A friend of mine, Kahu Kutia, wrote an amazing piece about Māori in today’s society which actually inspired this post. As a conversation that’s sorely needed for both Māori and non-Māori, I hope it helps and challenges you.
Recently, I saw an article on Facebook about a teacher who asked her class of primary school kids one thing they wish she knew about them. Using this format, I wanted to describe 10 things I wish my friends knew about being Māori that aren’t often talked about.
1. I wish my friends knew that when they ask me what ‘percentage’ of Māori I am — half, quarter, or eighth, they make me feel like a human pie chart.
I don’t know how people can ask this so nonchalantly, but they do. So I want to let you know; this is a very threatening question to many Māori. With the subtext of ‘your Māoritanga is quantifiable. It is measurable out of 100% or in fractions’, it feels very dehumanising being asked this and it hurts. A lot. So many Māori already feel estranged from their roots and culture, unable to bridge this gnawing chasm of distance internally. So when you ask me, how much Māori are you? Essentially you’re adding an ocean of salt to the wound.
If you’re struggling to get where I’m coming from, maybe this will help. Imagine Te Reo is a person — Kia ora, I’m Te Reo and I grew up in Aotearoa. Along with her, is her best friend, Ahurea (culture). Now, I didn’t grow up with Te Reo. She was a distant cousin that dropped by to say kia ora every Christmas, but that was about all I saw of her in my childhood and early adolescence. Ahurea I saw a bit more of. She was the neighbour that lived down the road from me. Sometimes we’d play outside before dinner time, but then my family moved away and I lost touch with her, and after we moved I didn’t see Te Reo at Christmas either. Now, I’m in my 20s and I’ve moved back to my childhood town in the hopes of reconnecting with Ahurea and getting to know Te Reo. Our reconnection is pretty strained at the moment though, that whole it’s not you, it’s me thing. I struggle to bring myself to knock on Ahurea’s door because when I look into her eyes all I feel is guilt for not keeping in touch. I’m happy to see her, don’t get me wrong, but there’s this constant feeling that she resents me and that I didn’t go a good enough job staying connected. With Te Reo it’s even worse because she’s a part of me I never really knew. And while I’ve moved back specifically to reconnect with them, that doesn’t erase the deep sense of guilt or disappointment I feel inside. Even though they’re a part of my story, there is no way to get back the years we didn’t spend together…
Someone asks me, ‘how much Māori are you?’
Friend, the bedrock of my Māoritanga, of what it means to be Māori, is defined by the two most paramount people, Te Reo and Ahurea, who I did not grow up alongside. I simply don’t know. Biologically, the Māori blood running in my veins does not change, but the distance I feel between who I am and who I feel as though I should be, to meet the internal standard of being ‘Māori enough’ to embody my culture, fluctuates daily.
2. I wish my friends knew that I’ve been classed as white, Pākehā, or asked ‘Are you Māori?’ so many times it makes me want to scream.
The best way to put this is that it feels like my culture, not you, is asking that question. It’s as if the eyes staring at me are those of Ahurea, asking point blank, ‘Are you Māori?’ or bluntly stating, ‘You don’t look Māori’/’You’re white.’ It makes me think, am I not Māori enough to be recognised by my own people or Pākehā friends? Has Ahurea rejected me? Is it because of my Pākehā upbringing? Every time someone asks this question or states the obvious, these questions and emotions are rehashed. It’s totally not on anyone to figure this out because people aren’t mind readers, but if you have friends who are Māori and don’t look it, just be aware that this could be something they too feel but are unable to express.
3. I wish my friends knew that my Kapa Haka group was sometimes laughed at during our performances at assemblies and end of year high school ceremonies.
It’s why I’ve never gone back to it, I left Kapa Haka the day high school ended. The worst part was, I loved it deeply. It made me feel free, confident, passionate and proud of who I am all at the same time. But there’s something about people lowering your culture in their minds, to the degree where they see it as an object they can ridicule without remorse, that really deflates a person. Their laugher embezzled the love I had for my culture and filled me with shame for trying to express it. I can’t bring myself to go back to Kapa Haka yet, but I will. This piece is one of my attempts to bridge the breadth of space between Te Reo, Ahurea and I.
