I’m going to wade into this debate in much the same way I would a sediment laden, dodgy smelling stream. A little resentfully, and not really enjoying it.
I’m not a fan of pageants – even when indigenous women take top place and use the position to bring awareness to important issues – I still struggle to see any intrinsic value to this weird ritual that reminds me a little bit of the livestock parade at the A&P show. They are cisgender normative, outdated, retrogressive hangovers that are, at their core, demeaning, superficial, and misogynist. I know a lot of very intelligent and well-meaning women enter them – I wish they wouldn’t. The Miss World NZ website writes effusively about the “Beauty with a Purpose” theme of the pageant which attempts to make a superficial judging of appearance ok by coupling it with community service. It’s depressing to have to point this out in 2015: Your, or anyone’s, construct of physical beauty has SWEET F.A. to do with purpose, or value. Miss Universe, Miss World, and any other pageant who disqualifies you for having had a child, or parenting a child, or having been married – and judges you based on your appearance in a swimsuit and an evening gown, in addition to a brief personality interview – can just go and get naffed.
That said there is a broader issue at play, with Lambie-gate, that I do wish to comment on.
It should be said, first and foremost, that I do not in any way condone bullying. Online or anywhere else. Some of the posts towards Deborah Lambie have been outright attacks. Some of the people I love most dearly in this world have come out in strong defence of Deborah, and spoken against the vitriol being sent toward her and the tutor she hired. For some of them this has triggered memories of cultural shaming that many of us, at some point or another (myself included) have experienced and they have used this issue to highlight the problematic nature of cultural shaming. Ka pai (so long as you’re not actually making this about you standing up for the time you got shamed). Many of Deborah’s, and her tutor Kereama’s, supporters, say that her heart was in the right place and this is what mattered. That she was guided by a kapa haka expert and going through him was the right thing to do. That Kereama followed a sound process – and everything is fine, and so let’s not get all judgey judgey ok? Ya meanies.
First of all, we should divest ourselves of the rhetoric, and that applies to both sides. Just because someone does not agree with what has happened here, does not mean that they condone or support bullying; nor that their concerns, some of which are entirely valid, constitute bullying. Does Deborah deserve to be called all manner of names? No. Are there some very valid concerns regarding this turn of events? Well to my mind, yes, and we should be able to talk about them without being lumped with the bullies. So let’s put the bully behaviour to the side (seeing as we all agree it’s uncalled for) and talk about the issues that still require, and deserve, dialogue here.
Let’s start with the issue of unequal standards. Miss World has an altogether RIGOROUS set of standards, as do the various national level pageants. In addition to requiring what John Oliver calls a “mint condition uterus” – contestants are expected to turn themselves out in nothing less than their very finest attire. A standard of excellence is expected of their dress, their behaviour, their health, their appearance, their personality, their charm. This is, after all, an international competition. Excellence is to be expected.
Except of course for haka. When it comes to haka, the important thing is that you gave it a shot and your heart was in the right place.
Now, the appropriateness of the other criteria aside – Honestly I’m at a loss as to why haka does not deserve a standard of execution excellence in the same way that the other criteria do. If anything, I would hope that your aptitude in cultural representation is accorded more mana than how you fill an evening gown. And here is where we get to the ngako of the issue: there is a structural failing in the Miss World, New Zealand pageant system that fails Maori just as much as pageants intrinsically fail women.
Let’s look, again, at the qualifying criteria for Miss World NZ:
That third to last line: “Have knowledge of the culture and values of New Zealand”.
Again – I’d love to know – what depth of knowledge, and what type of culture, were Deborah’s qualifications assessed by in order for her to win this national title? As she’s already admitted – prior to this competition, she has never spoken Maori nor been involved in haka. I’m not sure whether she is aware of the very political issue (for Maori) of cultural competency in NZ (and for that matter, I’m not sure if her tutor is aware of them also – because, you see, being an expert in kapa haka does not necessarily mean you are familiar with the political and social ramifications of cultural integrity. He may well be aware of them, but my point is that one does not necessarily equal another, and assuming he can be the cultural reference point for all of these things is also problematic).
Seeing as the “qualification” just above cultural knowledge is a level of familiarity with national political issues, I would like to think she is aware of this very political issue for Maori – but the assumption that one without any prior involvement in reo or haka can learn it in six weeks to a standard that would “showcase” or pay homage to Maori culture is, at best, naïve.
But to bring this back to the system – how does someone manage to win a title that places her in an ambassadorial role for our nation, one that requires knowledge of the culture and values of our land – when that same person, by her admission and that of her tutor, has NO prior knowledge of the culture of the first PEOPLE of this land?
Oh no wait I do. Systemic and institutional racism. That stuff which exists in our justice and corrections system that leads to unjust levels of incarceration for Maori and Pacific Islanders. That economically disadvantages us, forcing us to live far from our cultural womb, isolating us from our most authentic, ancestral, learning spaces. That same system which makes it much more likely for one kind of New Zealander to be a doctor, and another kind to be a patient. It’s the kind that means that for the duration of your medical education you would have only been required to take a minimal amount of papers on Maori realities, even though we are the culture upon which this land is built – and even though we are more likely to fill your patient list. That stuff that exists in our education system, which erases our history, and assimilates our tongues and minds, and makes Maori the “other” in our own land. That doesn’t accord Te Ao Maori the same depth of relevance, in the school experience, as English, Maths or Science. That stuff that makes a year 12 education compulsory, but knowledge of the first people of this land a “nice to have”.
