Once or twice a year we have a “Hui”. I emphasize “Hui” because we are a painfully ‘dominant culture orientated’ (a.k.a white) organisation. We have the naive belief that calling these annual meetings a ‘Hui’, or the ideas of translating our values into te reo or offering a Te Ao Māori workshop would be enough to qualify us as “bi-cultural”. All well intended of course and for that I’m grateful but never-the-less painfully white.
Huis typically involve the entire organisation coming together in Auckland over 2 days with jam-packed agendas, working lunches, regional updates and unpacking the Theory of Change for the gazillionth time. Don’t know what the Theory of Change is? Come to our next Hui.
I think the difference about this Hui was that we (as in those of us at the bottom of the food chain) decided what we wanted to discuss. I admit, when first asked to add our suggestions to a big A3 piece of paper, I was ready. Self-righteous and in big bold letters, I could read what was on my little post-it from across the room; “Cultural Competency”. I actually stood there among my colleagues believing I was an authority and they all needed to get on my level. This half-caste who struggles with Māori pronunciation and who hadn’t set foot on a marae in 3 years and at least 10 years prior to that. “I” had something to teach everyone when it came to cultural competency.
Man, did I learn quick.
On Day 1 I scanned through the agenda looking for the names of the speakers that didn’t “sound” Māori followed by a quick Google image search. I am the self—proclaimed authority, remember. Everything seemed legit. I was confident everyone would learn a thing or two by these Māori speakers I had never met or heard of but that didn’t matter because they have Māori names. There was one name that wasn’t Māori, but for some reason it didn’t raise any alarm bells. I think by that time, 5 minutes deep into quality assurance, I was happy enough. Until there she was, a white American woman standing at the front of the room. (Let me repeat: A. White. “AMERICAN”. Woman. Ready and waiting to talk about something related to Cultural Competency in the New Zealand context.)
She started speaking. I don’t even remember what she said but I remember being annoyed. She continued, and I grew even more annoyed. Everything she did and said, annoyed me and even though we never made eye contact, I knew she knew the Māori staring her down at the back of the room was annoyed. No one can ignore pūkana eyes that stare into your soul. It’s impossible. And so, a white American woman told us/me what it was to be Māori. Every now and then she would even slip in te reo. My internal dialogue went something like “She even speaks better reo than me. Great.” But that’s not all, she knew more about my culture than me. She was also more passionate about my culture than me and worst of all everyone hung on to her every word. I was pissed. This was not how it was supposed to go, she was supposed to be Māori! (Note made to self: Make my quality assurance checks at least 10 minutes long). I sat with the anger and pūkana’d as hard as I could.
However, in between the moments of annoyance and anger there were a few gold nuggets that I would never have admitted at the time. For example, she helped them to understand the importance of whakapapa to Māori. To walk backwards into the future so we always acknowledge our past. She told them Māori were pros at switching between the Pākehā world and te Ao Māori, but Pākehā, not as flexible or capable. She knew her shit and I couldn’t be annoyed at that. Believe me I pretended I was.
Day 2 presented the opportunity to reflect on the day before. Hand straight up (self-righteous habit) I let everyone know what I thought. Luckily, I did pre-reflection prior to the reflection. I admitted I felt confronted by the American woman (although the more accurate word would have been threatened). I was angry, but I realised, eventually and not quickly at all, that it was a different approach to helping Pākehā understand what it is to be Māori. I expected a Māori because that’s usually what we get. But how can you expect Pākehā to relate to Māori on a cultural level when they are not the same, at least in that moment? I believe like responds to like made a powerful difference that day. Especially when she said something along the lines of, ‘it is their (Pākehā) responsibility to become culturally aware. Its not Māori’s responsibility to do that for you and that is the first step to change.’ That message would have been received in a completely different way if she were Māori. That was the train of thought that caused the a-ha moment. I felt confronted but that was my issue, not her issue.
Her purpose was two-fold. Not only did she take everyone to a place they needed to be in terms of cultural competency & safety, she also unintentionally showed me who I was and who I was not. She gave me the opportunity to expose my anger, explore it, to understand it and finally to own it and for that, I take my pūkana back.