4. I wish my friends knew that there is a struggle all Māori share silently — the struggle to express our culture in a way that doesn’t bring back the hellfire of colonisation all over again.
Please pause on this one. Ngai Māori, like a lot of indigenous cultures, have had our land, language and culture all stripped ruthlessly close to the bone. You may say, ‘Yeah yeah, stop playing the victim card, I know all this’, but the truth is, you don’t. If you’re not Māori, you may know the words, but you haven’t walked every step of your existence with this reality hanging over your identity. More likely to be words forming a sentence of a past-time with no personal connection to you, this is for Māori, our life, our pain, and the culmination of all our suffering summed up within a sentence.
Yet we choose to rise up and rebuild our culture and identity, one step at a time. Not all of us do, and it goes back to that sense of irreparable distance between us and our culture many Māori feel, which, plain and simply, colonisation created. Has to be said. Moving forward, it takes time for an injured sense of cultural identity to heal. Leaders of Ngāi Māori stood up back then, creating a safe harbour for our people to start this healing process one person at a time. As modern Māori, we take up this responsibility too, building on our ancestors’ paradigm and empowering others to begin healing. However this isn’t the easiest thing to do when people keep saying “your language and culture are useless,” “Your language is dead,” or the best one, “your language is on the verge of extinction” all of which people have told me, to my face, unashamedly. And I am certainly not the only one. Ask any one of your Māori friends, I guarantee you they’ve have a similar experience. It’s a never-ending battle to be Māori and not stifle it, but it’s so worth it.
For those who don’t or are yet to reach out to Te Reo or Ahurea, e hoa that’s okay, kai a koe te tikanga. How you do that is up to you. We’re all on this journey together as one body with many parts, each with our own confidences and insecurities. This is my first attempt at creating peace between two vastly different parts of who I am, so I feel you!
5. I wish my friends knew that Māori don’t get special treatment.
This is a touchy one because for a lot of people, that is legitimately what it seems like, and I get where you’re coming from. If you say this to me, I won’t cringe or argue with you. I understand the line of thinking that led you to that assessment. So let me translate what may appear as special treatment into analogies that illustrate a perspective more accurate to what most Māori generally hold on this.
Think about the credit card you still have handy but are trying to pay off and ditch because #realtalk it’s doing you no good. When you buy something, that money isn’t just gone, it’s money you have to get back twice. Once to break even after spending it, twice to get you back to the same balance you had before you spent it, and that’s not even counting interest! However you chose to spend it, so that’s the natural consequence of your decision.
Think of the friend/boyfriend/girlfriend/parent/authority figure/sibling that didn’t just break your trust, but completely obliterated it by doing something so awful you try every day not think about it. Something hardly anyone, if anyone knows. Their actions caused you a world of pain. Years later, when they’re saying ‘C’mon that was sooo long ago’, ‘get over it’, or ‘why are you making such a big deal out of this? Move on with your life’, you’re still a million miles away from forgiveness. They hurt you. They don’t get off so easy.
What transpired between our two cultures, between Māori and Pākehā, in many ways is like this — a relationship that went terribly, terribly wrong on a grand scale, with many multitudes making up either side of the relationship. It’s a given that working through this won’t be as simple as finding a 2 + 2 = 4 solution. Relationships are messy, often without clarity, and it takes time to process and forgive. However, instead of having two people working through the pain, we have thousands from both cultures having to deal with the original hurt on top of the repercussions it generated. Can you understand where I’m coming from?
Actions have consequences. The special treatment you perceive Māori to be getting is a consequence of the original pain, and an absolutely vital step to helping Māori heal and move forward. This does give rise to the question, when is enough, enough? But think, when was enough, enough to forgive the person that placed an unbearable measure of pain on your shoulders? Did it happen overnight or over a series of years? Because that’s the answer. Years. Slowly but surely, we’re getting there though, so take heart! We’ve come a long way since colonisation.
6. I wish my friends knew that just because I’m Christian, doesn’t mean I’m okay with subtle racist comments, regardless of whether they’re aimed at me or not. Your words hurt as much as everyone else’s.