See – that’s exactly the system which leads to someone, with the very best of intentions, hiring a tutor to teach them whatever they can in 6 weeks – and the lack of Non-Maori political attention paid to issues of Maori cultural competency means that the gravity, and repercussions, of this issue can be entirely escaped by the student, and the tutor, until it is too late – and can be easily downplayed or neglected in the subsequent discussion. This system placed all of them in a vulnerable position.
I am very glad that Kereama Te Ua spoke up to take ownership for his role as the kaiako. Again – I don’t think the outright verbal assault on social media was warranted, or dignified, or right. I disagree with those who say that you invite such abuse when you place yourself on the public stage. Valid criticism and abuse are different. I have to say though – that the grey area between the two may be crossed because our people are, overall, tired at seeing our own ways continually minimalized. I have NO problem with haka wahine. I have NO problem with Non-Maori learning about and taking part in haka – we have an abundance of non-Maori in Matatini, and so very many Non-Maori allies who are beautiful, strong and important parts of our story.
I very much have a problem with a system that disempowers the mana of the people of the land, relative to that of other cultures.
And here, we have the response from Deborah herself:
Now. Deborah’s aforementioned assumption notwithstanding, I have tried to limit my discussion to the system rather than the individual. But I read this response, and it made me bristle.
You see, Deborah: this is not a culture from your country. It is the culture of your country. By rights, all New Zealanders should be raised with a level of familiarity and fluency in Maori. But we’re not, because it has been historically erased, minimalized and is consistently seen as optional. That means that you and I can grow up in the same country, and yet inhabit completely different worlds. That means that systemically I’m likely to be much more disadvantaged than you. If we step back, and look at this from a multigenerational perspective, that consistent minimalisation and disadvantage – has contributed to a lack of cultural wellbeing, and an “othering” of Maori – issues that have direct economic, health, and social implications for the family lines of people like me, but not for family lines of people like you.
We are a complex people, given to spirited debate. We are a wounded people, given to fierce defensiveness of what we have left. We are a weary people, and the fatigue of seeing approximations of our ways can, at times, be too much. We’re not walking away from the challenge of working together for a better country for all of us. We never have – in fact that is the very struggle we have been engaged in for 155 years now and will continue to be engaged in for the sake of our survival.
If you want to be a doctor to my people (and you most likely will) – I have expectations of you, and that will include you seeing the INTRINSIC value of Maori culture – not just because it might make you a better doctor (and of course it will) but because you know it will make you a better New Zealander. Ideally, you would have understood, held, and acted, upon this value long before being prompted to through a pageant.
If you want to be an ambassador for my Aotearoa – I have expectations of you, and I am unapologetic for that. They extend beyond a six week crash course in haka. They will include an appreciation and understanding of the nuance of challenges we face in relation to cultural integrity and historical trauma. They will include an understanding of the spiritual and political nature of what you place on an international stage, and what that means for us. They will include a baseline appreciation of reo and tikanga. They include an understanding that the very best of our allies do not seek to speak for us, but to empower and support our voices wherever possible. I honestly DON’T care what you look like in a swimsuit or evening gown – if you have seriously committed yourself to these with an understanding of their vital importance and mana IN ORDER to adequately represent my Aotearoa – you will be all things beautiful, to me. I’m confident you can be this.
Understand this, though – your interest in the Maori culture is not a favour to me. It is a favour to yourself, and the rightful duty of all who call themselves New Zealanders. I support your interest, I celebrate it, but it is not something that I am responsible for. In much the same way – I am not responsible for anyone who chooses NOT to take it up, or to walk away from it because they are uncomfortable.
See – we don’t get to walk away from the discomfort we experience as Maori in the MULTITUDE of culturally unsafe spaces that we are forced to navigate, in our own land, every day. In our schools and universtites, or in the council chambers, or being stopped by police, or in the courtrooms, or in business, or in the hospital, or seeking houses.
You ask me “Are we for each other? For creating a future where we can work together to reduce inequality and encourage understanding between each other? Or will we be so critical of others who have made steps to do so, that others will be afraid to try?”
I don’t know, Deborah – are you “for me”? If you are, how long have you been “for me”? Were you for me 7 weeks before the pageant, or 7 years before the pageant?
You want to co-create a future with better understanding between each other… will you seek to understand what sits beneath the concerns for this issue, or will you exacerbate the issue by blaming us for the lack of cultural knowledge amongst pakeha New Zealanders, rather than the hugely racist system that makes our cultural knowledge inaccessible for Non-Maori AND many Maori. I hear this line of “no wonder nobody wants to learn about Maori culture” so often and honestly it’s annoying. Learning the culture of this land is NOT something you should want to put on like a hat you like one day and don’t like the next. It is a part of you, through being a part of this land. If we hadn’t have had our culture ripped from us and systematically erased from our collective national knowing in the first place – then the issue of people accessing it, or being defensive about it, or being afraid of it, or “wanting” to learn it, or whatever, would be a moot point wouldn’t it?
I wholeheartedly support your move to learn more about the first people of your land. You strike me as a genuine person with good intentions, and I hope fervently that your journey will provide a greater understanding of how issues such as this play out for Maori futures.
And pageants still suck.