Madeleine Walker and Tarapuhi Vae’au Discuss Maori Rights and The Issues of Whiteness

Content warning: The following discussion contains mentions of racial violence, anti-Blackness, slavery and colonialism. 


Here’s how this thing started: I approached Tarapuhi Vae’au to see if she would be interested in participating in Twenty Questions. Tarapuhi hails from Te Ātihaunui-a-Papārangi and Ngāti Raukawa iwi (tribes) and Pākehā ancestry. She is a lecturer in cultural anthropology and also works as a freelance design researcher and cultural competency coach. Her research focuses on structural racism, historical trauma, and wellbeing. Soon after we started talking via email, we realised that her lived-experienced as an indigenous woman in New Zealand is too complex and nuanced to fit within the confines of a “Q and A” written by me – a privileged white woman. So instead we decided to have an honest conversation and take turns asking each other questions on the topic of identity. We’ve decided to publish a portion of that conversation here.

What follows hasn’t been edited, which means it will seem imperfect and likely uncomfortable. That’s the point. We hope that you’ll read it with compassion and give us the grace of an open mind. It’s also longer than what you’re used to reading on The Twenties Club, but like I said: some conversations deserve more.

Madeleine, 7:19am, Feb 25: I like the idea of running this as a kind of a back-and-forth email conversation where we can ask each other questions, maybe get a little uncomfortable, but ultimately arrive at common ground and a way to walk forward in unity.

I’d love to start with your job as a cultural competency coach. Could you explain to me what this involves (does it help Kiwi businesses understand the implications of diversity and identity on their business at all levels?), and specifically what this work feels like in New Zealand in our current climate. Hopeful? Frightening? Uncomfortable? Promising?

Tarapuhi, 11:25pm, Mar 13: Basically, cultural competency is about understanding your internal culture (as an individual or an organisation) and how that shapes what service or product you deliver.

There are two parts to what I do as a coach:

  1. Helping people to understand their culture and how it shapes their understanding of the world, and therefore might be limiting their ability to create safe, innovative working environments or products.
  2. Helping people to see the world through a Māori lens, and to see that Māori culture is just as sophisticated, modern, and scientific as western cultures.

It is very difficult to identify your culture if it has been normalised for you. We often think of culture as being about clothing, dance, and language, but our cultures also shape our emotions – not just when we feel things, but where we feel them in our bodies, and what other feelings we attach to them. There are whole diseases that only exist within particular cultures.

When things are so normalised it can make the connections between power and culture invisible. You can see this in how patriarchy is normalised, so it is really difficult for people to believe that there is gender inequality because they see these as natural, or ‘just the way things are’.

This work feels both hopeful and gut wrenching. Hopeful because the intensification of serious social and environmental issues has forced people to consider other ways of being and knowing. Especially in the past 1-2 years business and government have expressed a need for change and moved towards new ways of doing things. But also gut wrenching because it is difficult for people to confront how they may have played a part in social inequality, or benefitted from it. It forces people to question how much of their success is due to luck or privilege rather than pure talent of work ethic. Often it is the most emotional journey they have taken in their lives. This usually manifests as transformation or hostility.

What do you think about the word “Pākehā”?

Madeleine, 13:32pm, Mar 14: When I first read your question, my initial reckon was: it’s not mineThat word doesn’t belong to me and I don’t have the right to use it. I don’t have the privilege, I haven’t earned it.

This is strange to me because I don’t know why I’m not comfortable using the word ‘Pākehā’ when it’s a word that describes people who look like me. Maybe this speaks to my school experience: had I attended a school where Māori and English languages were used interchangeably, then I would have grown up using words like ‘Pākehā’ more freely and consequently wouldn’t attach so much weight to it.

Tarapuhi, 10:42pm, April 8: I think you are right, the word does have weight. In part because it defines Pākehā by their relationship to Māori, to te tiriti and this can be uncomfortable. The reason I think this is an important part of these conversations is because of this weight. Because weight also implies responsibility.

