Featured in Capital #61. Subscribe to get the real thing here
Victims and family of those injured and killed in the mosque terror attacks will be at the sentencing of the gunman on 24 August. Melody Thomas reflects on what she’s learned since the horrific event.
Despite feeling for a while there like nothing would ever return to “normal” again, many of us will feel life has gone back to normal. For others, there’s no state of “normalcy” to return to − the threats and hostility they tried to tell us about for years are out in the open for all of us to see. But they were always a part of some New Zealanders’ lives.
There was beauty in the wake of those attacks. At the vigils, where we stood side by side, grieved, and finally centred the voices we had been ignoring. In the stories we read from families who lost parents, brothers, sisters, children. When Al Noor Mosque Imam Gamal Fouda addressed the country to say, “We are broken-hearted, but we are not broken.”
And for a little while afterwards, it felt like New Zealand might be finally ready to address the racism and Islamophobia we’d spent so long denying the existence of. Friends rallied asking stores selling confederate flags to stop, and they did. People promised to guard mosques so those who needed to could worship in peace. Questions were asked of our intelligence services and our government, who appeared to have been protecting us from the wrong people.
But for those of us who believed the attack would shock bigots into seeing what lay at the end of that path and changing their ways, or at least thinking twice before voicing their opinions, more disappointments were not far off. It felt like we had about a week of peace before comments on news stories descended into a hotbed of hate speech again, before a Muslim school girl had a bus door slammed in her face, an ex-refugee family in Dunedin complained that their leaky house was making their children sick and were flooded with comments telling them to be grateful or else to go back to where they came from. Broadcaster Chris Lynch publicly apologised for a column he wrote in 2016 headlined “Does Islam have any place in NZ public swimming pools?”, which is a start, but any assumption that others would follow suit disappeared as quickly as old racist stories from news sites.
So now we know. Those of us who thought Taika had gone a little too far claiming New Zealand was “racist as f**k” (sure, a little bit racist, but “as f**k?”) have a new cultural identity to reckon with. And it’s hard. Once upon a time I was proud as punch to be a New Zealander. As I grew older this pride was eroded by news stories about families living in cars, hospitalisations of overwhelmingly non-Pākeha children for pneumonia and other illnesses associated with poor houses and morally bankrupt landlords, pictures of lunch boxes at decile ten versus decile one schools − the former packed with colour and nutrition, the latter completely empty.
But at least we could still look overseas − to the gun violence and border prisons and police brutality of America, to Brexit, to our ‘more racist’” cousins across the ditch − and tell ourselves it wasn’t that bad here.
Not any more.
I don’t have the answers about what we do from here. That conversation needs to be guided by those who know the face of racism in this country all too well because they’ve been staring right at it the whole time we were looking away. But we need to be there, listening, ready to lend our strength and resources to the fight. And that might mean exposing ourselves to uncomfortable backlash. Making ourselves targets to dangerous people. Losing a little of the privilege we’ve become so comfortable with we don’t even know it’s there. It’s the absolute least we can do and it’s also our only shot if we want to be able to say with conviction, and with the weight of a huge and diverse collection of voices all singing out in unison, that this is not us.