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Naked In Nuhaka: Alien Feelings Rise In Godzone


NAKED IN NUHAKA 5: ALIEN FEELINGS RISE IN GODZONE


Leo Koziol, 10.10.2001

Sir,

Today I waited in a queue at a Gisborne bank. There were five people ahead of me. Three were Maori, Two were Pacific Islanders, both the tellers were Maori and the manager sat in her office - a Maori. The sixth person in the queue was me - a third generation (New Zealander) of English descent, with blue eyes and blond hair. Nobody was speaking English and I just wanted to cry. Today I felt like an alien in my own country.

E. Windsor, Gisborne

Waiting in a queue at her local bank, Mrs. Windsor noticed that everybody else in the building was Maori. She felt like a stranger in a land she had always called home and, she writes, she wanted to cry. In a day when Maori development is emerging as an issue, the letter struck a chord. Its writer was giving clear voice to an idea often grumbled in undertones.

It seemed worth putting a human face to the words, worth asking what would move someone to write in such anguished tones. The letter-writer, Elizabeth Windsor, seems stunned when I call. Plainly leery of attention, she reluctantly agrees to meet for coffee during her lunch hour.

On a wet Thursday, Gisborne village, where she works behind a retail counter, looks pretty pakeha. A pair of youngsters, walking hand in hand and chattering gaily and a busking teenage performance artist are the only Maori faces. Even in a food hall, the only diner enthusiastically piling hangi on her plate is a stern-faced, blue-rinsed pensioner.

Elsewhere, except for a Maori-language notice outside a bank inviting customers to address inquiries to Juanita Korua, the street looks conspicuously European. Elizabeth Windsor's bank, it turns out, is down the road a bit at Kaiti where I will later see a far higher proportion of Maori faces.

The branch of MaoriBank will explain that most of its customers are Maori, that customers like discussing sensitive financial matters in a native language with bankers who speak it too. In that sense, they say, their staffing policy is deliberate, though it is not deliberately exclusive. On another day, Mrs Windsor would have seen European staff members.

Mrs Windsor has lived in Gisborne for the best part of 30 years. She came when the phones were party lines, raised her family here. She and her husband, a builder and landscape gardener, flirted with the idea of living in Queensland, but settled for staying home.

But, she says, it's all changed. "There isn't a suburb you can go to that isn't absolutely inundated with Maoris." One of the more vexed sentences in the English language begins with the words "I'm not a racist, but ... " Mrs Windsor never uses that phrase and it is worth noting that she enjoys working for a business that is owned by a man of Maori extraction.

Nursing a flat white in her favourite cafe, she insists she has nothing against Maoris in particular. The scene in the bank, she says, is "just symptomatic of what the community is now like". "I felt like crying," she explains, "because I didn't feel at home."

Mrs Windsor’s experience will be familiar to plenty of other pakeha New Zealanders. Who, in Gisborne at least, hasn't stood at a crowded city intersection or taken a city bus only to notice that every other face was visibly Polynesian, usually Maori?

* * * * *

Coming home to New Zealand after five years in San Francisco, the level of racism towards Maori looks from a California lens quite astounding. Maori are marginalised in the media, and our Maori leadership is bashed for such simple mistakes as associating with Canadian con-men who padded their resumes with fake degrees from the Internet.

Our nation is divided into two groups: Pakeha (that is, White) and Maori. Other races are marginalised into non-existence (Pacific Islanders) or lauded as the great new hope (Asians). The layers of complexity of the many cultures that make up New Zealand are not represented to the level they are in San Francisco, or indeed the U.S.A. as a whole. In the States, there are African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Japanese American, Asian Pacific Islander Americans... and the list goes on. Why not such monikers for the people here?

* * * * *

The letter to the editor above, and the associated article following, is another reality slip brought to you courtesy of Naked in Nuhaka. The article originally appeared in the NZ Herald, by Peter Calder, dated 13.07.2002, published in the run-up to the most recent election. The word “Asian” has been transposed to “Maori.” Mrs. Windsor’s name is fictionalised, and Howick has been transported to my nearby town of Gisborne.

The truth emergent in such a “reality slip” is as much a commentary on the state of NZ media as it is on the condition of our society. Derek Fox and other Maori leaders are quick to protest NZ media for their Maori bashing; yet I would argue that a deeper, more cutting, and more realistic criticism would be to label our press as provincial, neo-colonial, and small-minded. Living in the United States, my day-to-day reading included the LA Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the NY Times, all esteemed newspapers with cosmopolitan attitudes towards cultural change. Our mainstream press has a long way to go to reach their level of sophisticated reportage.

New Zealand television also suffers from provincialism and latent colonialism. You watch TV One news and there, amidst the nanna chat of Richard Long and Judy Bailey's serious presentation of real news, they all of a sudden launch into the latest on Winona Ryder's shoplifting excursions and Rachel and Robbie's naked romps. One becomes overcome with a massive dose of "What's that all about?" until you become self-aware of the cultural cringe of remote nations. The romance and mysticism and sheer old-fashioned delusion of Hollywood drags them in and betrays our nation for the sake of ratings. I can already see the housewives of Stratford forming their Tom Cruise-spotting clubs...

It’s intriguing that discussion around the nascent Maori television service usually refers to the main commercial television networks as the “mainstream media”. Mainstream for whom? The majority of our television programmes are American and British – is that the mainstream? At least when Maori have their own television station, the majority of the content will be provided by New Zealanders; the same cannot be said of our existing national television networks.

Any hopes for serious discussions around issues of Maori development is quickly lost in the tall-poppy cutting morass of our current media. I honestly hope to see one day the creation of a MaoriBank, staffed by Maori as well as Pakeha, where Te Reo Maori is the dominant language spoken. I also look forward to the day when foreign tourists visiting these shores see no difference between tuning into the latest Maori language soap opera here and tuning into the plethora of Spanish language channels that exist in the United States and elsewhere.

It remains to be seen whether such societal changes will result in future comments of the ilk of fictionalised Mrs. Windsor above. But I do quite expect it. And, indeed, in some ways, I quite look forward to it.

ONLINE RESOURCES

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DISCLAIMER

Parts of this article are pure fiction. Any resemblance of people mentioned to real people, now or in the past, is purely coincidental.

PAST COLUMNS

Available at: http://www.nuhaka.com/

All content (c) Leo Koziol & Rautaki Group Consultants 2002. The author can be contacted at email: oshie1000@hotmail.com. website: http://www.nuhaka.com/

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