To me Pākehā is a useful way of referring to Whiteness in New Zealand. It refers to the particular ways that whiteness manifests here. It is connected inherently to our histories of colonisation, our histories of resistance, our unique relationship to the lands that we call home. I hope that we can claim it as an identity based on connection.

Madeleine, 1:26pm, April 8: I think we often discuss privilege in the context of two big ideas: race and wealth. And within those two ideas we look at examples of privilege in places like education or career opportunities, but we often fail to acknowledge the more subtle iterations of privilege, like language. How the language we use to talk about identity is a reflection of privilege. Why is it that white New Zealanders have so much freedom in the way we talk about our identity, often not having to use any language or labels at all to define ourselves (we don’t have to use the word ‘Pākehā’ or ‘European’, we can just be), whereas people of colour constantly have to use language to label themselves as Māori or Samoan or Indian? Does this contribute to feelings of “otherness”? What are your thoughts on this?

Tarapuhi, 1:46pm, April 10: Yes, you have touched on a really important point which is the privilege of being normalised; where White culture is seen as the default, the natural, normal state of being. This means that White cultures are rendered invisible and we can’t see where cultural ideals influence our worlds, how they might be shaping our perception of others and even ourselves. This normalising of Whiteness has huge consequences. In its most basic form it prevents empathy and sympathy. At its most extreme it galvanises and justifies violence. This means that by making it visible, by labelling it, we take some of its power.

The idea that wealth and power are results of individual will, intelligence and talent is a cultural idea that is directly intertwined with the advent of the concept of the White race. This normalises the idea that those with less power or wealth are in those circumstances because of their individual choices, rather than a complex web of structural barriers. Race was literally invented for the purposes of colonisation and slavery; races are fabricated categories that have been used to justify mass murder and land confiscation. The racial hierarchy is based on placing Whiteness at the top, and Blackness at the bottom. A groups humanity is based on their proximity to Whiteness as a skin colour, but also the ideas that were ascribed to it such as intelligence, godliness, and purity. However, race it is not rooted in biological truth. Yet it is presented to us as a normal, natural fact of life – instead of a culturally informed value system.

Madeleine, 14:01pm, April 10: You may have seen in the news last week that federal prosecutors in the US have charged over 50 wealthy parents for their elaborate schemes, including bribery and large payments, to get their children into top colleges. In some cases paying $1.2 million just to get their kid into a good school. The story reinforces the grossly uneven playing field for privileged white children and a system that is rigged in favour of the wealthy. It also speaks to the impacts of race and class on opportunity. If we contextualise this in New Zealand and our society, how do Māori people think about a higher education beyond secondary school? Do you see it as an even playing field across cultures or not at all? Do you think Māori are afforded the same opportunities when it comes to a higher education?

Tarapuhi, 13:46pm, April 12: This is a great question. Yes I did see this.

Although often more covert, racism operates in similar ways in Aotearoa. If you think of the life of a Māori child there are so many barriers in place that shape their available choices. Research has demonstrated that Māori babies are less likely to be resuscitated than Pākehā babies; Māori are less likely to be offered medical services, or to be given the same quality of care from health providers. Then when they get to school research also shows that teachers will expect less of them; pay less attention to them, punish them more harshly than other students for the same mistakes. This is significant because teacher expectation is the biggest influence on a child’s ability to succeed. Young Māori are also more likely to be watched by the police, and are charged at a much higher rate than their Pākehā counterparts for the same crimes. This has obvious impacts on their ability to attend school, to gain scholarships, or employment. One of the main differences, is that these exist across class. So even Māori who have achieved a higher economic status that most of the population will be subjected to these stereotypes. These all exist within all levels of education.

We know the impact of these in part because Kura kaupapa, total immersion schools that are based on Māori principles do better than many other schools in the nation.

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