Student Organisers on Black Lives Matter

Student Organisers on Black Lives Matter

“People are here because they want to see change,” said TJ, one of the organizers of the Dunedin Black LivesMatter march on June 14.

It was the beginning of level two. Hundreds of Dunedites flooded the streets, wearing masks and brandishing pickets. The crowd moved down George Street and towards the Octagon, chanting for change, echoing the protests being held around the world in solidarity for an act of police brutality that occurred over 12,000 kilometres away. George Floyd’s murder has highlighted police brutality against black or indigenous people of colour (BIPOC) globally, and has sparked one of the largest social movements in history. In Dunedin, the Black Lives Matter march was organised black and indigenous student activists.

Along with others, Eshi, Sasha, TJ, Edward and Tangihaere organised the Black Lives Matter (BLM) march on 14 June. Critic sat down with them to discuss why Black Lives Matter everywhere, not just in the United States, what it’s like to be BIPOC in New Zealand, and the challenges of organising a march while studying for exams.  

As BIPOC, Eshi, Sasha, TJ, Edward and Tangihaere felt they couldn’t sit by and do nothing while the BLM protests were unfolding in the United States. As students, they were faced with organising protests during exams. TJ and Tangihaere stated that the intersection of their BIPOC and student identities actually informed and shaped each other. Their first protest was organised within twelve hours, and the second one took a week. 

“When I wanted to study, the first thing I would see on Google [was BLM content],” TJ said. “I didn’t feel like I was taking time away from my study,” he said, because his exams related back to current events. 

“Students study to stop things like this happening. They want to change society,” Tangihaere said. “So we’ve just pressed fast forward on our degree, basically. You can either go out and do practical work like organising, or study and get the certificate.... We just all decided to do both.”

The organisers were surprised by the turn out at the Dunedin BLM protest. “The crowd just kept getting bigger and bigger… the atmosphere changed,” said TJ. “We realised that people are here because they want to see change.” Tangihaere noted that they were trying to strategise a march with 30 people, but “then I turned around and there was 100 people”. The march attracted over 200 people, with the final gathering at the Octagon clocking 250 people in attendance. The amount of support was “crazy,” said TJ. “What surprised me was that there were a lot of older white people there. I expected it to just be university students, just that type of crowd. But it was good to see Dunedin locals here.”

Following the march, a list of their demands was published and circulated on social media. It included sections for the media coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement in New Zealand and demands of the University of Otago to decolonise the curriculum. 

Regarding the former, Tangihaere noted that the Black Lives Matter protests in New Zealand were peaceful, which they suspect contributes to their lack of media coverage. “There was no rage, there were no fights, no violence,” they said. TJ added that “[the media] only want to include [reports] on Black Lives Matter when things go south. They want to associate chaos with BLM. When there’s no chaos, they won’t associate a protest with BLM.”  Additionally, “[Black Lives Matter] has been skewed to imply that black people want to be on top. It’s not like that, it’s the same thing that happened with feminism… it’s about focusing on a marginalised group to liberate them.” 

As for experiences at the University of Otago, TJ realised in his health science lectures that “my lecturer would use countries when describing white people, like Swedish, etc… when he would talk about black people he would just say ‘African’.” Edward added that even when he was taught about indigenous people in Uganda during an anthropology lecture, the lecturer left out the fact that they were exploited. “[Their history] was treated like it was entirely natural instead of a product of colonisation.” 

The students felt the need to include the University in their list of demands. TJ recalls “walking down the stairs with my friends after learning about [Māori enslavement] and I saw they were building this memorial for the holocaust, and I was like, that’s so cool, but why is there never anything about things that have actually affected New Zealand? That’s when I thought: we need to do something.” 

A lot of New Zealanders believe that police brutality against BIPOC is an issue for America that doesn’t exist in New Zealand. That’s despite statistics which show that BIPOC are more heavily policed than any other ethnic group in our society. At a quick glance, police reports show that 43.5% of offences are attributed to Māori and 35.5% attributed to Pākehā. But Māori make up just 16.5% of the NZ population compared to Pākehā, who make up 70.2% of the population. 

“America is a monolith,” said Tangihaere. But they noted that even if race issues in New Zealand are influenced by America, “we need to address our own issues too”. Tangihaere thinks the idealism surrounding race relations in New Zealand influences American immigration. But the people they know that have migrated from America become disillusioned when they are policed in a similar manner. The myth that “we don’t do that,” or “we don’t treat our black people like that,” is ultimately harmful, said Tangihaere. 

TJ agreed, stating that his parents had brought him to New Zealand on purpose, after considering America and Canada. He spoke about the real fear in black communities of being policed. “I can’t drive my nice car down the street without being stopped,” he said. Although he agreed that he doesn’t “fear for my life [in New Zealand],” he is “afraid of going to jail for no reason, which is still messed up”. 

