The family of a Rotorua teen who says she was told she looked “undesirable” by a Farmers staff member in Tauranga has been inundated with support.
Aiomai Nuku-Tarawhiti, 15, and her Tauranga cousin, Shae Brown, 25, say they were the victims of “racial profiling” by a Farmers staff member who told them they looked like they were going to steal something and asked them to leave.
They had been walking the aisles of the Tauriko store’s perfume section trying to find a specific bottle Aiomai wanted to buy her mother for Christmas when they were approached and told security had alerted staff to their actions.
The staff member said if they wanted to stay, they would need to be followed while they shopped. The cousins said the staff member then turned to Aiomai and said she looked “undesirable”.
The cousins spoke out about the incident to the Rotorua Daily Post on Tuesday in the hope it stopped similar incidences. In a tearful video, Aiomai detailed the hurt it had caused.
Farmers said in an email: “We are currently undertaking an investigation into this matter. This is still under way. Once we have completed this investigation we will deal directly with the family. We have undertaken to contact the family tomorrow (Thursday) to discuss the next steps.”
Aiomai’s mother, Anewa Nuku-Tarawhiti, told the Rotorua Daily Post someone had, since the story was published, offered to give the girls a photoshoot “to make them feel beautiful”.
Another person had offered to buy the perfume Aiomai was looking for.
“The feedback has been amazing. So many messages of support from strangers and friends and family and many of them telling their experiences of racial profiling.
“A lot of people said it was the video [of Aiomai] that really moved them. It was so raw and fresh and they praised her for going on camera and telling her story.”
Nuku-Tarawhiti said her daughter was not on social media but was aware of the support.
“The spirit is still lost within her and she just wants to stay home with us but she said she feels happy she’s told her story and hopes it helped.”
Aiomai’s grandfather, Hone Tarawhiti, who has had made an official complaint with Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon, said he was a kaumātua for the Patea Māori Club and many of its members had been in touch to offer support.
There was also support from those involved in the sovereignty movement who were intending to make T-shirts with “undesirable” written on them, he said.
Meanwhile, support for Brown had been similar with people sharing similar experiences.
She said she was “humbled to say the least”.
Foon was not able to specifically comment about Aiomai’s case but said everyone had the right to be treated fairly, with respect and without racial discrimination.
Speaking generally, he said: “Racial profiling is unacceptable. We are all human and we all deserve to be treated with dignity. Verbal and physical abuse can hurt people but other subtle mistreatment or discrimination can also cause emotional and mental trauma.”
Foon said, generally speaking, with the pandemic and with the stressful holiday season approaching, there seemed to be an apparent increase in anxiety and fear, which had the potential to manifest into racist behaviour.
During the past six years the Human Rights Commission has averaged more than 1300 complaints of alleged discrimination annually. Last year 504 of those complaints were race-related.
Children’s Commissioner Frances Eivers said speaking generally all children should be free to go about their lives without worrying and experiencing harassment, discrimination or racism.
In her view: “The experience that Hone Tarawhiti describes his mokopuna going through sounds incredibly hurtful and is unacceptable.
“Such an experience tramples on the mana of those involved,” she said, expressing her opinion.
”I wish his mokopuna and whānau strength as the Human Rights Commission looks into their case.”
Rotorua District councillor and Māori health advocate Merepeka Raukawa-Tait said she believed ignorance and racism were prevalent throughout New Zealand.
She said in her opinion: “This beautiful young 15-year-old girl was targeted because she is Māori.”
She believed Aiomai had done everyone a favour, as hard it was for her to bring the issue to the public’s attention.
“She walks in the shoes of her ancestors. Head high Aiomai. When they go low you go high.”
Council iwi partnership group Te Tatau o Te Arawa chairman Te Taru White said the situation made him feel angry and sad.
He said whānau needed to stand up just like Aiomai’s had done.
“Don’t go away quiet – make a noise, take it to the top, don’t accept it. If it was my daughter I would accept no less and for Māori, we should never accept less. Change only comes if we challenge such circumstances immediately.”
International speaker Ngahihi Bidois, from Rotorua, said he had been the victim of racial profiling on several occasions.
He said overseas clients who had booked him to speak at their conferences often put him up in fancy hotels and there had been several instances of hotel staff altering his booking to put him into less expensive rooms when they saw him.
He said it was so blatant, he would now often send his wife, who is Pākeha, inside to check-in.
“Sadly it has become part of life but I’m trying to make a difference.”
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