April 30, 2021
OPINION: The corrosive drip, drip, drip of prejudice
By Atakohu Middleton
Kaiako/Lecturer, Te Wānanga Aronui o Tāmaki Makau Rau/Auckland University of Technology
I had a different kaupapa in mind for this month’s column. But something happened recently to detail that plan.
As regular readers know, I am not afraid to call out discrimination in my columns and media interviews. I’m also not afraid to call out one of its current proxies, complaints about the use of te reo in mainstream news shows. These are a very thin cover for the prejudices of those who still deny our right, as Māori, to thrive.
The prejudice I cop usually comes digitally, to my work email, after I have written a column or been interviewed on a kaupapa to do with Māori self-determination. I just hit the delete button. There, problem sorted. Email provides a sort of arm’s-length safety net.
However, it’s another matter when prejudice is shoved in my face.
You know how life rolls. You can’t always choose who you spend time with. Invited to spend time with someone I didn’t know well, a long-settled migrant to Aotearoa, I was dumbstruck when he said something along the lines of “I’m sick of all that Maori language s**t being forced down our throats on the news. What’s the use? English is the language here.”
He also made it clear that Māori were dodgy, except for the handful who were his friends. Kotahi te whakakinokino ko tērā! I was dumbstruck. I felt my lovely (Pākehā) tāne tense up beside me. He was equally appalled.
After I regained the power of speech, I said, pointing to my moko kauwae, and trying to keep my voice level, “You know I’m Māori, don’t you? And that I speak te reo and that it’s a big part of my identity? That te reo is an official language of this country?”
My words evaporated in the silence. He who had delivered a taiaha straight to my heart looked at me, then away. Then he said something on another subject as if I hadn’t said a word at all.
The tāne and I knew that there was no point calling him out on it. At that time, it was early in the piece and leaving wasn’t an option; there was a fourth person to consider and she hadn’t been present at the time of the exchange. Our sense of manaaki suggested it was better not to draw her in too.
But in the minutes that followed, I could feel that I was folding in on myself, physically and emotionally. I hugged my arms to my stomach and looked down at the edge of the table, saying relatively little. Thankfully, my tāne filled the gap and we stuck to undemanding topics of conversation until we could leave a couple of hours later.
He and I drove home in silence. I didn’t say anything about how dispirited I felt until the next morning, and that was when I finally burst into tears. I told him that it was so demoralising to see how far we have to go to create a country where being Māori is valued.
In my head, an image arose: a leaking tap, drip, drip, dripping away, each drip a little act of prejudice that adds up to a constant, corrosive flow of harm.
The tāne and I talked the experience through, and he reminded me of something we both knew: the person grew up in difficult circumstances in a country with massive inter-ethnic problems and was very fixed in his views. He had no social filter, either.
The question that lingered: Do we engage with people like this about the harm in their words? The answer, we decided, was no. It was unlikely to get us anywhere. Limiting contact, however, was probably wise.
Later, I went for a walk around a favourite lake to try and boost my mood. Despite the sparkling day and the deep blue waters, which are usually a source of joy, it was hard to shake a feeling of despondency.
There’s a whakataukī for times like this: He tao rākau e taea te karo; he tao kōrero, e kore e taea te karo. The taiaha can be parried, but words go straight to the heart.
The above said I need to remember that there are a lot of Pākehā and tauiwi who aren’t intolerant. There are plenty of good people who are on board the waka Aotearoa with us and keen to paddle her in the right direction. We need to focus on them.
Radio Waatea and its board would like to advise that the opinions posted are those of Atakohu Middleton and not the views of Radio Waatea, its management or its board.
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