What does it mean to be 'White Māori'?

From Nine To Noon, 10:08 am on 5 September 2016
Kayla Polamalu and Kahu Kutia

Kayla Polamalu and Kahu Kutia Photo: RNZ

Victoria University students, Kahu Kutia and Kayla Polamalu talk to Kathryn Ryan about growing up with two different identities in New Zealand, and about the term 'White Māori'.

They have Māori and Pākehā parentage. Recently Kahu wrote an article for the Victoria University's magazine, Salient, titled If You're From Waimana, Why Are You White?

Read an edited excerpt of the interview below:

Kahu, what brought you to write this article?

Kahu – It was really interesting in that it is a conversation that has built up my entire life and it is something that I have been thinking about my entire life. My dad is Māori, my mum is Pākehā. I was fortunate enough to be raised in the lands that I come from on my Māori side. All of my life talking with my friends and whānau about their connection and talking to people about their whakapapa and are they connected to home? How do they feel? How do they engage with their Māoritanga? I am also involved in this kaupapa called Tuia and it is a journey of self-development and community-focussed and we ask questions of ourselves: 'who am I? Where do I come from? How do I engage with those sort of things?' So it’s something that has really built up.

My dad passed away recently and when he was sitting in hospital I had an idea to write this article. I had been offered a chance to write for Salient and I thought about what I wanted to write about and for me, the biggest thing within myself right now is coming to terms with that Māori identity and how I want to express it. I had this idea to write about – basically - whiteness. It is also something we had explored at uni and how the idea of being white and looking white and Pākehā Aotearoa interact with who I am.

It was really funny because I just got this idea, it was something that had never happened to me before, but it just poured out of me. I was furiously writing and I came up with this piece ‘If you’re from Waimana, why are you white?’ In a way, for me that was very vulnerable and very frightening because it is something I have struggled with immensely and I have never been able to express. I was being completely honest about how I’ve grew up and how I felt and trying to start that conversation in Aotearoa.

Tell us about Waimana.

Kahu – Waimana a small community on the edge of Te Urewera. It’s a very Māori population so there are very few Pākehā in the area. Everyone is all whānau, so they are all aunties and uncles and cousins. Tuhoe specifically has always maintained a very strong connection with their culture because we have been so isolated and our involvement with the Treaty was very limited and very staunch.

In that environment it is interesting, because the bits of me that stick out are my Pākehātanga.  The fact that I have a white mother and I have quite light skin. In that environment, what I saw of myself were the Pākehā aspects because the Māori was just a given. That was just a part of me. Being raised as well by my Pākehā family and having that influence, I was always sort of weird. It is just culturally different.

I was always real confused, because I was like, ‘Which of these things am I? Am I Māori? Am I Pakeha?’ I never really felt fully comfortable in either of those environments because I felt the need to pick and choose. I felt that I could only be one or the other. Ways of expressing bicultural identity were really hard to come by.

From that point it has been really interesting. I moved to Wellington, which is a very Pākehā… it is a different environment. Roads here are actually paved and there are not wild horses roaming the street. At university you’re in the minority and suddenly your Māoritanga is what sticks out and I come here and people are like, ‘Woah, you’re Māori?’ and it was really interesting the way I started to think about that. It is just the complete opposite of what I grew up with.

When you came to Wellington, what was your experience with finding your identity there? Particularly the way other people would react to you.

Kahu - In a way it was both a blessing and a curse in that it was a blessing because I began to see myself in different ways and to really think about how I want to own my Māoritanga. I have engaged in more of a political way in really pushing my Māoritanga because Māori are just not visible in the university environment and I see it as a responsibility to push it so that it seems like university is a place for Māori, so other people can see it and think, ‘Oh, that is a place where I can belong.’ So in that way it has been a blessing and I have really learnt to inhabit that space as Māori. But it has been a curse in aspects of tokenism. This is something that people have expressed to me after my article… when you are viewed as Māori it comes with certain assumptions.

You’re nodding Kayla. You come with this little toolbox, right?

Kahu – Yeah, or people just assume you come with this toolbox. Can you do a karakia for this, can you do a pohiri? Like, no, I can’t do a pohiri, it is a big thing to do that. It is a big thing to carry a culture and that is something that I am still learning, but people just assume that I can do that. And it’s also frustrating that no one else wants to push for us. I am the one who has to do it. For example we had an event and there was a lack of Māori speakers and it was put on me to… ‘You can find the Māori people for this event, you’re Māori.’ But it’s tiring to have to do that and to have to be the one to push for that.

Kayla why are you nodding?

Kayla – I am nodding because I really agree and feel what Kahu said. The difference between us is that I grew up away from my iwi. I have always had a connection with that and gone back to my marae. But I went to a Catholic school in Auckland and then I came to university, which as an institution is very white. I have experienced a lot of the same conflict, but in the sense that my Māori has always been something that people take a while I think to recognise, because they don’t see me associated with it that often.

Something I really agree with Kahu about is, as I have become more educated and more convinced of my own Māoridom, it is a space that you have to politically inhabit and you have to advance that on people because people in my life have made the assumption that I am not a “real Māori” because they don’t see me at my marae and they don’t see me speak as they assume Māori speak. It is a real political act to inhabit your identity in such a way where I say first and foremost I am Māori.

What was that journey for you? Was there a time when you wanted to inhabit that?

Kayla - It really came towards the end of high school. I can’t point to a specific event, but I think it was me educating myself a lot more. I involved myself in a lot more events outside of school - United Nations stuff that made my world broader and it made me reflect on my place in that. Māori was always something I had thought was a part of me, but I hadn’t given a lot of thought to. I made that active decision in around the end of high school, that it was something that I wanted to invest myself in more.

That term “real Māori”, where did you first hear that? It’s a harsh term.

Kayla - School. It was articulated by my friends and by my peers and consistently throughout my life, I have been called an Oreo, because people say you are brown on the outside and white on the inside and that is because for them, I don’t know, they see the way that I speak as a mark of whiteness, or doing well at school is a mark of whiteness, because of the appalling stereotypes we have created around what it means to be Māori. I had friends who genuinely didn’t think they were being racist say to me, ‘You’re not a real Māori’. Or, ‘I’m more Māori than you because I speak FOB and you don’t.’ Those are starkest and most obvious examples. It was a real affront to what I was about and what I was understanding about myself.