True diversity is more than 'They are Us'

Photo: James To/Asia New Zealand Foundation

New Zealand rallied together after our darkest of days on March 15, with the cry 'They are Us'. But true diversity is more than a phrase, writes Ziena Jalil.

March 15 is a date that is etched in the memory of our nation, a day 51 innocent people were mercilessly gunned down, because they were Muslim. Among them was the Imam who officiated at my wedding and others in my family.

In the aftermath of that darkest of days, our country came together in grief, in solidarity, and in empathy. Regardless of ethnicity, religion, background, age, ability – people immediately came together to denounce hate and embrace love.

A year on – what has really changed? As a Muslim woman, I’d say we still have a way to go.  

DSC2844Photo: James To/Asia New Zealand Foundation

As a country we continue to view people from the lens of them and us.

After Christchurch – the phrase “they are us” became the call of a nation in mourning. But as someone who has been a “they” all her life, I know that “they” is not always “us”.

As soon as we label someone “they” we emphasise their otherness, excluding them and making them outsiders. True diversity isn’t about them and us, it’s about united individuals who are different in some ways and similar in others.

Unless we change our view of the very meaning of diversity – discrimination will continue. I was moved by New Zealand’s response to Christchurch. It was humbling and heartening – but if that’s where we stop, then we have failed the 51 who lost their lives.

Our government moved swiftly to change gun laws, which is commendable. But laws don’t change hearts and minds, education does.

Legislation to prevent discrimination has been in force for years, but with growing diversity, we see discrimination continuing to grow. We are now a country with more than 213 ethnicities, but I still hear too often from people from minority groups who are changing their names just to secure a job interview.

Discrimination often comes from fear – of being displaced, of what or who we don’t know. Education is critical to addressing this – education at home, especially what our family see us doing and saying; education in the formal school system, and through community groups or sports clubs.

Grand gestures have a place at a certain point in time, but now it’s the smaller day-to-day actions which will help to build a truly inclusive society where everyone feels they belong.

We all have a personal responsibility to learn about cultures and religions other than our own. And given we live in Aotearoa – we should make an effort to have a better appreciation and understanding of Te Ao Māori.

DSC02830Photo: James To/Asia New Zealand Foundation

There are simple things we can do. Get to know people who are different from us. At work, ensure that all gatherings, from social morning teas and lunches to more formal meetings, cater for the needs of all team members, not just the dominant group. It doesn’t make much sense to wear a “hijab for humanity” one day of the year, and not be aware that your Muslim colleagues can’t eat the non-halal sausage rolls served at morning tea throughout the year. It’s also useful to be mindful that the expression of being Muslim in clothing and practices can vary greatly from person to person, just as with Christianity and other religions.

Learn about the rituals and festivals of other cultures. I know of a few New Zealand organisations that have asked their non-Kiwi staff in China and India to work overtime through Chinese New Year and Diwali. We wouldn’t expect to work through Christmas for a foreign company in New Zealand unless there was an absolute crisis, and we shouldn’t think this is acceptable for other cultures.

In a recruitment and promotion context – in some cultures, such as Pacific Island cultures and some Asian cultures – success and achievement are collective, and individuals may not be as forthcoming in interviews and performance reviews about their individual contribution. This doesn’t mean they aren’t capable or self-confident, but that recruitment and promotion systems need to be open and flexible enough to accommodate cultural differences.

We need to get better at calling out discrimination. If you see or hear something that’s not right – dig for the courage to call it out. Silence suggests you’re ok with the behaviour.

We are all guilty of perpetuating stereotypes and we need to question ourselves when we are labelling a group of people based on these stereotypes.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed discrimination – in schools, on public transport, in workplaces and shopping malls. In an election year, we are also seeing and no doubt will continue to see, racism-laced politics. It shows we have some way to go before we start seeing everyone as New Zealanders – rather than them and us.

While being inclusive is the right thing to do, there is a strong business incentive as well. As a small trading nation at the edge of the world, we rely on our international connections. Our diverse society is the perfect place to start to learn about engaging with global partners in an interconnected world.

Building a more inclusive society requires strong, sustained, and inclusive leadership. It’s not easy, but we’ll be a more peaceful and prosperous country if we do it right. 

Ziena Jalil is a diversity advocate and member of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network. She has nearly 20 years’ experience in leadership roles in the business and public sector in New Zealand and Asia. The Foundation provides a range of resources to help build understanding of Asian cultures and religions.

- Asia Media Centre