Guy Williams: Refuel Jo - the strangest story of my career

OPINION: To research our show New Zealand Today, I'm constantly trawling the internet for weird NZ news.

One story that kept on being pushed in front of me was the legend of 'Refuel Jo', a late-night burger bar in the heart of Hamilton's infamous nightlife district - often referred to as the "STD Triangle".

For people not familiar with the story, the owner of Refuel Jo was accused of being racist and not hiring Indian staff. What would be a fairly standard and sadly all too familiar story about workplace discrimination became a clickbait headline when it was revealed that the owner Girish Kuruvilla was Indian himself. 

Things became more bizarre when Kuruvilla gave the ridiculous quote: "I am a racist… I'm actually very sorry to say I am 500 percent racist."

What was going on in Hamilton? I organised an interview with Kuruvilla as quickly as I could and I was shocked to find him to be laid back, hilarious and charming.

So how did he end up in the news claiming he was 500 percent racist?

Kuruvilla claimed he didn't know where this fiasco started, or even who he was feuding with. Weeks of attempts to reach out to the people criticising his restaurant online and local Indian groups were all dead ends. 

I  frustratingly couldn't find one person to explain what happened but obviously, Kuruvilla has rubbed someone up the wrong way.

This initial incident or incidences lead to the restaurant Refuel Jo being brigaded by 1-star reviews on Google and Facebook, some of which claimed Kuruvilla was racist - but most just blindly attacked his food. It's hard to know if any of them were genuine reviews or were even written by people who had actually been to the restaurant.

Unfortunately, instead of ignoring the allegations, or responding professionally, Kuruvilla poured gasoline on the situation by responding with actual racism - frequently attacking the reviews with horrible slurs towards Indian people.

Kuruvilla couldn't properly explain to me why he needed to defend himself in such a problematic way. He said he wasn't drunk, and he didn't seem like the type to get particularly angry. 

After a long interview, my best guess is that this is his type of humour.

Whatever his reasons, the classic defence, "How can I be racist towards Indians, when I am Indian myself?" doesn’t cut it anymore.

Obviously, I'm a long way from being an expert on racism - but I have slowly got it in my thick head that racist jokes are not OK and racism of all types can be incredibly harmful.

I hope Kuruvilla has learned this lesson too.

But in this story, I hope there is a message for all Kiwis and I hope Kuruvilla can be an example of how you can apologise and slowly learn from your past behaviour.

I think so many of us are terrified of being accused of doing the wrong thing that we often get aggressively defensive, especially when the "R-word" is being used.

From my (privileged and uneducated) perspective, I hope everyone knows that they can and will make mistakes and it's not the end of the world. You’re not going to be cancelled. 

What's important is how we learn and move forward in a more positive and less racist way.

Guy Williams hosts New Zealand Today.

New Zealand Today is broadcast on Thursday nights on Three at 8:30pm and is available on ThreeNow.