Racism – A Personal Recollection

A few weeks ago I was in Waipawa visiting with my eldest daughter, my grandchildren and great grandchildren. I spent my final evening in town in the company of two daughters, one grandson, four granddaughters, two granddaughters-in-law, one grandniece, and nine great grandchildren. Apart from making you feel your age that context tends to give you a multi-generational long term view of life and its challenges. Racism is one of them.

During my stay in Waipawa I went uptown to the Central Hawke’s Bay Settlers Museum to look at their Gallipoli exhibition. It was interesting in a local sort of way. But their display of local history books caught my eye, particularly “Opening the Gate, The Story of the Te Aute District” published by the Te Aute and Pukehou Historic Book Trust in November 2006. In the acknowledgements I noticed immediately that I was one of the contributing writers, which was news to me!

They had filched a piece called “Te Aute, Te Aute, Te Aute” that I wrote in “Te Putatara in 1997.  However I long ago realised that in Tikanga Maori “copyright” means that any Maori has a right to copy your stuff without asking, and even without acknowledging that you wrote it. In this case I assume that one of my whanaunga gave permission, and they did attribute it to me. So that’s all right.

The book was about my home district and apparently I had contributed so I bought it. It was a goldmine.

The Maori history, the settler history, the geological history, Maori families, Pakeha families, schools, hotels, shops, farming and other businesses, community organisations, even a record of all those buried in the local urupa – it was all there. This was my home district and my home villages and my home people. It brought a rush of memories of my childhood and teenage years growing up in this rural paradise. Good memories, mostly.

It also brought back memories of growing up with racism.

Like almost all Maori I have spent the whole of my life living under the shadow of racism in the New Zealand I know. The other New Zealand has mostly officially and unofficially denied the existence of racism, but continued to practice it, overtly and covertly. Two different countries in the same land, wrapped in the same flag.

Which is not to say that I have become rabidly anti-Pakeha; just mildly anti-Pakeha from time to time. After all, half my relations are Pakeha and half my friends are Pakeha. In fact I was brought up in the two worlds of my family, Maori and Pakeha, and still have close relationships on both sides.

I grew up in the 1940s, through the 1950s, and left home to join the Army in 1962. We all knew and accepted that racism was just part of life for us. We were not really shocked when Dr Henry Bennett was refused service in a Papakura hotel in 1959 because he was Maori. It was much publicised and even condemned but it was the sort of thing we expected in the New Zealand of those times. I was 15 or 16 at the time and had already been personally exposed to racism. At that young age we were already veterans in the ongoing battle of the races.

My Pakeha mother taught me to read and write in 1946 when I was three. According to her it didn’t take much teaching and I got it straight away. I remember sitting in the sun outside the kitchen window of the farm cottage reading and reading, and reading. By the time I started school I’d read everything in the first two years’ curriculum, and much more. My first teacher didn’t know what to do with me and didn’t challenge me at all. I remember sitting around doing nothing for a whole year, and being regularly punished for being bored and distracted, and distracting others. At the end of that first year her two top pupils were Chinese and Maori. I’m told that she was somewhat offended that a Maori was top pupil although I didn’t know it at the time.

Six years later, having been academically challenged by two excellent teachers at two different schools, I was about to be made Dux of Pukehou Primary School. I had spent the final four years in the headmaster’s classroom being pushed to my academic limits by WW2 veteran Arthur Harold William Thompson. I was his star pupil. A few days before the final prize-giving he took me aside and told me that I was not going to be Dux. The school committee, all Pakeha, had decided to stop awarding medals for Dux because they could not agree to award it to a Maori. At the prize-giving I got a special Headmaster’s prize that he bought from his own pocket; a book called “The Pale Grey Men”. The book wasn’t up to much but the title said it all.

