By Taryn Dryfhout
Being paler than everyone else in my family, it’s been a long-running joke that I am a ‘washed out Māori’. My sister, cousins and even my own children are all darker than I am, and it’s often been difficult for me to fit into Māori settings. The recent trend in Ancestry DNA tests to tell us what ethnicity we are, and the curious case of Rachel Dolezal who claimed that she was ‘transracial’, identifying as black, has made me reflect on how I identify myself, and the way that I have been identified by others, as a biracial woman.
Not Māori enough
I have struggled throughout my entire adult life to be brown enough to be considered Māori. Though my hair is a thick, frizzy mess of dark curls and I have dark, almond-shaped eyes, my skin is pale, and apparently, that’s all it takes to be pigeon-holed as ‘the white girl’.
My first year of university was particularly hard, as I attempted to be recognised as Māori. I was thrilled at the amount of Māori resources available at university, and had high hopes that in immersing myself in all things Māori, I would feel at home in my culture, and be accepted as such. This wasn’t the case. In my first class on Māori culture, a guest lecturer said that Māori is always about whakapapa (genealogy). “It doesn’t matter what you look like, where you were raised, or who you are – if you have the whakapapa, you’re in.” While this is what the Māori worldview subscribes to, it’s not necessarily the reality. During my first year at uni, while I was studying Māori, I was often the butt of jokes in my Māori classes for being the white one, in a sea of brown faces. And, it didn’t stop there. One day I decided to drop into the Māori centre to ask for help with something. When I walked in the door, a receptionist stood up, looked at me, and asked if I was lost. At the completion of my degree, at the Māori graduation ceremonies, I was the whitest one there, and received odd glances.
These experiences weren’t limited to my time at university either. In my mid-20s, I began actively researching my whakapapa, and found that nobody I approached, inside or outside of the family, was willing to give me any information, though I often knew they had some to share. I got the feeling that I wasn’t brown enough. I was white, and therefore hadn’t paid my dues, or earned my right to hear about my whakapapa. Though I developed a pretty thick skin about this kind of encounter, it didn’t change the fact that I had to fight to be identified, on the outside, as the person I felt I was, on the inside.
This wasn’t my experience as a child. I was born into a mixed-race marriage, and had distinctly olive skin, making me a perfect mix of my Māori father and Pakeha mother. I was often bought darker skinned dolls as gifts (does anyone remember Manu from Playschool?), I joined the kapahaka group in school, and was taken onto the marae from a young age. I was accepted for who I was, and was never made to feel that I didn’t belong in the Māori world. But something happened, when I grew up. I became a vegetarian (no kai maona for me), married a Dutch man, taking on his foreign surname, and slowly started to drift away from the ethnic stereotypes that I was expected to live up to as a Māori woman. I don’t speak fluent Māori, and have been told I’m over-educated, no longer fitting the usual demographic of what people perceive to be Māori. I have gotten used to the shock of people discovering that I am Māori, and have even gotten used to having a ‘coming out’ moment, anytime I meet new people.
Despite my frustrations at not being recognised as Māori, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I have, at times, used my ‘whiteness’ to my advantage.
As a white Māori, I have the ability to manipulate my looks so much, that with only a small effort, I am able to cross right on over into the ‘Isle of White’. I get quickly bored with my hair colour, and every second-year bleach it down to a pale blonde, which curiously, makes my skin appear lighter also. Many friends and family members have commented on my ability to look so different, something which has come in handy more than once.
When we first moved to Auckland, I found this ability to look white became even more convenient. On a phone enquiry regarding a house we wanted to rent, the tenancy manager made no secret of the fact that the last tenants had been “dirty Māori’s” and that we sounded like exactly the kind of family she had been looking for. Before we went to view the house, I took my European husband, cut my pounamu pendant off from around my neck, applied thick, pale makeup and touched up my dark roots. The house was perfect, but came with a long commentary about the previous tenant. We were offered the house on the spot – an offer I am confident would not have been made if she knew that I was Māori.
A few years ago, I also had a run-in with the law, in which I was accused of something I did not do. A witness alleged that a 20-something woman of Māori or Polynesian descent had broken the law, and I very quickly became the suspect. After many weeks and interviews, where I tried fruitlessly to prove that I was innocent, I decided to take action. I was desperate not to be implicated in this situation, and after much discussion about the physical description of the person, I decided the best way to convince of my guiltlessness was to change the way I looked. I cut off the long brown hair that hung down my back, once again coloured my hair blonde, cut off the taonga around my neck and went for another interview. Because I no longer fit the description for the suspect they were looking for, the whole situation was quickly dropped and I was free to get on with my life.
Being white means, I was not as suspicious a person in the encounter with the law, nor was I an undesirable tenant for the house we rented. Is this right? No, but it’s certainly been my experience. And, it’s an extremely difficult battle to win. As Māori, I am constantly faced with the pressure to stay true to my culture, while at the same time being expected to assimilate in order to fit into Pakeha culture. If I’m not being berated for my seemingly Māori privilege, then I am being berated for receiving white privilege.
So, who am I?
One of the most common questions I get when I am ‘outed’ as Māori is, “how much?” The first thing people want to know about my Māori-ness, is what percentage of Māori I am. Apparently, my ethnicity comes down to a pie chart, and telling people that I am ‘quarter-Māori’ somehow satisfies people’s needs to make my Māori-ness quantifiable. What people fail to understand, is that, my lecturer was right: Māori is Māori. “It doesn’t matter what you look like, where you were raised, or who you are – if you have the whakapapa, you’re in.” There is no such thing as being Māori enough. If you come from a Māori bloodline, then go forth and identify as Māori, without letting anyone make you feel different.
Twenty-first century Māori are diverse – some speak Māori fluently, and know their whakapapa inside out, while some of us are still trying to reclaim our roots. Some of us are dark skinned, with dark hair, while some are blonde with blue eyes. Being Māori is not a dichotomy – we cannot categorise Maori into ‘black’ or ‘white’ because kiwi identities are complex, and being Māori is about more than a skin colour. For Māori like myself, we were not raised in te ao Māori or encouraged to speak te reo Māori. This made it difficult as an adult to be accepted into a culture in which I was not born, but this shouldn’t be the case. In my 30s, I find myself still searching for my place in this world. My cultural identity is not static – it is constantly being shaped by the people I meet, the things I learn, the places I live and the way in which I engage in society. We, as New Zealanders, need to create more opportunities and space in which people can reflect on their own racial and cultural identities and how these have shaped who they are. I hope that as more Māori share their experiences, it will prompt more conversations about how we perceive Māori, and how differently we all experience being Māori.
Heoi anō tāku mō nāianei.