Being John-Paul

In 1984 my mother took me to New Caledonia.  I was 11 and it was the first time I had been overseas.  One of the reasons we went to New Caledonia and not another Pacific island was because New Caledonia was French.  For my mother, who had taken French at school and was good at it, and admired many aspects of French culture, this was an important factor.  I grew up understanding that the adjective French meant better.  So French food, French wine or French fashion meant that those things had a certain je ne sais quoi.  It was only when I went to France for the first time in my thirties that I was disabused of many of these ideas.  The first thing I said in Paris was “fuck off”.  Things went downhill from there.

Problematically my name is and is not French: John but not Jean-Paul.  It has always led people astray. It is the job of a name to label something, but we expect the labels and the things themselves to have cultural links; to play the game of connotation. It’s a game my name doesn’t play.  In the 80s and 90s in New Zealand it was a name most New Zealanders couldn’t cope with and when I introduced myself my interlocutors would flip between John and Paul like a computer trying to read a binary 1 or 0 but not both.  I was John to some, and Paul to others, but rarely was I John-Paul to most when I was a kid.

People like to make sense of my name by comparing it to another John-Paul they have heard of.  When I was growing up this was invariably the Pope.  Because of Pope John-Paul II some people assumed I was Catholic, but I wasn’t, and the name John-Paul only became associated with the papacy in 1978: five years after I was born.  When Pope John-Paul II finally died I booked my hot poker in hell by being glad; finally freed of the unwanted association.  At university well-informed or pretentious people associated my name with Satre.  While I was in Japan many Japanese thought of the fashion designer Gaultier and, more elliptically, the Beatles (apologies to George and Ringo).

My name has also, of course, led people to think I am French, or have French ancestry, or speak French. None of those things are true.  It didn’t stop my French teacher in Year 9 constantly calling on me in class for the sheer pleasure it gave her of saying my name, or a lecturer at university asking me to translate a French passage in a book we were reading in front of the tutorial group.  It was tempting to respond to his request for me to translate with a curt “non”, but I just said “ah, sorry…” instead.  I should have been embarrassed I suppose but I just thought he was a plonker.

Then there is the particular awkwardness of meeting the French.  I assume that to them my name is a curious bastardization and treated the same way that snotty teachers treat any English name spelled unconventionally: “It’s spelled J-H-O-R-D-H-A-N, Mr”.  The only time I insist on my name being said “properly” is with a French person I don’t like: “no, sorry, it’s JOHN-Paul, not Jean-Paul”.  It’s like being asked to chew tin foil for them.  It works well for both of us. They think I’m a cretin, and I enjoy their displeasure.

My name does and doesn’t mean all of those things.  To me it means my mother liked French at school.  It means my father’s father was John and my mother’s father was Paul.  But it also means all those misunderstandings and missteps.  It means saying my name is John to people I think I will never meet again, and explaining that my last name is not Paul, or that it’s John and not Jean, and that JP is ok.  Finally, it means being patient and good-humoured.

If you have an odd name you either learn to be patient and good-humoured or you spend your life grumpy.  There’s no point in being grumpy.  The universe doesn’t know you or require your collection of atoms to have a label at all.  The air doesn’t know you when you breath and the earth doesn’t know you when you die.  Had you been born in another time, in another place….

End of Term


After primary infection [chicken pox] VZV remains dormant in dorsal root ganglia nerve cells in the spine for years before it is reactivated and migrates down sensory nerves to the skin to cause herpes zoster.

Source: Dermnet

I don’t remember having chicken pox although I think I had it very young when my father was still alive.  Funny to think of a bug living down in the base of my spine all those decades to emerge 40 years later as a nasty rash on my shoulder.  Shingles sounds like an old fashioned complaint like gout or water on the knee.  It’s one of those ailments that every fifth person seems to have had when you tell people you have it.

The doctor told me that it can happen when you’re run down.  If you think of run down as being hit by a car then I am definitely feeling run down.  One advantage of acknowledging that you are run down is that you can have a rest.  One disadvantage is that you get to have your rest lying out in the middle of the road; other cars occasionally clip you.

Modern life doesn’t want you to rest.  It really doesn’t.  Term Three had a slow burn to it; a gradual accumulation of stress that flowered late.  Some students haven’t really acted towards others in the best spirit over the last couple of weeks.  It happens because by the end of Term Three the real pressure of the year in terms of assessment is reaching a climax, winter weather is still with us, and combined with the added social pressure of the school ball, good humour tends to fray, and good will can unravel.  I begin to feel like I’m manning the pump on a sinking ship.

