Wednesday, September 27, 2023

It’s Fine To Be Frustrated. But If You’re Going To Use The Word ‘Segregation’, Might I Suggest You Open A History Book Instead

Protests and pandemic opinion pieces are lacking historical perspective, argues Emma Clifton.

OPINION: In the wee small hours of this morning, I had my morning ritual of catastrophic panic about the state of the world. It’s fine. We’re all here now, aren’t we? The pandemic is messing with everyone’s sleep and everyone’s stress levels, and sometimes you do need to wake up at 3am and get emotional about your old work desk that you never got to say a proper goodbye to.

I completely appreciate that we are, as a collective, about one broken appliance/rainy day/sick child away from a full nervous breakdown and it’s best we all act accordingly, treating each other with the kid gloves that we all so desperately need.

But when people take to our national newspapers and use words like ‘segregation’ as a description of what we’re now going through, I want to let out a blood-curdling scream of fury (I actually have already done this once during lockdown and was so loud my landlord came down to check I wasn’t being murdered. Only in my soul, Martin! Only in my soul.)

Four years ago, Huffington Post writer Kayla Chadwick wrote about living in the politically divided USA and she called her story, ‘I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People’ and honest to God, it is a headline I think about on a daily basis. It sums up everything that is wrong with our current discourse about Covid-19, about the vaccine, about how we relate to one another. About what it means to take steps in order to take care of each other.

Nobody enjoys wearing masks. Nobody enjoys a needle in the arm. Nobody enjoys staying home for months on end.

Nobody enjoys wearing masks. Nobody enjoys a needle in the arm. Nobody enjoys staying home for months on end. The collective is doing their best and the vaccination numbers reflect that – Aotearoa is great at a group effort and the vaccination push has been incredible to see. But the loudest, angriest voices are getting louder and angrier as we all get more and more frustrated with the change and the loss that we are each being asked to endure.

Very, very early during on last year’s Level Four, someone did a ‘but the economy!’ complaint to Helen Clark on Twitter and she replied, in perfect gruff fashion: ‘Economies recover. Dead people don’t.’ It is amazing how many people still need to remember this, 18 months down the track. And yesterday’s comments that ‘Auckland is the world’s largest concentration camp’ truly might have tipped me over the edge.

What we are being asked to do is each live a more restricted life so that many of us won’t die. The amount of restrictions you’re under is a sliding scale – and like most sliding scales, e.g. the pay gap, it is worse if you were already living in hard conditions. The privileged white people who ‘but the economy!’ their way through opinion pieces and angry headlines and protests and shitty social media posts, and make off-hand references to Apartheid and segregation and Nazi Germany, are doing so because they’re not used to making allowances for other people.

Money can get you a better pandemic experience, sure. But it cannot help you escape the pandemic completely and it feels like the privileged and wealthy are starting the lose the plot; whether it’s frustration at not being able to leave Auckland, or not being able to shop freely, or go overseas.

You know, your classic concentration camp complaints.

But – very dark jokes aside – words like ‘segregation’ have historical meaning. They have weight. They are not to be used flippantly.

Words like ‘segregation’ have historical meaning. They have weight. They are not to be used flippantly.

Yesterday was November 9 and we saw a crowd of protesters hit up parliament, complete with angry signs comparing Jacinda to Hitler. That date is interesting. November 9, 1938, was Kristallnacht – also known as The Night of The Broken Glass, when there was a massive and coordinated national attack on Jews living in Germany, by the German Reich. Jewish-run shops were smashed and looted, synagogues were vandalised, thousands of families were targeted. Many of them would then go on to be murdered in concentration camps. That’s segregation.

Let’s look a little more recently, shall we? Up until the 1960s, it was common for Māori to be openly and formally segregated from Pākehā – there was even a segregated school up until 1964 in Pukekohe – and there were separate toilets and facilities for Māori. That’s segregation.

Next week, it will be exactly 32 years since South Africa allowed people of all races to use the public beaches, as they slowly repealed the many horrendous elements of the Separate Amenities Act. That’s segregation. There are places around the world where, today, people are treated as second class citizens because of their race, or sexuality, or gender. That’s segregation. Not being able to go into a shop or get a haircut is an annoyance. It is not segregation. In a situation where our choices can actually make the difference between life and death, we all need to choose our words carefully.

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