Refereeed Articles: Connecting
Sharing. by Bonita Bigham
Life can be a funny thing. Just when you think you have
things all sorted out, along comes a new situation, a new experience, or a
new person who shakes you up to the core, and gives you a whole new
perspective on something you thought you had pretty sussed. I have met one
of those people. And damn it, I actually really like her.
a friendship with a "skinhead chick" has never featured on my list of life
ambitions. It is one of those things I could have gone through my whole
life without experiencing, and not have been bothered one iota. I mean,
what on earth could I have in common with someone who associates mostly
with her own kind, is unashamedly vocal about her beliefs? Someone who has
spent her life feeling discriminated against, someone who is proud of her
culture and heritage?
Why on earth would I want to get to know
someone like that? But hold onÉ that sounds just like me! I'd always
considered myself to be quite open-minded. In fact, I thought I was a
pretty good example of someone who could move between Te Ao Maori and the
Tauiwi world with relative ease. A matter of having to, really,
considering my whakapapa. I thought I had a good grasp on the fundamental
dynamics of both cultures.
In my arrogance, I also thought I had a
lot to offer in terms of facilitating more understanding about race
relations in this country. I thought there was nothing I could tell Maori
about Pakeha culture, but a hell of a lot Pakeha needed to know about what
it's like for Maori. I had my own "Closing the Gaps" policy, and looking
back now, it was all one-way traffic.
Ms M has changed that. She
has peeled away the layers of self-assured smugness, the self-righteous
spiel, the self-adorned I'm-Maori-and-therefore-right korowai so many of
us assume. When I first met Ms M and heard her opinions I was angry. Angry
at this outspoken young Pakeha woman for having what I considered to be
borderline racist views. Angry at a school system that didn't teach the
true history of this country. Angry at society for giving her the basis
for her opinions and allowing her to vocalise them. But mostly I was angry
with myself, because I didn't think I was ever going to get through to
I wrote her off, not because I thought she was unreachable,
but because I thought I wasn't up to it. What a wake up call! Over time
and tenuous interaction, we began to talk. Through the talking came tiny
smidges of understanding. Through those smidges came more opportunity to
talk, to listen, to understand. And before we knew it, we were finding
some common ground about the fundamental beliefs which have shaped our
lives, our outlooks and our opinions.
Scary stuff, me and the
skinhead chick. Never the twain shall meet. Ms M grew up in suburban
Wellington. Far from being a privileged child with a silver spoon in her
mouth, she says life for her was quite the opposite. She can identify with
the kind of childhood many Maori have - not enough money, sub-standard
housing, hand-me-down clothing. She knows all about the have and the
have-nots of society. She was a have-not kid. But she certainly had eyes,
and intelligence, and a keen sense of what it was like to miss out.
Many things have contributed to her perceptions and opinions, but
there is something in particular that really stands out for her. Ms M grew
up with, went to school with, and had school friends who are Maori. But
what she also realised was that her Maori friends, many of whom came from
far more affluent backgrounds than her, had access to funding and
assistance she would never benefit from, because they were Maori.
We all know the reasons behind these scholarships and grants. We
all know their existence is just a drop in the ocean of what Maori really
deserve. And we all know how much help they have been in addressing the
needs of our rangatahi studying in the tertiary sector. But every one of
us knows at least one instance when the funding system has been abused by
people who only acknowledge they are Maori just to access the putea.
I call them the quasi-Maori, the sort-of-but-not-really types. It
brasses me off - always has, always will. So why shouldn't the others who
see it, know it, need it, but can never access it not be brassed off too?
Remind me again: who are the haves and the have-nots? Ms M has told me a
lot about her way of life, how discriminated against she and her friends
are sometimes made to feel.
She talks about what society assumes
she is like because of the way she dresses, the way she talks, the people
she associates with. She doesn't appreciate the stereotyping and the
romper stomper image she is automatically labelled with. The people she
hangs out with don't do drugs, they don't harass people walking past them
in the street, they don't condone violence. They just don't seem to get
any ticks (or should that be black marks) in the profile boxes we normally
associate with skinhead culture.
Ms M has helped me open my eyes to
the wide spectrum of colour that exists between black and white (no pun
intended). But I'm also really pleased, and relieved to say that by her
own admission, she is discovering those same shades of grey from her side
of the ever-decreasing divide.
Next week (November 21-22), my
classmates from the Taranaki Polytechnic Journalism School will be coming
to Waiokura Marae, my turangawaewae in Ngaruahine, for their course
prescription marae stay. For some of them, this will be their first time
on a marae. I'm hoping it will be an experience they will never forget.
And as for my mate Ms M, I know she's nervous and I know she's
worried she will say or do something that offends somebody. I think that's
a good thing, I'd be really worried if she didn't care. Then again, if she
didn't care, I wouldn't be calling her my mate. I've learnt there is a
fine line about the demon we call racism.
Unwittingly, I've been
guilty of reversing the racism many times in my ignorance and arrogance.
Sometimes we need these wake up calls in our lives, to become better
people from it. The more we get, the more we can share. That's not the
Maori or the Tauiwi in me talking, that's just Ms M's