Another issue that we face in New Zealand is that people tend to assume that we don’t have BIPOC communities. Tangihaere noted that many people were surprised Dunedin had a Black Lives Matter march, again, because the general public doesn’t believe we have these issues. “We tend to view [BIPOC] people as just not there,” they said, but “just because there are less [of us] doesn’t mean we don’t exist”. Regarding the student community, Tangihaere said that the expectation exists that all students live in North Dunedin, however, BIPOC are often regulated to other areas such as South Dunedin. “Not many people go to South Dunedin unless they’re going to the beach, and we generally see that [people] are surprised to see BIPOC there.” 

“I realised a lot of times, I was the token black friend. They wouldn’t support me when things happened… How can I be friends with someone who doesn’t like me?” TJ said. Cumulatively, the idea that we don’t have issues of systemic racism or a large BIPOC community adds up to the subtle forms of casual racism that we see in New Zealand. 

Edward said he “used to make racist jokes” to try and reclaim some of the power those jokes held. Tangihaere agreed and said that “it’s almost like if I say it enough, it’ll hurt less when [other people] say [racist things]”. As an indigenous person of lighter skin, Tangihaere also noted that the “blacker you were, the more your tone is policed”. 

“We were taught to be adults at a young age. If we couldn’t speak to adults in a respectful way, then that’s it, we couldn’t go out in public. My darker skinned brother was told to speak properly, to dress a certain way and to stand up straight in a way that I wasn’t told… I would get told I was pretty apart from the features that show I’m Māori.” 

“I have to go home and think about it [after incidences of racial harassment] to realise that I’m being racially profiled,” said Sasha. She is from South Africa and finds that the racism in New Zealand is different from other societies. She said that she almost appreciated the in-your-face racism of South Africa because “you can say something at the time”. 

The subtlety of New Zealand’s racism is dangerous. Tangihaere pointed out that “the [Christchurch] shooter lived in Dunedin for three years, and I know that he would have said things that people let slide, which would have enabled him to become a shooter.” New Zealand’s casual attitude about race also enables us to assume we are the exception. Edward noted that we tolerate widespread use of the “n-word” which doesn’t occur in other places like America. He said that it was a “selection of black culture which seems cool or edgy” without understanding of the cultural or historical implications. 

“The [n-]word, when it was in use, was created to make black people subhuman,” said TJ. “We were treated like cattle, we were made to breed. The word took away your name, and your worth. You are someone else’s property.” 

“When they took your name,” Eshi added, “they gave you your slave master’s name, and added [the “n-word”] so you wouldn’t be confused with your owner.” 

“When we were liberated as black people,” said TJ, “we wanted to take that word back. It divided the black community also. One half thinks that we shouldn’t use it, and the other half wants to reclaim it and [destroy its power].”

“For us, the word means ‘brother,’ it means ‘strong,’ it means ‘king,’ and ‘queen’. But, someone who’s not of our colour saying it, no matter what, there’s that duality within that word. It has a double meaning,” TJ said. “Even if you’re saying it as a friend, it’s the fact of where your culture came from and what your ancestors did, and the fact that racism can be passed down through generations [that changes its meaning] … We say it because we are trying to get that power back. When you say it while listening to our music, you’re now doing what’s called cultural appropriation. It’s the final form of the “n-word” [in today’s society].”

All the organisers agreed that this type of casual racism forces the BIPOC community to be educators on such topics. “I like educating people, but I understand not everyone is like that,” said TJ. Edward added that “a lot of black issues are things I’ve had to go out and learn myself,” so it’s frustrating to be used as a free resource for others. 

The whole room agreed that the role of educator is often “emotionally draining”. Tangihaere said “it becomes unproductive after a while. It’s easy to just get angry, because it’s like, how did you not notice that everyone was racist?” Sasha added that often people want reassurance rather than education. “Sometimes I feel like it’s a checklist… talk to Sasha about this. Check. They want you to tell them that they’re the exception.” 

“We need to stop telling people to ask their black friend. There’s so many books out there,” said TJ. 

TJ, Eshi, Sasha, Edward and Tangihaere all stressed the importance of self-education. They noted that it’s “hard to make changes if you don’t learn from your actions,” which means that you can only teach people as much as they’re willing to learn. Eshi said that “when you assume you’re already a part of the culture or community, then that’s when things go south. People should be more willing to learn from each other.”

In the same vein, Sasha said that one of the best things you can do “individually, is to hold open spaces for your friends. Be that person. At parties, there’s a culture of being silent, where people don’t call others out on their racist behaviours. Just call them out.” 

Tangihaere believes that people should “be ready to be wrong. Accept that you might be wrong if you say something and someone calls you out. Question these opinions and biases that you hold, because they might all be racist. You could have learned them from the media, or the education system, which is, unfortunately, racist. We were all taught to be like this. BIPOC have to change for you. Why can’t you change a little bit for us?” 

“We’re not asking you to do the most.”

This article first appeared in Issue 9, 2020.
Posted 1:24am Friday 3rd July 2020 by Naomii Seah.