There’s something special about first-born children. Maybe it’s just the sheer amazement of knowing that God has designed creation in such a way that a woman’s body is the means by which brand-new human beings are created.
This made my eldest child, my first-born, special in a way that my other dearly loved children couldn’t replicate. When her father and I first met, he was the highly respected vice-principal of the first school I taught at. He was funny and talented and extremely good at his job. For me, an enthusiastic young teacher, to find that we were expecting a child was like finding out that I had an unsuspected superpower!
With excited anticipation we began looking for our first home together. Therefore it was a surprise to find that the first three landlords I approached only had to learn that the father of my child was Maori (an indigenous New Zealander) before firmly rejecting us as suitable tenants. They didn’t need to meet either of us. They didn’t need to know who we were, or what we did, or what we had accomplished in our lives. Nothing more was needed, other than the knowledge that one of us was Maori.
In the end, the only home we could find to raise our much-anticipated child was a small caravan—a trailer—in a camping ground. This would be just the beginning of a lifetime of discrimination for my daughter. Being 7/16th Pakeha (non-Maori), and therefore predominantly—yet ever so slightly—more “white,” didn’t count. She would be doomed throughout her life to encounter reduced responses to opportunity, much as I’d received from those landlords but on a considerably greater scale.
Our daughter’s brown skin determined that for all her life she would be considered Maori first and foremost, and therefore inferior. Her more substantial European ancestry meant nothing. Because of her skin color, even her health treatment would be diminished. She would have a shorter life span. She and her children would be more closely observed by the police. They would have fewer friends and fewer social opportunities.
I loved the folk songs of the 60’s and 70’s, of Peter, Paul and Mary, of Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and the many others who responded to the call of our time for greater race unity and equality. Those hopeful songs were one of the reasons I first became attracted to the Baha’i teachings 40 years ago. I quickly recognized the truth that racism was one of the major issues facing my society. I came to see that what began for me as a personal matter is in reality a universal issue. The Universal House of Justice says of racism that:
It is a major barrier to peace. Its practice perpetrates too outrageous a violation of the dignity of human beings to be countenanced under any pretext. Racism retards the unfoldment of the boundless potentialities of its victims, corrupts its perpetrators, and blights human progress. – The Universal House of Justice, October 1985, The Promise of World Peace, p. 3.
The story of our struggles continues to this day, for both of us. Although mine are much less, they still raise their heads in obvious ways. Clearly it is an ongoing cause for concern that my children and grandchildren are thus being affected. But I also meet other assumptions about who I am and what I represent. I find that many people are surprised that the blonde I was born to be has three part-Maori children. Some who know that assume they must have been adopted, which seems to be becoming a fashionable Hollywood-star kind of way to assert belief in the equality of the races. There is even something about my having blonde hair that holds inferences about being a bit shallow, or more sexually appealing, or considering oneself to be somehow superior.
Some ‘blacks’—and this sweeping term from common parlance includes ‘brown’ Maori peoples—think it is their social and political duty to take me down a peg or two, with what is in effect reverse racism. My part-Maori son received a similar kind of bigotry at his predominantly Maori low-income school from other boys who were darker skinned Maori, and who therefore considered him a Pakeha. Ironically, I also find myself being lectured by blacks who assume I can know nothing of racism, or of the effects of the white privilege from which I have indeed benefited all my life.
My own clear recognition of these white privilege advantages; of the unchallenged access to opportunities, of better health care and freer access to social services, of greater acceptance in social situations and so on, highlights the sense that I have much to pay back in consideration of all those unwarranted benefits I have received. I have tried to do this by encouraging my children to develop a deeper understanding of their rich cultural heritage, by living in areas of high Maori/Pacific population density, by choosing to teach in schools with high percentages of Maori students, and by establishing a Baha’i-inspired school (unfortunately short-lived due to my poor health) which reflected Maori culture and their reduced economic means.
As part of the activities of the Baha’i community, I have travelled to diverse communities around New Zealand to eat, sleep and korero (consult) on Marae, which are the focal points for Maori communities throughout the country and are used for meetings, celebrations, funerals, educational workshops and other important tribal events. I have been honoured in meeting with the former Maori Queen as part of a wider Baha’i event, to visit and converse with her in a designated room of her ceremonial Marae and teach a children’s class in that gathering, and also to meet with the head of the Ratana Church, our largest Maori religion. But sometimes I wonder if all my love for the Maori culture can be traced back to 1893, when my new-born Grandmother had a meeting with Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki, a Maori leader, and founder of the Ringatū religion, who for some now-obscure reason, was moved to take that infant in his arms and confer upon her a special blessing. Ironically, the year of her birth would shortly become the same year as his death.
Through all of these experiences, I’ve learned that as long as a person holds inner beliefs that discriminate towards others, then prejudice and racism will continue. Baha’is believe that the cure is education. People must not only be educated in the letter of the law but in its spirit. Through spiritual education, individuals can become so enlightened that their hearts will refuse to tolerate beliefs which consider their fellow human beings as less worthy, much less allow discrimination against others.
Racism—the notion that human characteristics, abilities and values are determined by race, that one race is biologically superior and has supremacy over another, or that accepts any prejudice or discrimination based on race—is one of the most baneful and persistent practices in our world, and is a major barrier to peace. Its practice violates the dignity of human beings, and blights the boundless potentialities of its victims, whilst corrupting its perpetrators.
Genetic science has now established that all the peoples of the Earth can be, at most, no more than 52nd cousins to one another. That’s a disputed conclusion, as so many scientific claims are, but the Baha’i teachings say:
All humanity are the children of God; they belong to the same family, to the same original race. There can be no multiplicity of races, since all are the descendants of Adam …. We are of one physical race even as we are of one physical plan of material body; each endowed with two eyes, two ears, one head, two feet. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 299.