too about his love of rugby and singing (he breaks into a spontaneous a cappella song he wrote and recorded in te reo) before ending his talk with the insight that kōrero – to form connections and understanding – is his most powerful tool as race relations broker. “A kapu tea at the table”, to be precise.

Meng Foon at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre

 

For more information on human rights and race relations click here.

Sources: 1. Meng Foon, Wikipedia 2. Meng Foon reflects on life as the race, RNZ 3. Meng Foon, a journey in the ao Māori, E-Tangata 4. Dial it down, taikura trust

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