Erasing the stain of racism

Erasing the stain of racism

When Rawiri Waititi got up to ask a question in the New Zealand parliament last Tuesday, he didn't get far. Speaker Trevor Mallard warned the Maori MP that (male) members could only do so if they were wearing a necktie.

Mr Waititi, wearing a taonga, a Maori greenstone pendant, continued with his question even after being stopped a second time. He was then ordered to leave the chamber.

Crazy, isn't it? Is following a western code the only way to show respect for an exalted body such as a legislative assembly? And if it is, shouldn't the first-time MP have been informed in advance instead of being kicked out?

Most people don't object to dress codes in general, but Mr Waititi argued that the requirement to wear a "colonial noose" was an attempt to suppress indigenous culture.

Lawmakers should be respected for their contributions to the community they represent, not for the way they dress. The incident sparked a debate in New Zealand about its colonial past, #no2tie started trending on Twitter, and parliament the following day dropped the tie rule.

Mr Waititi said Maori people had been facing this type of treatment for centuries, and systemic racism persists in New Zealand. Indigenous people worldwide, he said, "have been subjected to discrimination due to racist systems that keep our peoples in second place".

It's not just indigenous people who are slighted, of course. In any society you will find people who are suspicious of, or even hostile toward those who are different from them.

Even millionaire celebrities are not immune. I'm reminded of the online abuse directed at K-pop superstar Lisa, born Pranpriya Manoban, of Blackpink because of her Thai background. Leaked messages from a group chat revealed hateful, mean and racist comments, discrediting her hard work and attributing her success to underhanded means. More comments dehumanised Thai people and Thailand in general.

The band's fans, known as BLINKS, came out in full support of the star and her fellow band members, demanding they be respected for their talent and achievements, no matter where they are from. "Say no to Racism," they declared.

Of course, racism often takes a deadly turn, notably in the United States. One recent case that shocked people in Thailand was the fatal assault on 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee as he was out walking in San Francisco on Jan 28. An assailant viciously shoved the elderly Thai man to the ground before walking away. Police officers rushed him to a hospital where he died two days later.

The family believe the attack was motivated by racist sentiment. "Anti-Asian racism has become a very serious danger to all Asian Americans, particularly in San Francisco," said Mr Vicha's son-in-law, Eric Lawson.

The office of the San Francisco District Attorney echoed that view when it filed murder charges against 19-year-old Antoine Watson three days later. The Asian American Pacific Islander community, it said, had been "victimised by many incidents of violence, hate and racism since the start of the (Covid-19) pandemic".

In fact, there has been a massive rise in the number of hate crimes against Asian Americans across the US. A week earlier, actors Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu offered a US$25,000 reward to anyone who could help identify the person caught on camera shoving a 91-year-old man in Oakland's Chinatown.

In New York City, police data showed 20 anti-Asian hate crimes in the first half of 2020, compared to just one in all of 2019. In many cases, people were lashing out at anyone who looked "Chinese", as if they were responsible for the coronavirus.

A United Nations report in August 2020 said more than 1,800 racist incidents against Asian-Americans were reported in the US over an eight-week period from March to May 2020.

The administration of Joe Biden has begun an attempt to reverse the hateful legacy of his predecessor Donald Trump, many of whose supporters were emboldened to lash out at people of Asian descent. Mr Biden has signed an executive order denouncing the discrimination directed at the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities during the pandemic.

It is shameful that in the 21st century, so many people still face racist abuse, with a virus outbreak somehow giving rise to a new excuse for offenders to vent their race hatred.

Mr Biden's directive is a promising action but it's just the beginning. A lot more work needs to be done so that the world is a safer, more pleasant place for everyone to live.

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