You might understand how this single incident has coloured my attitude to New Zealand society ever since. It was the first time that I consciously realized that to be an intelligent Maori brighter than many Pakeha was to be deeply resented. We were supposed to be dumb buggers. Happy, promiscuous, guitar playing, sheep shearing, lazy dumb buggers. That was our station in life. Pakeha were the ones with the brains. Get over it I hear you say. Well, we move on but I don’t think many of us get over it. It sits there in the unconscious mind forever, gets dredged up occasionally and now written down for the first time.

My path through secondary school was mostly smooth and still high achieving until towards the end. I ran up against a science and mathematics teacher who hated having a Maori at the top of his class. He was a small man in all respects [biased opinion] nicknamed Chook. His wife also taught; tall, stern and imposing. We used to say that his wife was the rooster in the family. Between us, me and Chook, we conspired to conduct a running battle of wits [well my wit and his cane] and to drop my academic performance several grades. I suppose he achieved his aim, albeit an unconscious aim [speculation]. I did have the satisfaction of threatening to break his cane over his bald head if ever he tried to use it again. He used to send me to the Principal to get caned after that. Thankfully an outstanding teacher the next year encouraged me to produce outstanding results in science and mathematics.

On the rugby field I was doing quite well, pushed hard by my father. In the local third grade I was without doubt the best player in my position in the competition and looking forward to selection to the Central Hawke’s Bay representative team. Then my father warned me not to get my hopes too high. The father of a Pakeha player in my position was connected to the Rugby Union and my dad thought he would probably get the nod. My dad’s Pakeha friend who was also connected to the Rugby Union thought the same. They were right. He who was not a very good rugby player [widely shared opinion] got the nod the next year as well.

I read later that All Black selection at the time wasn’t a colour blind process either.

I was by then about 16 or 17, or both, and had become as interested in girls as I was in rugby. She was Pakeha, blonde, beautiful and intelligent. We both excelled in the classroom and in sport and spent a lot of time together at school. Eventually we decided to go to a dance together. All our classmates were going. I stayed in town with a Pakeha classmate. On the morning of the dance his sister told me that my girlfriend-to-be was sorry but her mother had told her she was not going out with a Maori. So I went on my own and she wasn’t there of course. And that was the sad wistful end of that. That’s life. You move on.

About ten years ago she introduced herself to my eldest daughter and told her she once had a crush on her father. I thought that was nice.

I left that school moments before I got expelled by a racist [opinion] cane-wielding principal and went to Te Aute College into a Maori-friendly environment. The main event there was when I got six of the best across the arse with a plum stick wielded by the Maori chaplain after getting caught smoking. “This will hurt me more than it hurts you my son”, he intoned in the liturgical manner. “Bullshit”, I replied. He miscounted and the legal limit of six strokes became seven; the seventh an “Amen” to the prayerful Anglican practice of beating. Couldn’t accuse him of racism though.

By his actions and attitude my father taught by example how we should not ever accept racism.

At one time during the shearing season he was contacted by a local big time sheep farmer, racehorse breeder and knight of the realm. The said Knight was in a bind and didn’t have a gang booked to shear his sheep. So we went out to meet him, my Dad and I. They sorted out the business details then we went to inspect the shearers’ quarters. They were atrocious; filthy dirty. My Dad said we’re not living in those conditions, you’ll have to pay extra for us to travel every day. Sir objected strongly and said it was good enough for all his previous (i.e. Maori) gangs and it was good enough for us.

Here comes the brilliant bit.

So my Dad said I tell you what, you put your horses in the shearers’ quarters and we’ll live in those lovely clean stables. He paid us to travel.

At about that time my father brought home a highly controversial book by a despised visiting American academic, David Ausubel. We both read “The Fern and the Tiki” (Angus & Robertson, 1960) and discussed it at length.  Ausubel had correctly pointed out that there was a widespread colour bar in New Zealand and that most Pakeha vehemently denied its existence. This was the first and only serious discussion my dad and I had about racism, virtually on the eve of my journey into adulthood. He told me of the barriers his professional cousins had encountered in their careers, and the advice one of them, Dr Manahi Nitama Paewai, had told him to pass on to me. A professional career as a Maori would be challenging to say the least.

