Something people don’t know about me is that I learnt to speak and understand Australasian sign language as a child. It’s not something I tell people, and although I truly enjoyed learning the basics of the language and would love to pick it back up and eventually speak it fluently, I made a promise to myself that I would put it on hold until I could speak and understand another language with the same love and respect that I have always held for Australasia sign.
Sounds a bit bizarre right? Why should someone value one language above another, and why would one be ashamed to admit their childhood aspirations to speak any other language – and in particular, one so seemingly noble as a language created for the benefit of a community living with a disability of some kind? But that’s not easy to explain all at once. So, perhaps a better question to start with is why did I want to learn to sign in the first place? Well, the short answer is: because I was a racist little brat who was informed enough to know how to channel my misguided hatred for Maori into action with my intellect; a school’s misunderstanding of political correctness; my white privilege; the misuse of the deaf community for my own selfish gain; and the support of my ignorantly racist parents who, like me, were smart enough to pull it off and stupid enough to think it was in any way a “just” thing to do.
The long answer is far more complex and I feel it needs a disclaimer before I begin. I am not seeking to step into a debate about the treatment of Maori in New Zealand. I am also not pretending to know anything about this struggle in a way that deserves a second of attention that would be better spent listening to Moari themselves. And, although I am part Maori (a fact I am now very proud of I am pale as fuck) I am also, to the best of my current ability, aware of my white privilege, and have no personal knowledge or experience of discrimination based on my Maori heritage. So if you are looking for a appropriate representative voice to speak on behalf of any of the above issues please go elsewhere.
In this blog I intend only to speak on behalf of a misguided and hate-filled community of which i have personal knowledge and experience. This community I was once a part of and on behalf of which I wish to speak is ashamedly so, but undeniably, the white racist young people of New Zealand. So if you haven’t disliked this post and stopped reading (which I would not at all judge you by the way) let’s begin.
Growing up in The South Island in the mid to late 1990s, I lived with my white parents, in an almost exclusively white neighbourhood, and attended almost exclusively white churches along with four almost exclusively white schools (two public and two private). During this time, between the ages of 5 and 8, I had very little contact with any people that to me didn’t look “white”. I had Korean friends, I had Egyptian friends, I had friends from all over Europe and even South Africa (which might seem like a silly statement to you until you learn that the majority of South Africans are actually not white) but while I had knowledge of other cultures, none of them had skin tones I wouldn’t readily liken to my own. To make matters worse, my parents had sworn off television as ‘mind-numbing devil magic’ and opted instead for tape stories and bible books that failed to mention that Jesus did not actually look at all like the cleanly shaven blonde blue eyed albino they depicted the poor bloke to be in all of his Western portraits. To paint a tragic but somewhat more illustrative picture of my primary school years, I can say that I vividly remember the first day a child with the most exquisitely beautiful dark skin enrolled in our year four classroom. As the teacher introduced her and instructed us to give a warm welcome, this eight year old (now hero of mine) gave a shy wave with a palm that appeared an entirely different colour than her face and flashed us the most contrastingly white-toothed smile I’d ever seen in real life. Well, the whole class just sat in dead silence staring at her like she was a two-headed alien that had just popped in to say hello. I left soon after that and I have always wondered how our stares at lunch as she ate alone affected her. At the first four Friday assemblies I was privy to, so many kids kept turning their heads around to look at her that our class was moved to the front and a “stand up” rule was implemented for those not looking directly at the principle as he spoke. I guess this was an attempt to teach us that being singled out in a crowd was at best uncomfortable and at worst humiliating – this an attempt at education I hope for her sake was effective.
So, with this limited experience, my brother and I headed off with our white privilege, our white parents, our white Jesus, and coincidently our white Honda shuttle across the South Island onto the inter-islander ferry and up the north island to a much smaller place to call home. This place was different. At my school, in my street, in my neighbourhood, I was among a minority of children who were not at least part Maori. It was a rough place, full of poverty, violence, gang activity, and struggling families of stressed out parents and angry children. I, having no connection to the area or it’s residents, and not knowing a way to ingratiate myself into their seemingly endless extended whanau and strong sense of community pride, didn’t know how to behave. To put it bluntly, I was awkward as fuck, said dumb shit and consequently got my ass kicked on a semi-regular basis.
In the end it just became the norm to shut my mouth or know some kid would shut it for me. I learnt to walk with my head down, stick with the other kids that didn’t fit, in and just hope they got picked on instead of me. I learnt there was no right answer to the question “what are you looking at?” If u said nothing, they said ‘are u calling me nothing bitch’ and you got a hiding, if you ignored them they said ‘don’t fucking ignore me cunt I’m talking to you’ and then you got a hiding, if you said you were looking at something else, you had a lazy eye or that you weren’t looking at all because you were legally blind it didn’t matter. There wasn’t anything you could say to prevent the hiding unless maybe you cried and begged them not to before they started hitting you. But that just made you look especially pathetic and even more likely to be targeted in future, because if there was anything that got you more hidings than being a smart ass it was being a pussy – unless of course you were a nark and in that case you’d better pack your bags or expect a good year of hell. Was this a cultural phenomenon? Maybe?
