It's been a week and two days since an Islamophobic terrorist attack by a white supremacist in Christchurch, New Zealand left fifty people dead. Since I woke up to the news that Friday morning, my eyes leaking tears before they had even opened properly from sleep, it has been an absolute roller coaster of human emotions. I have started writing this post more times than I can count, but my ever-changing feelings and reflections on what has taken place have stopped me every time.
Along with the rest of my fellow New Zealanders I have felt heartbreak, deep shame, guilt, hope, determination, pride and even joy. Out of an unspeakably dark tragedy, I have watched from afar as the country came together to show the most overwhelming outpouring of love, sympathy and solidarity with the Muslim community of New Zealand, led by our incredible Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. It's been a strange time to be away from home, with the knowledge that something in the New Zealand psyche has shifted, or maybe even been permanently broken. When I go back, I think will find my homeland a different place than I left it just a month ago.
My love for New Zealand goes deep. The way in which we Kiwis have had to swallow the fact that our beloved country is fundamentally flawed in light of what happened in Christchurch is comparable to the realisation we all have at some point that our parents are not the all-knowing Gods we believe them to be as children... they are just people, flaws and all. I still love New Zealand fiercely, but now I have taken it off its pedestal and love it in a different way. I want to help it become its best self, and I am part of the very process that will make that possible.
The hardest thing when something this catastrophic takes place is figuring out what we can do, finding something which makes us feel as though we are helping. We all feel utterly defeated in the wake of such a horrendous happening, and want to somehow counterbalance all that horror. So we donate to victims families, we attend public vigils, we show solidarity with the affected community, we write lengthy and emotional posts on Facebook, and plaster specially-created frames over our profile photos.
But something more has happened this time. The deeply racist attack from this Islamophobic self-proclaimed white supremacist has made New Zealanders face a hard truth about our country, one we have too-long ignored. New Zealand is a colonised country whose modern society is built upon pillars of white supremacy, a world built by white men for white men. We have made strides in the right direction, but we aren't perfect. Last Friday was a reminder of that.
None of us ever thought something like this could happen in our beloved country, our paradise, our idyllic and sheltered corner of the world. Whenever I have seen the troubled race relations in other countries - even when I look at our nearest neighbour, Australia, and observe the treatment by mainstream Australian culture of their indigenous community - I feel proud that New Zealand does so much better. But this attack has made me face a hard truth about my country... we still have a mountain to climb.
After those initial days of deepest, darkest despair though, I am feeling hope. People are having discussions that have never taken place before. Ethnic minorities in New Zealand are using this moment to speak up about their own experiences of being marginalised and mistreated. White New Zealanders are talking amongst themselves honestly about their own privilege, and consciously considering how they can change it.
It is a discussion which isn't easy. But this is where the critical part lies - we have to be able to separate our own individual world and the wider world that makes up the bigger picture. It can be really hard to do this... when the latter is criticised as it is being right now, it is too easy to feel defensive on behalf of the former. I am not racist, and it isn't my fault that I was born white into a colonised country. I played no part in the huge, messy, global situation which has landed us here, but landed here we have, and we - as the beneficiaries of this - need to accept the responsibility that comes with that. The very fact that New Zealand is a colonised country means there are prejudices ingrained into our culture and way of life. Of course there is no going back, we can't undo the damage that has been done, or ever change the history that has got us to this point, but we can change the history we are yet to make for the country.
It is a long and complicated discussion, and there is so much work to do. We need to create safe places for minority communities. We need to hear their voices and see their faces in our media. We need to include them in the decision-making which affects the entire nation. But most importantly, at this stage at least, we just need to listen as they take this moment to share their experiences with us and suggest how we can change and how we can help. In not accepting the hurt which is caused to minority groups it is essentially like having a friend come to me and say they've felt bullied by me and me replying, "no you haven't. Let's talk about something else."
I am here to listen, I am here to learn, I am here to act. May all the victims rest in peace and all their families be supported, protected and uplifted. Their deaths will never be justified, but they have paved a pathway to take New Zealand up that mountain that needs climbing, and we will get to the top.
*Credited must be given where due to Rachel Cargle (www.rachelcargle.com) whose teachings on white privilege continue to inform my thinking.