So what did I learn in my early impressionable days from these and many similar incidents? Some hard lessons about being Maori; that’s what.

I decided to join the New Zealand Army. Well, I didn’t decide really because I was headhunted to become a commissioned officer and jumped at the opportunity to go to Australia for a few years to be trained. I was told by Staff Sergeant (later Major) Roly Manning who recruited me that army recruiters had been unofficially told to actively recruit high achieving Maori to become officers. The Army at that time had a lot of Maori soldiers and only a few Maori officers. Made sense to me. And the trip overseas was alluring. I had hardly been out of Hawke’s Bay, except to travel with my father to Athletic Park in Wellington for the odd test match.

When I was an occasional teenage larrikin occasionally let loose on the streets of Waipawa town the local cop, WW2 veteran Sergeant Stan Brown, would kick my arse and send me packing back to my Maori village. I reckon it could have been because his daughter was sweet on me [wishful thinking]. Just after I was commissioned as an officer in the NZ Army he saw me on the street and demanded in his usual stern voice to know what I was up to. When I told him I was a commissioned officer he saluted and called me Sir, genuinely pleased for me. Some cops, maybe a lot of cops, are good guys.

The level of racism I encountered in the NZ Army was a lot less than in everyday civilian life. There were a lot of Maori in the army but mostly in the enlisted ranks. There were about thirty Maori commissioned officers around my rank and seniority, dwindling to about 10 by the time I retired in 1982. In the main we were free from racism but I found that there were some officers who had no problem working with Maori so long as they weren’t their superiors, in either rank or intellect. As I became more senior and posed more of a potential threat in the promotion stakes I went head to head with a few of them.

I did have some wins in the racism battle though. I arrived back in New Zealand at the end of 1967 as a young war veteran after operational tours in Borneo and Vietnam. My British wife and I travelled around the North Island for about a month before I reported for work in Wellington. During our travels we noticed that hotels and motels often didn’t have rooms available when I went in to book, but always did when she went to the desk without me. When we arrived in Wellington we encountered another hotel with racist attitudes. She made the booking.

A week later I went back to that hotel in full uniform, introduced myself to the manager and told him that I was now the officer in charge of the staff that made all travel and accommodation bookings in Wellington. I knew that his hotel was a preferred supplier so I had come to meet him. We chatted amiably and I didn’t tell him about the booking incident. His hotel did not get a single booking from Army for the next two years. How cruel was that? Not cruel enough probably.

And some losses.

In the early 1970’s I was in Melbourne attached to the Australian Defence Department as an intelligence analyst. I used to enjoy working in Australia with Army or Defence. As soon as I landed in Australia, every time I went there, I was no longer Ross Himona, Maori and professional soldier. I became just Ross Himona, professional soldier, judged only on my ability to do my job. It was as though an invisible burden was lifted as I got off the plane.

My bosses in Intelligence in Australia were experienced WW2 veterans who had built the organization they now ran. They greatly appreciated my talents, trained me and gave me a variety of job experiences with the aim, they said, of keeping me in the business for the long term. They even approached New Zealand Defence to try to keep me in Intelligence. But that was not to be.

Near the end of my time in Melbourne we were visited by a senior naval officer from NZ Defence Intelligence. On the weekend a few of us NZ Defence people entertained him at a poolside BBQ. While I was chatting privately with him about my work he asked me out of the blue what I thought about Nga Tamatoa, the newly formed Maori protest group based mainly around Auckland University. I was honest and said I agreed with their aims but not necessarily with their methods. No more was said. A couple of weeks later a friend in Intelligence in Wellington told me that the conversation had been noted and that it was unlikely that I would have a career in Intelligence in New Zealand Defence. Another door closes.

