Cultural Competency: CHECK!

How do you explain to someone what they think they can understand but will never be able to because although intentions are good, to understand means work, to humble themselves, visit the closest marae and grab a tea towel or a potato peeler instead of expecting Māori to summarise their experiences, feelings, social norms, understandings, traditions, their life, so they can receive the cultural competency tick of approval?! *INHALEEEEEEEEE*

“But I learn by talking! I need you to explain it to me!”. This was the response after we (minorities) were encouraged to be our “true selves”. No more Māori Donna compartmentalising. I now have permission to be the true me. The Māori me. The me that knows her role and is valued for it. The me that knows when to speak and when to listen. The me that would never disrespect my elders or talk over others. The me that would pick up a tea towel or potato peeler and not be afraid to feel inferior for it. But first, before Māori Donna takes over, could White Donna please explain what Māori Donna is all about. Oh and also you need to speak up more in meetings. Just say something it doesn’t necessarily need to add any value. Oh and actually could you also do all the other stuff White Donna does but maybe mix the two somehow. Actually, you know what, if you want to be Māori then by all means be Māori but I don’t know how we’re going to support you with that. Anyway, how does Māori work?

I admit Im exaggerating, but sometimes I find a little exaggeration gets the point across.

On the same day, I had a half debate about the term “Cultural Competency”. (I say half debate because I made my statement, which I thought would be received in awe. Turns out there was a counter argument and at the time I couldn’t think fast enough to respond. In short, it’s only a full debate when I win). Once, I used the term “Cultural Competency” with conviction. If you read my previous blog – Another “Hui”, you might remember Self Righteous Donna (there’s a few of us, Drunk Donna is a blast but that’s probably another blog about bad decisions – writing blogs is probably one of them). Anyway, I’ve realised it’s a dirty term.

A man, who has no name, visited us and shared his experiences about “how Māori he could be” within the work context. He once sacrificed his culture in order to be successful at work. He thought that’s what you needed to do. I still believe that’s what you need to do. But everything changed for him the day he met his new CEO who not only challenged him to be his true self but supported him to do so. An ally if you like. He now lives and breathes Māori in and out of work and he believes he and his workplace are better for it. He went on to explain that we, Māori and Pākehā should be working together, not fighting to persuade the other what is right and what is wrong. I love that and because of that, Cultural Competency has a different meaning. This is when the half debate begun.

“I don’t know if I like the term Cultural Competency” I said. “The word competent implies there’s an authority, someone who decides whether you are competent or not, Māori enough or not. We get enough of that from Pakeha and Māori alike. If we truly want to learn about the Māori culture and we are authentic in our intentions and actions, then who is someone else to decide whether we are being authentic or not?”. I google searched the term the next day and apparently there is another term that academics use – “Cultural Intelligence”. A tad better but I still feel like it doesn’t capture the complexity that is the Ally. The empathy. The connectedness. The innate understanding. The comradery. The word is too defined. For me it still emphasizes two different types of people based on what’s going on in their heads not their hearts. Anyway, I ended by saying I also did not think our practices, like the hongi, should be referred to as competencies. The allies agreed.

Someone interjected. “I disagree, I quite like the idea of practicing the hongi. To learn the hongi is to become competent. So it is a competency”. I don’t know about you, but I have never heard one Māori say to another Māori after the hongi “Bro, that was a competent as hongi”. (And THAT’s what I wish I had said. Damn you slow brain). So I google searched the definition of Competent: To do something successfully and efficiently. What does an efficient hongi even look like? Is it the right nose to nose ratio? Or simultaneous hand shake to nose touching? Why the hell am I even googling this shit? Our practices, our traditions are not competencies. They are not credits towards NCEA level 2. To learn how to hongi does not mean you are one step closer to being culturally intelligent because although you know how to touch noses, you still might not understand the meaning, the why and value behind it.

I don’t really know where I’m going with all of this. I do know that on this journey to reclaiming my cultural identity there are some people who unintentionally make things a little harder. I guess that’s the difference between non-allies and allies. Allies know they aren’t Māori, they don’t want to be Māori, they want to be themselves and they want us to be ourselves. They don’t ask you to explain yourself or your culture and they don’t try to put you in a box so they can measure their cultural competency against an exemplar. That’s why we love them. Because they know where the tea towels are.


  1. Te Ao Maori Unit standards. Paved a way to recognise the innate skills of Social Service provision. It quantifies that these are the skills, abilities and competencies to connect with Maori communities. It was forged by the late Malcolm Peri. His aim was to challenge the brush off mentality of NZQA and the tokinistic nature of cultural recognition of effectiveness to Maori tikanga based systems. Kiaora.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kia Ora Sam, thank you for your comment! My initial reaction to your was defensiveness. Once I got over myself I saw your info in another light 🙂 what are your thoughts? I appreciate Malcolm Peris intent. I also wonder if by framing our practising eg skills, abilities and competencies, in a Pākehā way so Pākehā and Maori alike can understand? No disrespect at all, just curious question. Kia Ora.


      • Sorry I didn’t explain myself properly.. I guess what I’m trying to say is do you think in order to help Pākehā (and Maori like myself who are out of touch with their culture) needed it to be framed in a way the dominant culture can understand, eg Te Ao unit standards, so our culture would not only be taken seriously, but appreciated? I guess that’s what I was meaning by “they don’t put us in a box to measure their own cultural competency against an exemplar”. What are your thoughts e hoa?


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