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That's a Bit Racist is playful, but it packs a punch

The taboo-busting documentary is trying to change our default settings on race, but some people aren't stoked.

The title of TVNZ 1’s new two-part documentary That’s a Bit Racist is, in a peculiarly Kiwi manner, both provocative and ironically unthreatening in its understatement.

Yet some of the responses to the first episode on the channel’s Facebook page fall into the “that’s a bit apoplectic” category. “Just appalling!! Thank you TVNZ for broadcasting such a one-eyed, one-sided view of NZ … This is total reverse racism!” Touchy? “This will be another anti-white programme. Full of one-sided opinions from people with agendas to push.” There was that hardy perennial of pale outrage, “I am offended by the term Pākehā.”

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to consider that the world might look different through another set of eyes. That’s a Bit Racist has already demonstrated that many people lack that imagination.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

The programme did its best to help, availing itself of esteemed actor, writer and director Oscar Kightley, or Vai to’elau Osa Isa’ako Mase, as he preferred here: “When you refer to people of colour, you mean anyone who’s not white. Well, white is a colour, too … That’s the default setting.” He talked about the hazards of “driving while brown”. The constant watchfulness required. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realise how exhausting that would be.

This series attempts to change the default setting. It’s not always a comfortable watch and not just because of the subject matter. The mood is mostly light, the style short-attention-span. There’s fascinating archival footage, but it flies by so fast a viewer risks whiplash. There are games of “Colonial Bingo” and possibly too many Play School parodies, but they demonstrated the show’s modus operandi – be playful, but pack a punch. In one “Old Skool” segment, Jemima’s mother comes to stay and they take over the house: “Manu can stay outside.”

The show used children and 15-year-olds, with their open hearts, to explore the topic of racism. A young audience is clearly being wooed, and fair enough. Some older people are a lost cause. Hobson’s Pledge lobbyist Don Brash presented his views, untouched by the passage of time and the advancement of thought in the Western culture he reveres: “You say, when colonisers came, we took over their culture. Thank heavens for that. I mean, 1840 – Māori had no written language, had not invented the wheel, they were still practising cannibalism and slavery …”

Massey University’s Paul Spoonley talked about the bad history of the belief that some races are superior and some inferior: “We began to question that whole view of the world when we learnt about the Holocaust.” Cue the voice-over: “Before Hitler, one race imposed its ideals on another.”

Massey University psychologist James Hou-fu Liu spoke about the embracing of the haka as a symbol of national identity: “It costs Pākehā New Zealanders nothing.” But the reluctance to confront other parts of our history … “the war crimes that were committed against Parihaka … New Zealand Europeans become a lot more reluctant to acknowledge that. Yes, my ancestors raped and pillaged this peace-loving community that inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King. We still hold title to this land.”

There’s a lovely visit to Murupara, where 18-year-old tour guide Ena shows the 15-year-olds another world beyond the default. “We don’t learn about this stuff at school at all,” said one.

It’s a shame if some viewers don’t tune in to episode two for the results of an implicit bias test developed with Harvard University. In a way, the series has already succeeded. Nerves have been touched, buttons pressed. And some of the comments on Facebook have been heartening. “Racism is racism,” said one post, “and this little doco did a great job of showing how deeply entrenched in every aspect of our society racism is. We can do better, but change starts with acknowledging the reality of life in Aotearoa for non-Pākehā.”

This article was first published in the July 20, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.