And twenty years after I left Pukehou Primary School without my Dux my past looped back to confront me in the Army.

One day back then at Pukehou, about 1955, a classmate brought to school a photo of her older brother who was in Malaya with the army or about to deploy to Malaya. He had just been promoted to Lance Corporal, the first rank on the ladder. She was very proud. Twenty years later I was a Major at Waiouru in an executive role. That very same Lance Corporal from Pukehou had risen through the ranks to Warrant Officer Class 1, at the top of the ladder for enlisted men. He was experienced, competent and well respected, and he now worked directly to me. He was fairly autonomous in his role and I didn’t interfere at all. He didn’t realize exactly who I was but I knew his lineage. We got on quite well, I thought.

He marched into my office one day, stood to attention in front of my desk, saluted, and said he had something to discuss with me. I invited him to relax and take a seat but he remained standing. Then he told me straight up that he could not work for a Maori officer, was not going to another day longer, and how was I going to resolve the issue.

I knew he was eligible for retirement, and I knew that he was planning to build his retirement home back in Pukehou. So I told him that I wasn’t going anywhere, that the New Zealand Army could no longer provide a haven for people with his attitude to Maori, and to submit his retirement papers that very day. He did and was retired on a pension within the week. I preserved his dignity and respect (and his pension) and didn’t tell a soul the real reason for his sudden retirement.

He went back home to Pukehou and built his retirement home. Then he tried to put himself on all the committees in the village including my old Pukehou Primary School, and started behaving as though he had the authority of an army warrant officer. But things had changed in Pukehou since he and his family had left. My Maori relations ran all the committees and much of the business of the village, and they gave him short shrift. Eventually he sold up and moved away. A few years later he died.

I felt genuinely sad for the man who had a long and distinguished career in the army and was a respected senior soldier. But he was a product of his time and his village, a village that had imprinted itself upon both of us, on opposite sides of the racial divide.

In the Officer Corps at the time there was little in the way of racism, although it was always made known in subtle and sometimes no-so-subtle ways that a commissioned Maori officer should abide by the values and culture of the officer corps rather than being overtly Maori. So we were officers on and off the job, and Maori in private. Which was basically the advice given to me years before by my whanaunga Dr Paewai.

Alcohol could unhinge the façade of camaraderie though. I had a friend in the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment slightly senior to me who I knew to be racist. But as infantry officers and trout fishermen we got on just fine and he respected my feelings by keeping his racism under wraps. Professionally we worked well together as we should have. Occasionally in the Mess he would get a skin full and start ranting, at which stage I would discreetly withdraw. On one occasion however another Pakeha officer and friend took offence on my behalf and punched him out. Sadly that seriously impaired the working relationship.

You’re in the Army for a serious purpose and you have to trust each other and work together despite your differences.

In the last five years of my career in the army I started having a few problems with a few people; a small minority. At first I thought it was just me, being my usual smartarse self. However a Pakeha officer quite senior to me, wise and friendly, told me in the bar one night that I was too bright for my own good. I got the message. He meant as a Maori I was too bright for my own good. Another more senior officer told me that I was making enemies of some people who would soon have an influence on my career, and that the generals who were looking after me for the moment would soon retire. The way he put it was that I was backing the wrong horses. The reasons were the same; too bright and too Maori, and rightly or wrongly thought to be under the patronage of the senior Maori, Brigadier and soon to be Major General Brian Poananga, and others of that generation.

I respected both of those officers and had earned their respect in return. I took their observations seriously.

And as I always acknowledge – I was a bit of a smartarse. One of my mentors the late Sir John Mokonuiarangi Bennett was to tell me years later that one of my failings is my genetically programmed hard wired inability to suffer fools gladly. It suited me to regard that as a strength but he did have a point.

