As I already mentioned, last weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the 2008 National Youth Forum on Diversity. I really enjoyed the whole experience, the people, the places and, yes, even the forum sessions themselves. I had no idea what to expect from the weekend, and it turned out to be different from all my vague imaginings. The theme for this year’s forum was “Finding Common Ground”, and our discussion mostly centred on our own honest thoughts about diversity in Aotearoa New Zealand. As the weekend progressed a particular issue grew stronger in my mind: the idea of identity.
I am a kiwi girl. I was born in New Zealand and love living here. When I found out that we would be staying on a marae I was really excited and hoped we’d be staying in the wharenui (meeting house) because staying on marae was one of my favourite memories as a kid. At my primary school we studied Māori art, legends, games and Te Reo (Māori language) at a basic level. As an 11 year old my secret wish was to grow into a good person so I could earn a chin moko (tattoo). No joke. I was really proud to be a New Zealander and call myself a Pākehā and be a part of such a rich culture. It’s weird that when you’re a kid everything seems that easy.
Recently, though, I have been thinking more and more about the idea of one’s own identity. Sometimes we joke about the fact that it’s always older people who are the most interested in their genealogy, but I think I too am slowly starting to take an interest in the idea of heritage. At the forum we listened to a speech given by Human Rights Commissioner Karen Johansen about her life growing up in New Zealand as a person of Māori and Pākehā descent. She introduced each of her grandparents, European and Māori, and spoke about the way that her mother brought her up as a good English girl, disregarding her Māori heritage. She said that as a young woman she always felt that something was missing from her life, until she reconnected with her Māori culture, and that now she feels strong and confident in her culture and ancestry.
This makes me think about whether there is something missing from my life in terms of heritage – I have no cultural identity to speak of. Māori are the Tāngata Whenua, the people of the land. 中国人 zhōng guó rén, Chinese people, come from 中国 zhōng guó, China. As a white New Zealander there is nowhere that I belong, and I have no “people”. These names, Tāngata Whenua, 中国人, these are the names those people call themselves. But I don’t really know what to call myself. Apparently “New Zealander” just won’t work. I was listening to the terms used during the forums in Auckland, and was very curious to see what I am, and where I fit in. I heard different descriptions of my “race”(?) from different speakers, as “Pākehā, European-type kiwis” and “white Anglo-Saxon”. And I think here we come down to it. It’s not where I come from, it’s what colour I am. “Pākehā” has come to refer to white people, no matter where they’re originally from. Not that we have any idea. I know that generations ago my own family came from England and Scotland, but my white friends? No clue. I just thought we’re New Zealanders. But we’re not. We’re white New Zealanders.
Mr. Tom Calma was another speaker at the same session as Mrs. Johansen who said something that caught my attention. Mr. Calma is an Australian Aboriginal elder and is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner as well as the Race Discrimination Commissioner. He was speaking about various issues relating to the Aboriginal people and I just caught the end of one sentence that made me think. In relation to the issue he was talking about he said something like “and it’s time for the Pākehā to listen to us”. That really struck me. He did not say “it’s time for Australians to listen to us.” He said “Pākehā”. I immediately thought “what about the Asian-Australians? The African-Australians? Don’t you want them to listen to you as well? Why is it assumed that only white people are ignoring your people?” Mr. Calma doesn’t speak Māori (to my knowledge), and maybe he didn’t mean to just refer to white people, but in the end – isn’t it all our fault? How far back I can trace my ancestory is irrelevant, because in terms of my standing in New Zealand society*, it doesn’t really matter beyond the point when my great great great grandparents came here after their rulers stole the land from the Tāngata Whenua.
A few years ago I attended a workshop on the Treaty of Waitangi by Robert Consedine, the author of the book Healing our History. I remember that he said right at the beginning that one of the most important points was not to feel guilty as a white person in New Zealand. But this is really hard. In the 2005 edition of his book there is even a new chapter: White Priviledge: The Hidden Benefits. I do feel guilty for the priviledges I receive.
I’m not a white supremacist, and I’m not rascist. I recognise that the Māori people were mis-treated by white colonial settlers and effectively had their lands stolen. I know that studies show Māori continue to receive lower standards of healthcare and that comparatively fewer Māori gain higher education. The question is: am I personally responsible? And if so, when did I become responsible?
Urgh, I didn’t mean to talk so much about race, I’m just trying to explain how it feels to be a white person with no real cultural identity, except perhaps that of the “opressor”. The theme for this year’s diversity forum was “Finding Common Ground”. I guess this was a metaphorical phrase, because it was acknowledged by all conducting the forum that the land of New Zealand (theoretically) rightfully belongs to Māori. However I think as New Zealanders – Māori, Pākehā, Asian, Middle-Eastern, whatever – we need to accept that New Zealand is literally our common ground. This does not mean we have to ignore the fact that we reside here because the Tāngata Whenua allow us, but it means we all must realise that we each have a right to be here. I am not Māori, so perhaps I will never be allowed to claim New Zealand as mine, but I am a New Zealander, and I have the right to live here.
I am a kiwi girl. I was born in New Zealand and love living here. My bf is Taiwanese, and he likes living in New Zealand too. One day I might live in Taiwan, or England, or anywhere I like. But I’ll always feel like I can come back here, because New Zealand is my home. Not my ancestor’s home, or my race’s home, but my home.
Like a famous kiwi once said
I’m just a simple girl tryin’ to make my way in the universe
*I mean on a human level. I know in the law, my “people” (whites), are over-represented, but in reality even I admit that the Tāngata Whenua are the rightful owners of the land.
I don’t even know if I should post this… whenever I talk openly about race I’m so paranoid of coming off racist, but I guess these are my honest feelings, so if they’re racist, it’s better I have someone tell me now??
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