Rugby, Racism and Stereotypes

19 Apr

Sometimes it’s hard to tell what racism is – you’re driving through Porirua and someone jokingly says, “Ooh, better lock your car doors!” You feel a little uncomfortable; you smile awkwardly and you wonder what it is about that comment that made you feel uneasy. Is someone who says that comment really racist or are they just commenting on the local crime rates? You’re not so sure and then you forget about it. Then, sometimes, it is obvious. When I worked overseas, one guy told me that the black guy we worked with was different – he wasn’t like all those other ‘animals’ out there. I’m also thinking of Paul ‘Cheeky Darky’ Holmes here and his most recent rant about Waitangi Day. Nowhere is racism more evident than in online public forums, where anonymity seems to encourage people’s most vile thoughts to come spewing out. Indeed for me, the most horrifying part of Paul Holmes’ column was the prejudices that many people I share my community with felt necessary to share in the comments section.

Last week, Coach Pat Lam of the Blues rugby team spoke out against the racial comments made against him and Blues players in online forums and on talkback radio. Facing a bad start to the season people felt it necessary to attribute this to Pat Lam’s Polynesian heritage. It seems when our Polynesian boys are doing well on the rugby field we praise their athletic prowess, a product of their inherent physicality. But when things are going bad they are criticised based on the apparent inherent failings of their Polynesian heritage.

Racism is not only thinking someone is less smart, beautiful, trustworthy, good at a job or human because of their ethnicity. It’s also about stereotypes – that if you don’t fit into this narrative then you’re  ‘soft’, less of a husband, or not a ‘real’ tane.  Nowhere are these ideas more evident for Polynesian men than in sporting narratives where they are constructed as inherently physical.

Why is sport so dominated by Polynesian men? As Brendan Hokowhitu at Otago University had pointed out, succeeding in the physical realm has historically been one of the few avenues where Māori men could gain recognition from Pakeha on an equal footing. The success of Polynesian men on the sporting field has been a source of great mana for many Polynesian communities. The problem with this is that it pervasively limits what is seen as legitimate ‘manly’ avenues for Polynesian men to succeed. Colonisation continues if we do not challenge stereotypes that tell Māori and Pasifika men they are only good for their brawn and not their brains. Comments such as the following continue to reinforce stereotypes that limit the spaces which Polynesian men occupy,

Polynesian players were naturally superior to us in talent, but a lot of them aren’t there now because they didn’t have the discipline…They lacked the right kind of mental attitude. They’d just turn up and play.

These dominant images of ‘the Polynesian man’ contradict the reality for many Polynesian men who do not fit these stereotypes and are thus rarely valued or rewarded for their compassion, intelligence, spirituality, love and support for others.

The comments made against Pat Lam and the Blues are the ugly side of these stereotypes and it’s easy for us to say that we would never say things like that. Racism in this case is obvious – comments that attribute poor performance based on supposed characteristics that are inherent to a particular ethnicity is racism. However, no matter how harmless a joke about locking your car door in Porirua may seem,  it can be just as destructive. Jokes like this are based on a stereotype. We all make them, but stereotypes hurt when you want to be different – or just be yourself.

Kiri Stevens


3 Responses to “Rugby, Racism and Stereotypes”

  1. Silenzio April 23, 2012 at 9:31 pm #

    Comments that attribute ANY kind of performance based on supposed characteristics that are inherent to a particular ethnicity is racism. It doesn’t instantly become racism as soon as it becomes negative…

    • kiristevens April 24, 2012 at 5:02 am #

      Absolutely! Brendan Hokowhitu (the guy from Otago I refer to in the post) talks about how the success of Maori students in sport is seen by many as a positive balance to the perceived their ‘failure’ in state education, but in actual fact Hokowhitu believes this is a skewed form of ‘positive’ racism that means many Maori don’t think they are ‘naturally’ (inherently) academically inclined – nor are they treated this way by teachers and thus are less likely to pursue academic success.

  2. Savili Su'a June 27, 2012 at 3:43 pm #

    i am a Samoan living in the state of California, USA. I am currently working towards my bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. I have written and discussed my point of view and my opinions on several topics that is part of my major field. Racism is a very sensitive subject anywhere in the world, but I happen to think it is worse here in the USA, especially in the state of CA due to the immigration issue that is hotly debated, now that the big election is just around the corner, November. I arrived here in L.A. in 1985, after spending 2 years in Hawaii, attending college there in 1981 to ’82. Traveled to San Francisco and lived there for another couple of years, staying with my friends right above the infamous gay community of Castro Valley. Talking about racism, women were not received kindly there. It was the first time I experienced being singled out because of my gender. I have been discriminated against, lost jobs because of my polynesian identity, my weight, and who knows what other things they did not like about me. My point is, racism was in the beginning of time, and will never be eliminated as long as humans roam this earth. People discriminate against others simply because they are different from their kind. If you are like me, a person from an ethnic cultural background, Samoan to be exact, I have learned that some people had discriminated against me in the past, and I wholeheartedly believe there will be others that will discriminate against me in the future, or as long as I live. In fact, even on line, and they don’t know you, they will still try to discriminate against you. In my experiences, in any society, when people of different races start to move into a certain neighborhood, the dominant race tends to develop all kinds of phobias; and eventually, the newcomers will be blamed for everything wrong that happens in this neighborhood. But if you know your history, as I do here in the USA, then you will understand that you have nothing to be ashamed of or worry about. Some of the most heinous crimes ever committed in this lifetime and century, were not committed by polynesians, but, well, I’ll let you figure that one out. I believe in equality, and that God created everyone equally. Rascism is not a spiritual thing, or a God associated concept, but a manmade thing, and as far as I’m concern, and that I will assume that you believe in God, He is the only other person, besides your parents that you have to do right by!!! In my book, the number one reason why the dominant race discriminate against any one different from them is when their security is rattled. They are used to being number one ALWAYS in everything,.– sports, finance, business, education, you name it, they were, and when that pride and security seems to be now, oftened being challenged and actually replaced, and the top spot taken by someone, especially a person of color, they lash back and of course they will vent out and do exactly what they are doing right now – DISCRIMINATE!! So you out there, my fellow polynesians, or anyone of a different ethnicity, I know sometimes unkind words are like sharp swords that would cut right to the heart, but if we pay attention to racist comments, slurs, or discriminated against, and blamed for society’s ills, the best thing we can do is to work hard, and fight with our minds and brains, via education, and show our dominant counterparts that we are just as capable and resourceful as they are, and we also have the potential for accomplishing greatness just like any other able human being in this universe!!! I love New Zealand. It’s hard to believe that some people have actually come out in the open vent out their racism. i attended high school in Mangere, Auckland back in 1973 to 1976, I had came straight from Samoa as a transfer student. There were about 5 of us from the home island, and my experience was so different from what I’m hearing right now. Times have really changed, but I still love New Zealand,

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