Being 16 or 17 now is not like being 16 or 17 in 1989 when I was doing it.  I am regularly thankful that I got to grow up without social media.  Its capacity to cause harm any time to any one is remarkable.  The pressure of assessment is also exponentially higher.  The recent debacle over a Year 11 Maths exam was a great illustration of how most people don’t get it when it comes to school.  Teachers, students, and parents understood how stressful that exam was because of its unusual pitch, but many others took it as an opportunity to tell students to harden up, or say it was actually not so bad.  A couple of idiots from AUT decided to say the test was “hardly challenging” and it was the “teachers’ fault”.  Back when they (and I) took Maths it wasn’t a big deal if you failed Maths.  Back then it wasn’t hard or expensive to get into university.  Back then things weren’t competitive, and people didn’t come out saddled with tens of thousands of dollars of debt in a very tight labour market.  Now, you can’t get into university unless you pass your Maths when you are 15, and everyone has to take Maths and pass it in Year 11.  Maths stressed me in 1989 because I found it hard; I can only imagine how stressful I would find it if I was doing Maths  in 2016.  So yeah, thanks AUT guys, well played.

In other ways it has been an intense term.  I’m two terms into thinking about how race is something I’m still learning about, and how complicated and nuanced it is.  I spent many weeks worrying about a student who is a New Zealander but happens to be black and muslim.  Worrying because she has felt quite isolated this year, and upset.  But then she gave her speech in her Year 12 English class.  God it was powerful.  How you stand in front of your peers at 16 and deliver a six minute speech with no notes about what it is like to be a black, muslim girl in New Zealand I just don’t know.  Like how I don’t know how you have the skills at 17 and 18 years old to run a Pride Week at school and get MPs in to talk.  Or how you set up a group about intersectionality, or do a cool project for the Sustainability Trust, or run a staff quiz because you’re worried about teacher well-being, or deliver a presentation about bringing more Maori content into mainstream subjects.

The list goes on. And on.  But so does my anxiety.

Youthline is so overwhelmed with young people calling its service that 150 a week are missing out on help.

Source: RNZ

On the whole I am impressed by the young people I work worth everyday.  Incredibly impressed.  But I remain unimpressed by the society we are preparing them for.  I remain convinced, without a shade of exaggeration, that our present system is collapsing the environment, and that a collapsing environment will lead to a mass collapse in vulnerable societies, and an intensification of us and them thinking between the countries that can afford to mitigate disaster and those that can’t.  I also remain convinced that this can all be blunted through a radical, people-driven intervention against our current form of capitalism.


Chicken pox was one of those things that the colonists brought to the New Worlds they “discovered” from the late 16th century onward.  It was one of those things that killed millions of indigenous people.  The “triumph” of the West, of capitalism, of democracy, now begin to look like the dormant period between one illness and the next.  The first infection laying down the second that would emerge centuries later; a slow burning rash across the land – anxiety, distress and rage playing out on a shrinking field of good will.

I’m not sure we should be raising our children to be participants in our society so much as activists against it.

On not being racist (and other racist ideas)

“We have not lectured to you about the allegations of human rights abuses in your own countries,” he said

“These include the extreme disadvantage suffered by indigenous people in New Zealand”

Frank Bainimarama (Source: RNZ)

It’s a bit crap when dictators are criticizing you; even worse when they are right.  Still, because he is a dictator it does make it easier to shrug off his points.  We’re good at that here.  Shrugging things off.


I was enjoying The Good Wife on Netflix, until I read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.  Cook County in Chicago, where The Good Wife is set, is actually specifically mentioned in Alexander’s book.  It’s not mentioned in a good way.  Once you’ve read The New Jim Crow you notice a few things about The Good Wife.  Like you notice that when someone gets appointed to the State’s Attorney Office to check on racial bias in plea bargains and sentences the main characters, the ones we’re supposed to identify with, look at it askance or roll their eyes.  Either that or they get prickly because someone might be going to suggest that they are racially biased.

You also notice how drugs are handled in the show.  There aren’t very many.  Which is amazing because 70% of cases in Cook County are about drugs.  Of course the law firm that is the centre of this show is white, and expensive, so it probably would live in a sheltered world, but the State’s Attorney also seems to be quite free of any drug related matters for the vast proportion of its time which is pretty remarkable.  The main (only) drug plot line focuses on the local drug lord who is black, and suave, and has lots of legitimate business interests.

