10 Indicators of Tokenism. (Don’t be the token Maori)

Not really “getting” the jokes in the meeting room?

Finding the expectation to know EVERYTHING about Maori a bit much?

Having to explain some pretty basic cultural concepts?


Chances are YOUretro-pointing-finger are a token Maori.


So let me just get this clear in the beginning:

In New Zealand, Non-Maori need Maori more than Maori need Non-Maori.

And so it should be – because Maori is the INDIGENOUS story of the land. If you are a New Zealander in the fullest sense of the word, you will know and appreciate the complete history of your country. You will be Maori or a Maori ally, and you will be quite familiar with, and supportive of, the right for self-determination that belongs to all people, but most especially those who are living a colonized reality.

The world has come some way in relation to indigenous rights, and it’s generally understood that “best practice” in not-being-an-oppressive-paternalistic-colonial-wank is to defer to indigenous peoples in the definition of what is best for them.

And so it is that for most, if not all, publicly funded projects in Aotearoa can benefit from the presence of Maori. And as far as we’ve come, we haven’t yet gotten to the point where it’s accepted that actually – Maori should be leading, and at the center, of most NZ public projects.

Why? Well my uncle, Dr. Pat Ngata, used to say “Get it right for Maori and you get it right for everyone”. That wasn’t about being self-centered. It was about the simple fact that we feature across every aspect of the social spectrum. We are an incredibly diverse people, and so cater to the Maori experience, and you have a far better chance of catering for everyone, than any other ethnicity. That much, most funders are aware of.

So…. with that said, it should probably not be so surprising, that in this day and age, in spite of a good few decades of calling it out, we still find a lot of tokenism on committees, and in project teams. It’s such an ingrained behavior now, that many of our own are probably in that role right now, and likely in denial of it. If you’re in that role and quite happily aware of it, please click here.

For the rest of you, here are 10 indicators to help you figure it out…

1. You’re one of a small few, if not the only, Maori there

If you look around your team and realise you’re strongly outnumbered, guess what… you’re probs the Dr. Ropata.


2. The concept did not come from Maori

We don’t come up with EVERY good idea – but we are pretty damn smart, and resourceful. We’re also the only ones that can tell if it will work for us or not. So if the genesis of the idea was not located in Te Ao Maori, centered in Te Ao Maori or developed with a Maori ethos, from the outset, chances are it won’t look after our needs, and you’re just there for looks.

3. Nobody else in your group appreciates or understands tikanga, reo or Te Tiriti

If they don’t (want to) understand tikanga sure as shit they won’t (want to) understand the nuance of structural racism. Let me make this patently clear:

This. Is. Indigenous. Land.

Colonised indigenous land is STILL indigenous land. New Zealand is still indigenous land, albeit under colonial political control. Being a New Zealander, in it’s fullest sense, means understanding the indigenous story of Aotearoa. There are plenty of opportunities out there now to educate yourself on protocol and tiriti expectations – if your teammates don’t know it now, that’s a conscious choice of theirs and they most likely don’t WANT to know.

4. Whenever you open your mouth, it’s assumed you speak “for your people” not just yourself

If you are there for your own interests, or mandated to speak on behalf of your trust, or whanau, or even hapu – but are more often described as representing iwi or “Maori” interests – then you’re being used, Hori.

5. The impact of the committee/project/proposal is much farther than you, or the group you actually represent

You should only really be working within the boundaries of the group you belong to and mandated by. Making significant calls on behalf of others makes you no better than the paternalistic colonizers that have sat in your chair before you. Don’t colonize your own.

6. You find yourself internally rolling your eyes, or biting your tongue


If you’re finding yourself silently making a list of things that you need to “educate” the group about, when the truth of the matter is that they should have come to the table with a level of cultural education in the first place, there are two things happening: i) You’re not in a culturally safe, and culturally mature space to comfortably speak to the reality of indigenous experiences and ii) They don’t have the goods to work a meaningful relationship (see point 3).

Everyone in NZ, and in fact the world, should at this point be able to talk about issues such as institutional racism, or colonization, without being made to feel uncomfortable.

7. The entire group looks at you when they have questions about Maori as a whole

NOT you.

As mentioned earlier – there are plenty of opportunities for people to up their own baseline of knowledge, you DON’T need to be the authority on all things Maori. In any case – if it is something with Maori interests in mind, then this is a moot point, as it should be mainly Maori around the table.

8. You’re the “go to” person for karakia (prayer), and that is considered ‘involvement’

If you find the majority of your input is during the opening/closing karakia – and the eyes that look at you for the “Maori” opinion look elsewhere for the more technical issues… you’re probs the token Maori, bro.


9. They only ever want to meet, or celebrate, where they feel comfortable

If there are no actual meetings in marae, or in Maori communities, or other Maori meeting spaces, then chances are they’re simply not comfortable there, and don’t have strong relationships with the local Maori that are impacted by their activity. Might want to ask yourself why that is aye….

10. You’re expected to provide the Maori network

So if they have done their groundwork, valued their relationships with the tangata whenua, and especially if they have a good history of working with local Maori – you really SHOULDN’T be in the minority there from the outset. You should be in good company, and you shouldn’t be lumped with bringing other Maori into the space, or “working your community” to increase Maori participation.

So there you have it. If you can tick more than a few of these boxes… more than likely, someone’s ticking their box with you.

Yeah bro, you.