National | Chloe Swarbrick

‘Never use the word racist’ - advice given to a new race relations commissioner

It was a mic drop, a meme-able moment, when former race relations commissioner Dame Susan Devoy opened up about the advice given to her as she walked into what she described as “a very strange position”.

“I remember when I first started in the role, I was advised never to use the word ‘racist’ because that would engender all sorts of very difficult conversations.”

In 2013, the former world No. 1 ranked squash player and holder of four world open titles was a controversial appointment to the role under the John Key-led National government.

In a 60-minute Waitangi Day Special, Dame Susan Devoy joined Professor Jane Kelsey and Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick for a frank discussion about the role of Pākehā allies and champions. That's when Devoy confided she was also told that her role was responsible for every race in New Zealand, except for Māori - a responsibility which lay with a part-time Indigenous commissioner.

“I’m not making excuses for the good and bad things I did and whether I stuffed it up or did whatever, you know, but going into an environment like that and you think ‘what is your role’ and you get instructed with those things in the very first place, and you think, if the race relations commissioner is confused, what is everyone else going to feel?”

'People are anti-Māori'

Despite her term ending in 2018, Devoy still has hundreds of “soul-destroying” emails stashed on her computer, 75% from Pākehā expressing anti-Maori and anti-Treaty sentiment, from everything as small as “I resent being called a Pākeha” to what she saw as much bigger and more important issues, worthy of a frank discussion.

“What does that say to me? People are very anti-Māori, very anti-Treaty. It hasn’t gone away. It’s still there.”

During the 60-minute Waitangi Mana Wāhine Special, a panel of Māori women including Julia Whaipooti, Annette Sykes, Hilda Halkyard-Harawaira, Ella Henry and Meka Whaitiri discussed the positive benefits of Te Tiriti to Pākehā. Members of the Pākehā panel agreed, with Kelsey describing Te Tiriti as providing “a different tool kit” to deal with challenges like “climate crisis, health, homelessness and job creation”.

Kelsey criticised the reluctance of the Crown to share power. Devoy agreed nothing would change unless decision-makers made some tough decisions on a genuine Crown partnership. She also focused on the importance of bringing along ‘Joe Bloggs’, citing the need for better education in schools including exposure to New Zealand’s history.

“If everybody had the opportunity to go to a Treaty settlement, even if you were the worst redneck racist in the whole of the country, you couldn’t help but feel powerfully emotional about what’s happened there.”

Te Ao with MOANA: 60-min Waitangi Day Mana Wāhine Special