I was to find out over the next five years that they were right. There were just a few racists but they were becoming influential. And I was a target. And I didn’t react with passive equanimity. Although I enjoyed the soldiering aspects of the army I’d had enough of living within a rigid hierarchy anyway so in 1982 I retired, having completed twenty years loyal and faithful service to Queen and country, some of them as a spook.

In defence of the NZ Army I have to record that most of the officers I served with and under were top people without a racist bone in their bodies, and I have a deep and abiding respect for all the soldiers, non-commissioned officers and warrant officers who served under me and with me. Three friends who each later became Chief of Army (Tony Birks, Piers Reid and Maurice Dodson) radically changed the army which became a tribe known as Ngati Tumatauenga and actively embraced Maori culture at all levels. Some of my old retired adversaries in the officer corps didn’t react favourably to that.

As a Maori, life outside the army was a return to the full impact of New Zealand racism. By then it had been moderated by race relations legislation and by the appointment of a Race Relations Conciliator but it was and is ever present as background noise to almost every aspect of life.

An event that brought this home to me was on a trip home to Hawke’s Bay. I walked into a shop in Napier and stood in line to be served. I didn’t get served until the two Pakeha in line behind me were served. At which point I loudly and unprintably abused the shopkeeper and walked out.

I also applied for a job at an RSA in Hawke’s Bay, recorded in this bitter poem, written shortly after.

Yours sincerely

Situations Vacant.
Secretary / Manager.
Our RSA invites
from suitable people.
Dear Sir,
Enclosed is my CV.
I believe I am
a suitable applicant.
Yours sincerely
Major R.N.Himona.
Dear Major,
We would be pleased
to interview you
for the position
of Secretary / Manager.
Yours sincerely,
Returned Services Association.
Dear Major,
We were impressed
but regret to advise
you were not
Yours sincerely,
Returned Services Association.
Dear Major,
I’m ashamed
of my RSA.
You were the best by far.
We didn’t select you
because you’re Maori.
Please accept
my personal apologies.
Yours sincerely.

© 1983, Ross Nepia Himona

That was the Taradale RSA. Nothing much had changed in 25 years in provincial New Zealand. I have to add that the Taradale RSA is now led by good friends from my Borneo and Vietnam days.

In business from 1982 to 2011, owning and running a Maori business, we found that almost without exception we were patronized and talked down to in our dealings with the Pakeha business community. Sometimes we played the game and watched and waited with delight as they slowly came to the realization that we were very smart and very capable, and sometimes knew more than they did. The good companies made the necessary adjustment in attitude very quickly. The slow learners got the flick and we took our business elsewhere.

In my writings in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s in my popular newsletter “Te Putatara” I often deliberately provoked racist responses from people who claimed not to be racist. After a few years I tired of the predictability of the response and let it go.

During that time I also used to take on the Maori elites as well and to poke fun at the then Minister of Maori Affairs, Hon Koro Wetere. Nothing too personal. One day Mr Wetere came to Te Hauke to open a community centre in a big old homestead we had bought, with a Maori Affairs loan, near our Kahuranaki Marae. He asked me why we had bought a tired old homestead and I told him we hadn’t. I was having him on, just a bit. He looked a bit confused because he was right; it was more than a bit tired. Then I asked him if he had bought back the hill overlooking his marae, the one the Pakeha had perched on for over 100 years, and he got it.

The whole tongue-in-cheek exchange was witnessed by our kaumatua the late Sir John Bennett and the late Eru Smith. They took me aside later that day and told me they totally supported me in my tussles and sparring with the Establishment through my newsletter “Te Putatara”. They were part of the Establishment themselves and I asked them why that support was private, not public. They were totally honest with me. It felt to me as though that was the first time they had been that honest with anyone. They told me something that astounded me but explained so many things.

They were afraid, those pillars of the Establishment; with an inbuilt, deep-seated fear. For the whole of their adult lives their livelihoods and the livelihoods of their whanau had depended on their getting on with the Pakeha who employed them and with the Pakeha amongst whom they lived and worked. The Pakeha had the power to destroy the lives of themselves and their families. Until that moment I had never realised that racism can breed so much fear. In my whanau we had been raised to resist it and I had assumed it was so for all Maori.

