When you're a child, poking out your tongue is the height of comedy. There are plenty of photographs from my childhood that attest to this, showing groups of little girls with laughing eyes poking their tongues directly at the camera. Hilarious, we thought. Almost as funny as the word "bum".
I always smile when I see photographs of children pulling silly faces at the camera. The playfulness of the images makes me nostalgic. In the era of Instagram filters, face-tuners and duck lips, stumbling across a cross-eyed, pig-nosed picture is almost refreshing. And great fodder for the face-puller's eventual 21st birthday.
There's a gaping chasm, however, between the silly, good-natured pictures of childhood and using facial expressions, gestures or body features associated with a particular ethnicity or culture for humorous effect. We've known for a long time that pulling the skin around your eyes tight to emulate the eye shape associated with people of Asian descent is unacceptable, so why is the pūkana seemingly fair game?
Recently, I've seen an increasing number of photographs in my social media feeds in which Pākehā people (children and adults) are making pūkana facial expressions – tongues extended over chins, eyes wide, chins pushed forward. For those who are unfamiliar with te ao Māori, a pūkana is the expression the All Blacks make at the end of the haka.
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The pūkana is a tradition steeped in history, protocol and meaning. I've heard it described as an expression of deepest wairua being released and a sign of passion and strongly held emotions. I've heard stories about the expression being linked to a koukou (morepork) glaring at a pīwakawaka (fantail). The pūkana is an important part of Māoritanga, and in New Zealand at least, instantly recognisable as part of Māori culture.
Because I like to think the best of people, I assume that most of the people appropriating Māori culture for laughs are probably unaware of how inappropriate it is to pull a pūkana in a wedding photo booth, at a pub crawl in London or at a children's party. Or how many Māori people cringe when they see their Pākehā friends doing such a stupid thing on camera.
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Especially when it comes to children, I certainly don't think there's any intended malice. Kids probably think it's cool, or funny, and wouldn't have thought much further than that. But I have little time for adults pulling the same pose. I vividly remember seeing a Pākehā acquaintance distort his face into a pūkana at a wedding. He thought it was hilarious. I felt that familiar pang that many Māori will know well – the kick in the guts you get when your culture is mocked or denigrated. That feeling happens at least a couple of times a year.
I'm not saying that all Pākehā people should be banned from ever doing a pūkana. If Pākehā kids are part of a kapa haka group and use the pūkana in their performances in the context of honouring Māori culture, that's a completely different story. Similarly, I'm not talking about Pākehā young people taking part in school haka, or Pākehā All Blacks performing the haka on the world stage. In those contexts, the pūkana is being uplifted, and given the respect it deserves, rather than being exploited for a cheap laugh.
And even when it is being used by kids who think that it's cool thanks to the All Blacks, and who are using it in a positive way to emulate their heroes, I'd rather encourage them to join their school kapa haka group or to enrol for a te reo class. It's great that they're enjoying Māoritanga, but it's important for anyone who uses our cultural artefacts and practices to understand their significance and the tikanga (protocols) surrounding them.
When people engage with Māori culture at only the most surface level, that's when situations like Pākehā who have taken a te reo class thinking it's okay to perform a karanga occur (as happened recently at Ōwairaka). The karanga, like the pūkana, is steeped in history, and the right and duty to perform karanga is often passed down family lines to those who have the mana to do so. Māoritanga isn't just a fun gimmick anyone can try on for size.
When people understand the tikanga and kawa around Māori practices, then they will have the knowledge to make a decision as to whether or not a pūkana (or a karanga, for that matter) is appropriate in a certain context. I would argue that after learning about tikanga it would be hard to justify a pūkana in a drunk photo with your Pākehā expat mates on Anzac Day. It's from the sincere contemplation of our actions that respectful decisions emerge.
I'm not suggesting that we should be shaming and "calling out" anyone who ever pulled a pūkana as a silly face in a photo (I may even have done so myself as a teenager), but rather encouraging people to take a moment to think. To learn from our mistakes. To use those moments of inadvertent transgression as opportunities to talk about having empathy and respect for other cultures.
So when you next go to pull a funny face in a photograph, go for a peace sign, a pair of "bunny ears", or a pig snout. Or, if you're going to poke out your tongue, direct it straight at the camera, rather than snaking it down your chin. There are plenty of ways to look silly, without inadvertently looking stupid.