The Bible itself says “The plain moral fact is that words kill.” Matthew 5:22 MSG. So please don’t assume that our mutual love for Jesus can compensate for any form of racism. It doesn’t. Our sole job as Christians is to love God and love others, not:
- Judge for God. He’s perfectly capable of doing that himself, and FYI by race is certainly not how he does it.
- Stonewall others because we think we’re doing God a favour. Uh, he created that person the same way he did you or me.
- Inflict any form of pain on others so that they’ll prescribe to our beliefs. They have and are entitled to their own just like any human.
Our job is to love. So let’s understand that our words and actions are powerful and have the ability to cause great harm or do great good.
7. I wish my friends knew that when they try on that accent associated with Māori from a lower socio-economic background, South Auckland or both, they become responsible for why the stereotype still exists.
I don’t feel like this one needs too much explaining. Like 6, be responsible for what you say and consider the impact it’ll have on others if you do choose to speak. Some people may think something along the lines ‘If they say it themselves, then it’s okay for me to say as well.’ So I want to stamp that one out from the get go. No, no it is not. Do you think Māori called each other ‘nigga’ or any other offensive word before colonisation? Why would anyone feel the need to address themselves or their friends using a painfully racial term associated with slavery, mass genocide and countless other atrocities?
Well, because if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. If they can’t stop you from calling them derogatory names or mocking their accent, they may as well recycle it as a form of in-group expression. At least that way it’s used to create solidarity rather than distance and segregation. That’s my take on it anyway.
So again, be responsible for what you say and be a part of the answer, not the problem. If you’re Pākehā, don’t use derogatory terms when referring to your Māori friends, and Māori peps, try not using them too. You’re the one that teaches people how they can and can’t treat you, so if you’re not okay with it, set the boundary and stick with it (easier said than done I know, but you’ll thank yourself for it).
8. I wish my friends knew that saying Māori words properly really makes a difference to me. It makes me feel like my culture and language is valued.
I’m a big fan of anyone who says Māori words correctly, especially if you’re Pākehā — go you! You’re a total legend! Keep doing it because believe me, people notice, and it’s so nice to hear the commonly mispronounced ones said properly. Also totally not bagging anyone that doesn’t, and it’s never too late to learn! Just ask any Māori friend how to say it, they’ll most likely be stoked you’re making the effort 🙂
9. I wish my friends knew that I learn about other languages and cultures to compensate for not completely knowing what it means to be Māori.
While I love my language and culture, it’s nice to delve into a culture that knows who they are and who they aren’t, who have reclaimed that which colonisation stole and be themselves proudly. Just being honest. A lot of Māori are still in the process of figuring this out, myself included and even writing this article has helped me massively. As you read this, I hope it empowers you to look at some of the big identity questions we all face as Māori.
10. I wish my friends knew that as the majority, they have more power to shift the negative stereotypes and racism against Māori than I do.
I watched a video recently that really illustrates this point well. A lady has a sister-in-law who’s white and she is black. They go to a supermarket and the clerk talks happily to her sister as she buys her groceries. She herself, as a black woman, is given major cold shoulder treatment in comparison and made to jump through a lot of hoops to get her groceries. Her 10 year old daughter notices instantly and begins crying, obviously upset. Then her sister steps in and calls the clerk on her racially-based differentiation of treatment. Being white, her sister uses her influence to raise the standard and creates a wider impact than perhaps she would have, being the black woman standing up for herself.
It’s the same here. As the majority, you have the most power to change the status quo and to help improve attitudes and the standard of treatment towards Māori, which in some places believe it or not, is still really, really bad.
While I may have the ability to say I’m Pākehā without anyone batting an eye, I’m not going to. My childhood and adolescence are marked with countless words conveying the same message — your culture and language are dying — which is why I will never say I am Pākehā first. I am Pākehā, but I am Māori first because it is through this lens I have experienced the world.
Kia ora for taking the time to read this! I hope it blessed you and caused you to think about how you perceive or experience being Māori.
Ngā mihi e hoa mā,