Lizzie Marvelly is a musician, writer and activist, she writes columns for Weekend Herald.

Lizzie Marvelly: Racism belongs in our past, not in our future

February 6 is the one day on which we are encouraged to contemplate our unique and imperfect history. Photo / Jason Dorday
February 6 is the one day on which we are encouraged to contemplate our unique and imperfect history. Photo / Jason Dorday

The term Pakeha has always been fraught.

From the suggestion that the word means "pig", "rat" or "flea" (it doesn't, and never has) to the increasingly popular trend of choosing to be called a Kiwi or New Zealander, it's not difficult to surmise that the issue of identity raises some uncomfortable questions.

Questions that, in most cases, we'd rather not seek answers to.

On a surface level, I can understand why. It's a strange issue to ponder.

Who are we? What do we stand for? What does it mean to be a Kiwi?

The last time we were asked to contemplate our identity we ended up with an expensive bill for a referendum that got us nowhere, and the best we could come up with was a list of what we're not.

We're not British. We're not Australian.

We're not particularly good at this.

On the eve of our national day, we approach the time of the year when we're encouraged to contemplate our identity with trepidation.

We listen to commentators ranting and raving about protests that have yet to happen - protests that demonstrate the health of our democracy.

We gnash our teeth over each twist and turn of an internal iwi conflict that some journalists and broadcasters deem ridiculous yet insist on covering in excruciating detail.

We thrash out the debate over whether or not the Prime Minister was right to snub Waitangi before the celebrations have even begun.

We tiptoe around the edges of a discussion about our identity, particularly our Pakeha identity.

Then we throw our hands up into the air and declare the day a fiasco, a circus, another Waitangi Day hijacked by the bloody Maoris...

Meanwhile, around the country, away from the gaze of the drama-hungry media, Kiwis celebrate.

Maori welcome manuhiri (guests) of all cultural backgrounds on to marae.

Musicians perform. People dance. Kids swim at the beach. Families gather for barbecues and hangi. Drunk Kiwis in London butcher the haka.

The day that is so often decried as being "ruined by Maori" is, in reality, anything but.

This weekend, we celebrate the only national public holiday that has a Maori name. February 6 marks the one day out of 365 on which we are encouraged to contemplate our unique and imperfect history.

It marks the one day of the year on which we are asked to remember the bicultural foundations of our society.

It also marks the day on which our typically Kiwi cultural cringe reaches fever pitch, resulting in the yearly calls to abolish Waitangi Day in favour of the more mundane, revisionist, sanitised and less controversial 'New Zealand Day'. As if the treaty for which Waitangi Day was named should be a source of shame.

It should be our greatest source of pride.

What does it say about us as a nation that the erasure of any reference to our founding document - steeped, as it is, in Maori history - from our national day would be preferable to a large swath of the population to quietly contemplating the reality of our past?

Why are we so utterly afraid of feeling uncomfortable?

At the heart of it, the question that springs to my mind is, "what does it really mean to be Pakeha?"

The haka, "kia kaha", Poi E, Pokarekare Ana, Whale Rider, and Boy all demonstrate the importance of Maori culture to Kiwis, and to New Zealand's identity around the globe.

Maori have a clear understanding of their identity and culture - likely the result of fighting so hard for it for so many years - but when I think of my Pakeha side, I've come to realise that I'm not entirely sure what it is that defines us.

New Zealand Europeans arrived as colonial settlers.

Broadly speaking, we share similar tales of pioneering, gold rushes, early agriculture, and transplanted British customs with other colonial nations, particularly Australia.

Ironically, the thread of our identity that sets us apart is Maori culture, which is unconsciously borrowed by Pakeha as a marker of nationhood to this day.

The haka, "kia kaha", Poi E, Pokarekare Ana, Whale Rider, and Boy all demonstrate the importance of Maori culture to Kiwis, and to New Zealand's identity around the globe.

Even the word "Kiwi" originates from te reo Maori.

The point is not to pit one historical narrative against the other, but to honour both, so we can understand the full story, and make sense of the beautiful multicultural nation we live in today.

But there is always political capital to be gained from Maori-bashing.

Just ask Don Brash. His greatest political success - a near loss - was the result of a deliberate attempt to stoke the fires of anti-Maori sentiment.

Time will soon tell whether our modern batch of politicians will attempt to resurrect racially charged rhetoric and misinformation.

I fear, given the current global climate, dog-whistle racism may be a low-hanging fruit for politicians who are out of ideas.

And they will have their supporters.

I know that from experience. It is quite something to be accused of hating yourself.

To be informed that my celebration of my Maori heritage presents an automatic denunciation of my Pakeha ancestry.

Every time I write anything positive about Maori, I have learnt to expect these kinds of comments. It simply goes with the territory.

It no longer surprises me that presenting a Maori point of view will, without fail, bring about the largest, most repugnant and aggressive waves of abuse.

Some are motivated by unfettered racism, while others have absorbed decades of anti-Maori narratives and had little to no exposure to Maori culture.

They've never known the beauty of the powhiri.

They've never experienced the community values anchored around the marae.

They've never been given the chance to understand that many of the values New Zealand holds dear - hospitality, guarding our precious environment, looking after our families and communities - are Maori values too.

Thankfully, many New Zealanders do understand.

Especially young New Zealanders, who will lead us into a brighter tomorrow. It is undeniable that there is racism in our past. But it doesn't have to be in our future.

- NZ Herald

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Lizzie Marvelly is a musician, writer and activist, she writes columns for Weekend Herald.

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