Ten things I wish my friends knew about being Māori. Trinity Thompson-Browne
I wish my friends knew that I’ve been classed as white or Pākehā and asked “are you Māori?” so many times it makes me want to scream.
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?” 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'’e 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... To those who ask, “how much Māori are you?”
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.
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.