Is Willie Jackson a racist or Paula Bennett a bigot? Dr Rawiri Taonui thinks colourism, in which ‘white Māori’ assume superiority to ‘dark Māori’, could be in the background. 

The spat between Labour’s Minister of Employment Willie Jackson and National Deputy Leader Paula Bennett raises issues about Māori identity.

In Parliament, after acknowledging the work of Māori-connected National MPs Nuk Korako, Harete Hipango and Shane Reti, Jackson ridiculed Bennett’s Māori identity, told Dan Bidois to go back to Italy, called Jo Hayes clueless and highlighted National Party Leader Simon Bridges’ inadequate te reo.

Labour’s Peeni Henare backed Jackson, saying Māori identity required active connections within Māori communities not just blood quantum.

Bennett reacted calling Jackson a racist who was anti urban Māori  and ranked Māori by skin colour and Māori sounding names.

Bidois tweeted that Jackson and Labour were racist against non-reo speaking Māori who don’t vote Labour or support the retention of the Māori seats.

Outside Parliament, commentator Graham Bidois Cameron said Jackson had hurt Māori who struggled with identity. Broadcaster Melodie Robinson agreed, saying Jackson was sarcastic and unwelcoming of urban Māori.

Unsavoury but not Racist

Unsavoury and personal. Neither Bennett nor Jackson at their best. Each side was guilty of cultural profiling. Jackson is not a racist, he has a European surname, was raised in urban Porirua and Mangere, has navigated the journey of te reo, and immersed himself in the plight of poor urban Māori.

Labour’s Willie Jackson 

Jackson and Henare forget Māori fought for the right to self-identify by whakapapa not blood quantum.

No one therefore wields the right to question the authenticity of those who thus identify, or indeed the thousands of Māori descent who at each census appositely chose not to identify.

Judging the validity of individuals by te reo or connection is a myopic unreality excluding the many. Many do not speak te reo because the language was supressed. Many have lost contact with marae because unjust land alienation drove Māori into towns and cities.

Today, less than 70 per cent of Māori have been on the marae of their grandparents – and many only once.

We can discuss Identity

However, contrary to the view of Jackson’s detractors, we can and should, at non-personal levels, interrogate the continuum of Māori identities. There is a difference between Māori organically seated within our communities and those of ‘Māori descent’. One speaks from within communities, one does not.

This is important. For example, the alt-right Hobson’s Pledge and Centre for Political Research say the Māori parliamentary seats are no longer needed because 29 Māori MPs entered Parliament at the last election.

However, as the Jackson vs Bennett tiff demonstrated, several Māori MPs are neither connected nor particularly comfortable with Māori communities, or representative of their concerns. Notwithstanding Jackson and others, the Māori seats continue to deliver the core of MPs with that representativeness.

The current tussle also raises a colourism paradox. Widely debated overseas, this is a hidden issue in New Zealand. Colourism arises when institutions favour lighter skin, more European looking, less te reo competent ‘white Māori’ because they are ‘more like us’ (Europeans) and less threatening than ‘dark Māori’.

Consequently, white Māori, many from middle class mixed heritage homes occupying the same privileged position as middle class Pākehā, often dominate Māori staffing in higher institutions.

Pākehā managers will often accept their advice over dark Māori. White Māori are more likely to be promoted, be self-promoting and vilifying of other Māori staff or units as a means of ingratiating themselves with Pākehā colleagues. Unconsciously or deliberately, the latter plays to the unconscious fears of Pākehā by invoking dark Māori stereotypes.

White Māori have greater identity choice. More self-identify today because it is more acceptable. When less acceptable, they could remain still. Dark Māori have no such choice.

When inculcated with Pākehā notions of pre-eminence from mixed heritage middle class homes, White Māori can assume they are the natural leaders of the ‘Maoris’.

White Māori can also confine racism within the rubric of ‘casual racism’, like the mispronunciation of names, thereby denying the harsher day-to-day reality of racism by the primary trigger of colour.

Yes, it is difficult being a white Māori. Terms like ‘plastic Māori’ and ‘potato’ (brown on the outside, white on the inside) are offensive. Large taonga, tattoos and ethnic hairstyles assist but intra-cultural approval is often not easy. However, it is not harder than the daily racism confronting dark Māori.

After cooling off, Jackson spoke of respecting Māori from all backgrounds and Bennett of her sometimes embarrassment at disconnect with marae and te reo. Sensitive words, proving that both the kūmara and the potato have place at the table of identity.

Dr Rawiri Taonui is a semi-retired Professor of Māori & Indigenous Studies, and now part-time board member, commentator and writer.

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