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Source: Human Rights Commission

It takes immense courage to call out racism when it rears its head in public, but Lisa Lawrence has been fighting it all her life and believes it’s a powerful duty we all bear. 

“I recall recently standing in a little hole-in-the-wall coffee shop in provincial New Zealand with many other people lining up to grab our coffee orders… a person walked in who looked Māori or Pacific Island and was wearing work boots and a high-vis jacket. And I remember watching how he was pushed past by other people, also wanting to get their coffee orders, even though he had lined up a lot earlier than them.” 

Lisa Lawrence is clearly not the kind of person to stand by and let implicit or unconscious bias go unchecked. The president of the National Council of Women has learned how to unobtrusively bring it to peoples’ attention. 

“It was so blatantly obvious that they were pushing past him. And I turned and I said to him: ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ and it was only when I acknowledged him that the room acknowledged he was there. People had disregarded him without even being consciously aware of it.” 

Lisa says it often only takes a light prod to make people more self- aware, and New Zealanders are now ready for a conversation about it.  

“It’s a safe enough place that people can unpack their prejudice, they can be called out for their bias, and they can be called in to respond and behave better when they realise that they are being prejudiced.” 

Racism comes in many forms, and Lisa believes implicit bias must be called out because it legitimises overt racism.

“You cannot have overt racism without the permission-giving that unconscious bias brings. And I think it’s safer now to call out overt racism, to call out people who say ‘all lives matter,’ to call out people who say I don’t see colour, because those in themselves, those kinds of statements are a way of negating, and are a way of denying that harm happens and that people of a darker skin are treated badly in this country.” 

A growing appreciation for our Māori heritage and a new political climate triggered by Black Lives Matter have created unique conditions for change, says Lisa. She thinks the movement has had a profound effect on New Zealand, echoing what happened in the 1970s and 1980s with protests like Ihumātao and the land marches.  

“I think what it did is it opened it up that this is not an isolated New Zealand kind of experience of racism. Holding people back, disenfranchising our people, and I think it gave far more of a platform for everybody to mobilise, for everybody to speak out and say I can be a part of changing the narrative.” 

Lisa, from Ngāti Kahungunu, is the first Māori to lead the National Council of Women, and says she’s been propelled to call out racism ever since she can remember.  At the age 11 or 12 she was first inspired to act on her beliefs. 

“It was the summer holidays and I went down to my local primary school, and they had just re-concreted the tennis courts, so it was still wet concrete…no-one one was around, and it was 1990, and I hugely objected to the 1990 sesquicentennial celebrations of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.  

“So I wrote in the wet concrete, in very, very large letters ‘1990, BOYCOTT THE CELEBRATIONS!’, and felt immensely proud of myself, that this was going to be a permanent reminder of what we shouldn’t be celebrating. That was the first time I remember feeling that I needed to enact my principles. And one of my principles is that everybody has a right to reach their potential, irrespective of race, gender, faith, colour or creed.” 

Now Lisa is taking care of an organisation which was first steered by Kate Sheppard – the woman who also lead the suffragette movement in New Zealand. She believes racism and gender issues run in parallel. 

“If I had the opportunity to only fix one to only fix racism or only fix gender equality, it would absolutely be racism, because this country is based on a sense of racial equality based on Te Tiriti o Waitangi and I think that absolutely needs to be rectified. And once that’s rectified, I am confident we can actually tackle gender equality. Māori didn’t need feminism because we were already equal inherently in our kaupapa.” 

Racism not going to be fixed on its own though, according to Lisa. It will take all of us.  

“Calling out racism is everybody’s responsibility. There is not one New Zealander that can say that that conversation isn’t relevant or isn’t important, that’s how we move forward as a country to become a place of equals.” 

She is optimistic though, that inequality can diminish here. 

“I am hopeful because in the 1970s mainstream New Zealand had no sense that land loss for Māori was an issue. In the 1980s they decided they had an issue with the Springbok tour and the apartheid philosophy of South Africa. I see now the changes that have happened in my lifetime about race relations in this country and that we can choose to make a stand. This country, despite its so divided race relations at times, can collectivise. So, I absolutely have faith and hope that pushing for progress works.” 

Lisa Lawrence’s story is the second in a series of personal interviews to be released by the Human Rights Commission in the coming weeks. In these, New Zealanders will talk about their lives and the human rights issues they face. Their voices will be at the forefront.  

Lisa lives in Nelson and is Kaiwhakahaere of the Motueka Family Service Centre. She holds numerous leadership positions across the country, including on the board of NZ Psychology and with Pharmac. She has previously worked for an iwi-based health and social service, the NZ College of Midwives, St John, Family Planning and was a governor of Nelson Bays Primary health. 

Find out more about the National Council of Women of New Zealand.

Lisa Lawrence’s story is the second in a series of personal interviews to be released by the Human Rights Commission in the coming weeks. In these, New Zealanders will talk about their lives and the human rights issues they face. Their voices will be at the forefront. Please share these stories with others and join the conversation here.