Written by Jey Johnston
NZ Born of Samoan descent
It’s mind boggling how New Zealand and Australia - two countries next door to each other - can sometimes seem like worlds apart.
Aside from the obvious communication barriers I’ve come across so far (think jandals vs thongs, chilly bin vs esky, togs vs cossie, dairy vs servo, six vs seeks, seven vs savven, lowlife vs gronk... I could go on all day), there’s one encounter that left me scratching my head.
I went to Woolies (Woolworths, known as Countdown in NZ) last week before work to buy some things for lunch, as I do almost every day. I wear a backpack (so nerdy, I know) and I’ve never been asked to leave it at the door or open it to be checked by security when I’m leaving the store *phew*.
However, I consciously stay in sight at all times and wave my receipt around when I exit. Now on this particular day I wasn’t feeling too well. The common cold was rampant in our call centre and I felt I was on the verge of being sick, so I decided not to get anything for lunch. But then I thought, what if the security guard asks me to open my bag? What if he thinks I’ve hidden something? So I bought a can of Red Bull and some chocolate, and walked out waving my receipt and goods around in the bag.
When I got to work, I laughed as I told my colleagues what had happened. This is going to sound like one of those terrible bar jokes, but there was an Australian, a Fijian Indian and a me, a Samoan Kiwi. After I finished telling them what happened, to my surprise, nobody was laughing except for me. They both asked me why I felt the need to buy something - and they were clearly confused. I told them if I didn’t buy something, I was worried the security guard might find me suspicious. They were still confused... and then it hit me.
These two people (who I consider to me two of my closest friends here), had never felt what it was like to be followed around in a shop. To be considered a likely shoplifter because of your age, socioeconomic status or skin colour. These two people could walk into a supermarket, not buy a thing, and also not be worried that they’d be followed or bag searched at the door.
I told them both that in NZ, shops will usually ask you to leave bags at the door or ask you to open them when you leave. The Fijian Indian had never heard of this - so I assume he’s (luckily) never been a target. I said it’s very common, and happens more often if you’re brown. The conversation wavered off into nothing and that was the end of that.
Now whilst I’m relieved that neither of them have had a negative experience or felt as though they needed to do something against their will or for the sake of fear (what I feel like I did that day), I’m also mad. Mad that I’ve spent 9 hours a day, 5 days a week for the last 10 months with them both, and neither had a clue what sort of ‘hidden in plain sight’ racism people like myself regularly encounter. So I’m going to take the opportunity to remind everyone to open your eyes, ears, mind and soul to the world and be aware of your surroundings.
If you hear someone making a racist joke or remark (that includes your palagi work mate talking in some wannabe fob accent whenever he talks to a Kiwi), or feel that someone is being discriminated against, called out or picked on (it could be about their race, accent, disability, religion...), please put a stop to it! There’s enough evil in this world already and we can do without the negative vibes that stereotypes and unconscious biases put out into the universe.
As for me - next time I go to Woolies I’m going to pick my nuts up and waltz in and out as if nobody is watching ;-) #caaare