Michelle Alexander repeats one of the key points of her book The New Jim Crow quite a few times because it’s worth repeating: drug use is fairly evenly distributed across all racial groups.  In fact, drug use may be highest among white male professionals.  She repeats her point because people think that drug crime is black crime.  That’s because black people are targeted and imprisoned disproportionately.  Because at all levels of the justice system people are racist, and the media – which is also racist – promulgates racism.

Most white people will have now stopped reading because they are not racist.  But they are.  I’m white and racism impacts me; it impacts my thinking.  I am aware of my biases and I fight hard against them and I think I am winning some ground back, but racism is so embedded in me and my culture that it is something I have to firstly be conscious of, and secondly, consciously address.  Being angry about the situation is helpful.  It’s certainly better than being complacent.  Which is what happens when people say “I’m not racist”.  Or when we do that shrugging thing.

Let’s look at this bold claim about racism, and let’s use me as an example.  Let’s walk me down an imaginary street at night and point out the group of three men walking towards me talking loudly.  How do I react if those men are white?  Well, I get a little tense, but I keep going, and assume everything will be fine.  What about if they’re brown?  Well, honestly, I get tenser.  Why is that?  It’s not because of bad experiences with Maori or Pasifika people.  The opposite is true actually.  For the last ten years I’ve had hundreds of positive experiences with people from those groups.  I get a little tenser because of two things: (1) the media showing me violent people “of colour” constantly, and (2) high numbers of Maori people being in prison (which my brain somewhere deduces must mean that type of person is more likely to be dangerous).

Now we need to do two things.  Deal with the specific and deal with the general trend.  The general trend tells you that there are far more Maori in prison than there should be, and that a lot of those people are there for violent offenses.  It is therefore intelligent, in my specific instance of walking down the street, to be cautious.  Fine.  I can’t argue with you.  Even though it’s unfair to those three imaginary men walking past me.  But if this dynamic plays out in the same way in the heads of the police, and the lawyers, and the jurors, and the judges, and the community at large then we’re going to have a big problem.  Actually, scratch that – we do have a big problem.

As part of our research, we looked back at the number of police apprehensions over the past 10 years. It’s roughly the same number for Pakeha as  Maori – 875,000 versus 868,000.

But if the number of Maori apprehensions were adjusted to match the proportion of the population made up by Maori, the number of Maori apprehensions would reduce to about 300,000.

Think about that for a minute: half a million fewer arrests of Maori. Imagine what it would mean not just for Maori but for our country if that was the reality.

Source: Stuff

Now here’s the rub.  The Stuff article focuses a lot on racism and institutional racism.  And it is right to do so, but it doesn’t spend a lot of time on colonialism.  Racism explains some of the crime statistics, but it doesn’t explain them all.  A certain group of people are over-represented in the justice system because of racism, but also because they are actually offending at a disproportionate rate, and that is because of the impacts on one group of colonisation.

What the article quotes on this is 100% accurate:

She [ Auckland University sociologist Tracey McIntosh] also thinks you can’t have a conversation about institutional racism without having a conversation about colonisation – especially when you consider that high imprisonment of indigenous people is also a feature of Australia, Canada and other “settler states”.

“For many, they think Maori draw on colonisation as an excuse for all of our problems. The fact is you have to look at historical antecedents and recognise alienation of land and resources and the huge intergenerational impacts – we absolutely have to acknowledge it.”

My only quibble with that quote would be the phrase “we… have to acknowledge it”.  That would be a good start, but – to quote Kendrick Lamar – “shit don’t change until you get up and wash your ass”.  We can acknowledge all we like, but nothing will change unless we alter how our society operates.

One thing we could do to try and help with acknowledgement would be to stop using words that hide race when we are talking about issues in our society.  Some popular words that hide race are: inequality, homelessness, child poverty, socio-economic and decile.  Rising inequality means what?  What I suspect it means is that the white population is becoming wealthier than the Maori population.  And yes, I do know that there are many races living in New Zealand.  We can, if you like, broaden it out and say: the White and Asian population is getting richer than the Maori, Pasifika and MELA population.  But let’s not, because colonisation is a specific relationship and has a specific kind of harm attached to it.  I would also suggest that if a system is racist then it will use stereotypes and shorthand to apply homegrown judgments to other groups.

Not much will change unless the majority change it, and the majority remains white.  Altruism has never, I think, motivated a group to destabilise its own system for the benefit of others.  Which, in a nutshell, explains why actual justice and empowerment for Maori is unlikely, and why actual action on something like climate change is almost impossible.

Only an idiot like me would keep at it.