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Wednesday 19 August 2015 | Published in Regional


Oscar Vai To’elau Kightley (pictured right), a Samoa-born New Zealand actor, TV presenter and screenwriter, recently took a look at the changing currents of Pasifika racism in New Zealand in this article published in the Sunday News.

How many coconuts does it take to change a light bulb?

Well, despite being one of the world’s true superfruits that comes from one of the most useful trees ever, it lacks the physical features, dexterity and motor skills required to undertake such a complex task.

So the answer is none, however amazing it may be, no fruit could change a light bulb.

But if for a second when you read that question, you thought of Polynesian people, then take that as a sign of just how massively entrenched in our subconscious, racism and racist terms have become.

Coconut is a perfectly lovely sounding word that is derived from the 16th century Portuguese and Spanish word coco meaning “head” or “skull”, from the three indentations on the coconut shell that resemble facial features.

But at one time – mostly in the 1970s, I think – that word was an offensive way to describe people from the Pacific islands.

Eventually, it faded from use.

Possibly about the same time, Kiwis realised how useful players of Polynesian origin could be in the All Blacks.

The term can still occasionally be heard today, being used colloquially, but as the late great Manu Samoa legend Papali’itele Peter Fatialofa once said: “You can call someone a coconut to his face but you had better know him really well first.”

Perhaps that particular memo didn’t quite make it across the Tasman Sea.

That seemed to be the case this week after Queensland rugby league great Billy Moore used the term to describe the Warriors’ Polynesian style of rugby league.

(His exact words were: “I don’t see them losing the ability to still score points, They get points because they play that coconut style, Polynesian sort of football – throwing it around.”)

Moore has since apologised for the remarks, insisting that he meant no offence, and I believe him. I’ve made mistakes in using terms that I didn’t realise were offensive.

During a stint working on TV3’s rugby coverage in the early 2000s, we used a term starting with ‘J’ thinking that it was an okay way to refer to South Africans.

Thankfully a very firmly worded viewer’s fax corrected us. We duly apologised on screen and never used the word again.

Similarly in the first series of Bro’Town we had a character from Australia called Abercrombie whose name we sometimes shortened as a nickname.

(Abercrombie Smith the Third was an Aboriginal Australian character in the show who went by the nickname of “Abo”.)

Taking the show to Australia for the first time, I ran into people who liked the show but who were horrified and had to point that out to me.

Mortified, we barely used the character again and if we did, we didn’t ever call him that version of his name.

So I can understand that there could be ignorance about the offensiveness of a word, in places that lack the historical and political context for why that term is offensive.

Moore’s words couldn’t have come at a worse time, in a week where the discussion of racism in sport in Australia has been huge, following the treatment by crowds of AFL great Adam Goodes who is indigenous.

Mind you, we can’t get on our high horses about racism in sport here in New Zealand.

Not when at a recent club rugby final in Christchurch, a Fijian player was abused so badly, he asked his coach to sub him off.

Not when over here at times when a team is not succeeding, people on talkback start wondering if there’s “too many islanders in the team”.

Is it just that casual racism is so prevalent and so bad that we should just brush it off and put it down to ignorance?

Only up to the point, when it’s been pointed out to you.

If you still do it after that happens, then you are just a racist – and you need to put yourself in a headlock.

That, or just stay home and pretend the world has only people of one colour.