It’s a chicken/egg situation with poverty and violence and the debate rages on, but the most important point to make here is that, while for whatever reason there may be a culture of violence within a culture of poverty, this never was, and has never been, a problem of “Maori culture”. But, being young and very pissed off by this stage, I didn’t stop to question any of that. I spent a lot of time looking at their feet but none counting how many of them didnt have shoes. I didn’t gaze past their closed fist to their hand-me-down clothes, or across their arms to their own bruises, or past their intimidating stares in the dining hall to their empty lunch boxes, or beyond the roaming gangs of the school field to their substandard housing and broken homes.
Truth is I couldn’t see past my own anger to even begin to fathom theirs. I saw the colour of their skin and that was all. Although it felt like forever that that scenario played out, in reality it was just 6 months. But that was long enough for hatred to grow till it filled my little 9 year old heart right up. I felt it like heat in my body and electricity in my brain, clenching my fists and scrunching my toes to stop it escaping. I thought It might get so big it would explode but it didn’t. It was far more insidious than that – so much so I didn’t notice it at first. Slowly it leeched out into my home and over to my school, up my road, out into the suburb, across the district, and beyond to our country. It grew and it grew until it grew so big it encompassed not only a whole people group but also their culture, present past and future. By the end of year 5, my hated had grown so big it had swallowed up all that was Maori. Sick of getting beaten up and facing the prospect of an even bigger new primary school, I was short on friends, out of ideas, and with the muscle tone of a dehydrated jellyfish. I used the only thing I thought I had in my artillery – I used my brain to fight back. I displayed my hatred by opposing, boycotting, degrading and then replacing any respect I saw for Maori culture, with whatever I could shove in its place.
Jewellery was banned, but Moari could wear Taonga to school, so I went after every disillusioned fundamental Christian kid I could find, they went after their parents, and together with white Jesus we demanded the recognition of our rights to wear purity rings and crosses on chains. We won, of course, we had so called political correctness, declarations of freedom of religion, and centuries of white privileged patriarchy behind us. When I was done with the religious zealots I turned my attention to the other ethnic minorities at school, asking them ‘do you wear a head scarf’, ‘do you have cultural dress codes?’ ‘Do your parents think that skirts too short and you should wear a long one? Or how about leggings under it?’ ‘Do they let you do that here?’ ‘Look over there, they respect that culture so why not yours?’ ‘It’s your right, you know, we are all equal and this is justice’. Let’s fight. I ruthlessly campaigned for every cause I thought would in any way distract people from the idea that Maori culture was owed a debt by or deserved special recognition from our country. I didn’t want to kneel at assembly or to sit behind the boys, I wanted to cross my legs and sit at the front and anyone that told me otherwise was sexist! I’m not saying your karakia – it’s against my religion, and, as a matter of fact, I have a note from my parents excusing me from teaching about Maori gods – I’ll be waiting outside the classroom untill u finish. Oh, I’ll sing your national anthem, but I’ll sing it in English with my hand across my heart like a patriotic solider and fold my arms and mumble through the Maori version. Oh, I’ll learn my pepeha ‘cause I need that mark to pass, but My ancestors were Swedish and that’s my heritage so I will learn and say it in Swedish and then English before I slaughter the pronunciation of your Te Reo.
While I’m at it, I’ll be making sure every other person who wants to say theirs in their native tongue first is supported to do so. Or are you a racist, Sir? On and on it went all year, and my hatred became ever hungrier as it grew bigger still and required more food to keep itself alive. But the largest action and perhaps most abhorrent (if you can even grade this kind of ugliness) was my attack on what I knew was central to any culture’s existence – their language. I managed to fight for and win the option for students to learn Australasian sign language in the place of te reo, on the basis that it is an official language of New Zealand. Do these arguments sound familiar to you? Do you hear them online or in the news? If you’re not sure then go turn on one of the national talkback stations, because I was never alone in my misguided hatred.
Unbeknown to me, I was but one of many hurt and angry – oh so angry – individuals in this country who have been bullied and turned around to bully the only people we thought easy targets or who perhaps represented in some way those that bullied us. So, I would like to address every hurt and frightened child that lives inside your hatred, friends. I’d like to let them know that they don’t need to be afraid anymore, we are all grown up now, and I need you to be really brave, to open your eyes and take your hands away from over your ears and look. See, that bully is gone, and the only thing left to to torment you is your hatred. Examine it and you might find that it’s grown and it’s grown and it’s eating up your life, it’s eating up your future and the future of our country.
Tell it you’re not feeding it anymore, and instead feed yourself with knowledge and understanding. And as you grow, and it starves, you will find yourself feeling bigger and bigger until one day you look at the bully that that hatred was, and you’ll be able to can fit it into the palm of your hand and throw it over your shoulder – as I did today when I purchased my first English-Maori dictionary.
Ruby Joy is a 26 year old sex worker and human rights activist