Racism is an attitude of superiority based on skin colour and culture. To maintain that belief the other, in this case Maori, are thought to be an inferior race in all respects, especially intellectually inferior. There is no scientific justification whatsoever for that belief.

The observable tip of the human mind is the conscious mind in which we are sometimes rational and logical, most often to justify irrational behaviours, and just occasionally to modify outdated attitudes and beliefs. By far the most influential part of the mind however is the unconscious mind, or the adaptive unconscious. Within this unconscious mind are all the memories and passed down attitudes of a lifetime, stored, adapted and shaped into a narrative that shapes and contains our beliefs and our self-image. The unconscious mind makes millions of decisions every day, based on that narrative, and the stored experiences, and determines our reactions to events from moment to moment, without our being in the slightest bit aware of what is going on.

Research psychologists have shown that we can believe one thing in our rational conscious minds while the more powerful unconscious mind still believes exactly the opposite.

That’s where racism is today. Many New Zealanders continue to display overt and antagonistic racist attitudes to Maori. Many New Zealanders have genuinely moved on and accept Maori as equals. And in the middle are those who have made a conscious shift in attitude and in rational moments display non-racist behaviours. But lurking in the depths below is the unmodified racism that will come to the surface in unguarded moments, or in safe environments with friends, or when deliberately provoked by (slightly reformed) shit stirrers like me.

These days I mostly ignore it, treating it as part of life without ever accepting it. Indignation and anger don’t change it and are a waste of precious time and energy at my age. Change only ever happens over the generations, very slowly.

You might ask why, in an essay on racism in Aotearoa New Zealand, I have related my very personal history of racism, or highlights of it. To be honest I didn’t intend to but it’s the only way I know to show what racism does. The experience of racism is a very personal experience, reinforced over time, that burrows its way into the very core of your being deep in the unconscious mind, like a poisonous maggot, and it never goes away. As I found out from my kaumatua that maggot has sometimes given birth to deep seated fear.

It just goes on and on and on. It is also a shared personal experience among nearly all Maori. Academics have written objective treatises on the subject, and legislation has objectively outlawed it, but racism is not an objective experience and I can’t be objective about it. I can only tell you some of my personal history, and assure you that it is not at all unique or remarkable in Maori New Zealand. It is part of the background to everything about the lives of Maori. Unfortunately it’s not fashionable these days to talk about it.

I actually wrote most of this essay about ten years ago and had it stashed on the hard disk waiting for the right time to publish it. A conversation with another retired Maori Army officer a few months ago, and a book in a local museum a few weeks ago stirred the memories again. But I enjoyed the book despite those memories.

Not all of the Pakeha I knew then were racist. I was convinced that the girls all liked me. Later, for about ten years 1991-2000 I served on the Board of Trustees of Te Aute College and noticed some big changes in attitude in the district. I was also heavily involved in the re-opening of Hukarere and during that time had a wonderful relationship with the Williams family, some of them descendants of Archdeacon Samuel Williams who founded Te Aute College and also a farming dynasty in the district.

My whanau, the one we called the shearing gang, had a long and mutually beneficial business relationship with that Williams farming dynasty and with other farming families in the district, including the White family. An old friend Adrian White was on the organising committee for the local history and wrote the foreword.

Despite the differences our lives in the Te Aute and Pukehou district, Maori and Pakeha, were intertwined to a certain degree, as the lives of Maori and Pakeha throughout Aotearoa New Zealand are increasingly intertwined. We just have to keep working at eliminating the racial discrimination. There is no quick fix. It takes generations to change the powerful narratives in our individual and collective unconscious minds.

I know that it will still be there but I hope that it will have improved in the times of those mokopuna in Waipawa, my great grandchildren.