February 15, 2017

Helene Wong: My experience of diversity in NZ

Published in the NZ Herald

Describe your ethnic or cultural background and how this has shaped the way you view yourself and the world.

I’m a New Zealander with Chinese ancestry. As a child and young adult I wrestled with ambivalence about the Chinese part; insults and contempt towards Chinese led me to suppress my Chineseness. Then when I was 30 I visited my father’s village in southern China, where I was confronted with the reality of my heritage. I could no longer live in denial. It set me on a journey to retrieve my Chineseness, understand how it was different from my Westernness, and blend both into a hybrid identity that gave me the best of both worlds, and harmony in my life.

What benefits does society garner from more gender and ethnic diversity?

Society is constantly engaged in problem-solving. It’s a no-brainer that relying on only one point of view – predominantly white, male and monocultural -limits the potential to discover fresh and imaginative solutions. Diverse gender and ethnic views and experience enrich the discussion and the problem-solving. They also increase understanding of the bigger picture, which opens the way to an expanded vision and a more tolerant attitude.

Many New Zealanders like to think they are part of an increasingly tolerant society. Is this fact or fiction?

Both. Since the Chinese arrived, the attitude towards them has cycled from late 19th century intolerance to tolerance in the post-war years, then back to intolerance in the 1990s. It has taken almost thirty years for signs of tolerance to come round again – more mixed couples, more mainstream voices raised in protest at racist incidents or remarks – but there are still pockets of society, urban and rural, rich and poor, where the attitudes expressed are still rooted in old-fashioned racist contempt.

Outside of New Zealand, do you think the world is becoming a more tolerant place? If so, why and if not why not?

In the current geopolitical climate, I don’t think so. The vast movements of people across borders, whether by choice, invitation or for escape, are putting pressure on resources and consequently on goodwill and tolerance. At best this will manifest in blame, at worst, bloodshed. On the other hand, the longer people spend in each other’s company, the easier it is to discover the other as a person, not an ethnicity. And that’s when the tolerance could return. On the basis of New Zealand’s example, I’d say it will take another thirty years.

Have you faced discrimination, as a woman and/or as a member of a migrant community or ethnic minority? Where did this take place and how did or does it affect you?

I’ve been fortunate not to have faced overt discrimination either as a woman or a Chinese. Perhaps that’s because I was a successful graduate of assimilation; or because I had a New Zealand accent; or because I worked in professional contexts where fitness for the job took precedence over the way I looked. But I have been stereotyped as a woman – when I was appointed as the first female social policy adviser to Prime Minister Robert Muldoon in 1978, one media outlet wrote approvingly that like ‘many another housewife’, I was out doing the household shopping on the day the appointment was announced. Or the time when at morning tea at a government conference, a male delegate, deep in conversation with a colleague, thrust his cup and saucer at me as I was pouring myself a cup of tea. Was it because I was wearing black, or because I was Chinese, or both? And in my other life as an actor, most of the roles I’m asked to audition for are stereotyped: the prostitute, the dragon lady, the haranguing peasant. It’s frustrating encountering such limited perceptions. Writers ought to write for character, not ethnicity.

What advice do you have to others who face it?

• Use your judgement as to whether it’s worth calling out the person(s) involved

• Request a meeting to discuss an issue of importance to you

• Prepare well

• In the meeting, listen as well as state your case, and keep calm and focused

Debates around creating more equal workplaces have been dominated by the gender pay gap and gender diversity on boards or in executive teams. In your experience do members of migrant communities or ethnic minorities also face discrimination in the workplace?

Not in my past personal work experience (I have been self-employed since the mid-1980s).

If so, do women from such backgrounds face double discrimination? Do efforts to tackle discrimination adequately reflect this?

My concern here is more with the double whammy of being a woman and coming from a culture that expects women to be submissive and in the background. This makes it even more inhibiting for them to seek promotion or ask for a payrise. An employer aware of this can be active in encouraging them through this.

What are your views of quotas as a way of ensuring more diversity?

Positive discrimination is sometimes a necessary first step to changing attitudes. A quota signals commitment by the organisation to the principle of welcoming diversity, and encourages applicants who might otherwise not try. Any concerns about quality need to be forestalled by creating a support structure for those who might need assistance in getting up to speed.

What are other strategies you think could be effective in creating more diverse workplaces or social institutions?

Don’t just impose the decision to go diverse. Recruit current employees to discuss the principle and come up with suggestions on how it might be implemented in their specific contexts.

How can the media do a better job of reflecting New Zealand’s growing diversity?

• Be aware of the racial stereotypes that exist and seek out stories of individuals who undermine those stereotypes. Reveal their personalities so that we get to see them as people, not just a race. Show the universality of their experience so that we see what we have in common.

• Avoid reinforcing negative stereotypes in headlines, or in writing that insinuates them. For example, in reporting on the impending sale of the Dotcom mansion last year, a journalist ended their story with the paragraph ‘Several neighbours reported seeing numerous “very expensive” cars visiting the property recently, including an Asian family several times in April.’ The intended subtext was clearly designed to create horror at yet another example of the Asian invasion.

• Visual media (film, television, commercials, theatre, games etc) need to not only increase the visibility of diverse faces but also require writers to write roles for character, not ethnic stereotype.

• Be active in training and recruiting workers in the media who come from a range of ethnicities. You want to reflect diversity? Start at home.

Click here to watch Helen Wong’s interview