Dr Sereana Naepi

Wouldn’t it be nice for my daughters if they didn’t have to think about camouflage all the time, and their clothes, and their voice, and their manner, and the way that they run meetings, and manage their relationships with co-workers. If they didn’t have to go camouflage all the time.”

This quote is from a Pacific woman working in a New Zealand university, and comes from Sereana Naepi’s PhD thesis Beyond the Dusky Maiden, Pasifika Women’s Experiences Working In Higher Education. Sereana, who’s now working in Canada, spoke to 27 women for her research. Here she explains why it was necessary, and what they told her.


I worked in Aotearoa universities for more than 10 years and, during that time, there were moments when I was treated dismissively — either because I was Pacific, because I was a woman, or because I was young.

The experience that most sticks with me is when I sat in a meeting and had an associate dean ask me to stand up and turn around, at which point he said: “I don’t know what you are concerned about — your butt is not that big.”

Until then, I’d been attending faculty-sponsored gym sessions with him and other faculty members. But this was in an admissions meeting.

It’s one of many moments during my education that have cemented for me that things needed to change, and urgently. Pasifika women have always been change-makers for their communities, and I realised that I needed to speak with them.

While I was working on my PhD, I had my daughter, Alice, and it feels a little bit by design that I got to speak with amazing Pacific women while becoming a mother. They gave me the confidence that I could be both an academic and a mum, while also sharing honest stories about the reality of that.

The Pacific women I spoke to helped me to articulate the world I lived in and the world my daughter would live in.

There’s been a recent trend in writing to our children, to let them know honestly about the world they’re going to face. Books like I’ve been meaning to tell you: a letter to my daughter, Between the World and Me, and Dear Ijeawele, in which parents try to explain to their children a world where the body they inhabit will affect how people, structures, and the world responds to them.

When I think of my own daughter, I realise that, at some point, we’re going to have to talk about how being a Pacific female means she’ll experience discrimination based solely on the body she inhabits.

Yes, I’ll be able to point to some amazing Pacific women leaders — like Saunoamaali’i Dr Karanina Sumeo, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner, Dr Selina Tusitala Marsh, our outgoing poet laureate, Tiana Epati, the president of the New Zealand Law Society, and so many others.

Saunoamaali’i Dr Karanina Sumeo, Tiana Epati, Selina Tusitala Marsh.

But I’ll also have to work out how to explain that her journey to great things will be a little bit harder because of how society continues to reward white and masculine behaviours and not recognise the power behind a Pacific female.

Will the letters we write to our daughters have to explain that moment when you’re five minutes late to a meeting and jokes are made about island time, yet your Pālagi colleague is able to slip in and make excuses about coming from another very important meeting (an example of hyper-surveillance)?

Will we have to use that moment to teach them about how some bodies are inscribed with stereotypes that mean, when we falter, our community is judged, not just ourselves?

Will our letters describe that moment when you’re not recognised as being able to hold authority in a space (infantilisation)?

Will we recount stories and laugh about how somebody thought we were the cleaner, the caterer, or simply lost — as opposed to the keynote, the manager, or a guest? (The Pasifika women in my research who shared these moments also gave tips on how to correct someone while maintaining that person’s mana. Unsurprisingly, it involves a bit of Pacific humour.)

Will our daughters be filled with rage when they read about the history of the dusky maiden stereotype and media representations of Pacific females that have led to some men feeling they have a right to our bodies?

We’ll need to make decisions about just how much to share. Do they really need to know about that time you were asked to stand up in a board meeting and to then have the most powerful white male in the room comment on your body to everybody’s laughter?

Or perhaps there are worse stories we can’t bring ourselves to share?

Or perhaps we’ll just share the little things, like how we were taught to clean up and care for those around us, so sometimes we end up doing the extra labour of the staffroom dishes and giving a team member a hug and a laugh during a tough time in their life.

This extra labour won’t be recognised and in some cases may even be resented or, in the worst case scenario, used as an example of how you’re not committed to your job as you spend too much time caring for spaces and people.

How do you explain to someone what being the only Pacific female in a room, a department, or a whole institution feels like? That, as a minority, you’re marked as out of place (a space invader) and therefore your behaviours are judged more critically than others — or those around you simply make comments to ensure you know you don’t belong (stranger making). Or the double-take that sometimes happens when you enter a room because you’re so clearly “other” (disorientation).

How do we even begin to talk about the structures that exist to exclude us? That, most of the time, it’s not individuals who hinder Pacific peoples’ progress, but, instead, it’s the very structures and habits they’re invested in that are creating brick walls to hinder our progress.

We must tell our daughters that our fight is a fight with a system.

Unfortunately, as we share our stories, it becomes clear that we are navigating very specific barriers. As Pacific women, we face everyday racism and sexism that can become exhausting and frustrating to move around. Even in the most liberal of spaces, such as universities that publicly commit to being a space that welcomes and celebrates Pasifika, we see a pattern of racism and sexism.

And it is these daily occurrences of hyper-surveillance, infantilisation, sexism, stranger-making, disorientation, brick walls, and extra labour, that can be attributed to the low representation of Pacific females in leadership positions in New Zealand universities.

It’s not that we’re not capable. It’s that the current system doesn’t value us completely. Or, as one of my collaborators in my research stated:

. . . if I have just spent energy managing the room so that people aren’t inappropriately in my space. Oh, my male colleagues aren’t doing that. It’s not the part of their brains that’s being used. Look how smart I could be, if I wasn’t constantly managing all of these pricks. If I wasn’t looking in the mirror in the morning and going, “Am I sending a message here, with my clothes, that is gonna be misinterpreted?”

When I think of the letters we’d write to our Pacific daughters, I know that it won’t just be filled with these stories. Epeli Hau’ofa once wrote that Pacific people’s “capacity for laughter, for grabbing moments of joy in the midst of suffering, is one of the most attractive things about our islands. We laugh and we cry and we often do them simultaneously.”

I imagine this is what our letters to our daughters would look like. Yes, there would be the difficult stories, but there would also be stories of laughter and resilience.

When I asked Pacific women about working in New Zealand universities, they shared experiences of racism and sexism, but they also shared experiences of transforming the university and stories of other Pacific women who had nurtured them and supported them in their journey.

It’s strength in numbers, which you’ve got to have the support of those around you because, you can beat something when there’s more of you behind it. It’s hard to do by yourself.

This is the greatest strength we give our daughters: our community and our ability to experience joy in the midst of difficult times.

Ultimately, what we want as Pacific women is not to need to write these letters to our daughters. What we want is a world where our daughters don’t need to dull their shine, where their Pacific knowledge is esteemed, and where they don’t need to hide.

We want a world where it isn’t necessary to explain to them that the body they inhabit means the world will treat them differently. Instead, the only letter we should need to write to our daughters is one that celebrates who they are and the generations of Pacific women who came before them.


Dr Sereana Naepi is named after her great-grandmother who raised her mother in the village of Nakida, in Natasiri, Fiji. Sereana grew up in Mt Wellington, Auckland, and now lives in Canada. Sereana’s research focuses on higher education, Pasifika, and Pacific research methodologies, and is aimed at transforming education systems into spaces and places where every learner can be successful. She is currently the associate director of All My Relations at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, and will be returning to Aotearoa in January 2020 to teach sociology at the University of Auckland.

© E-Tangata, 2019

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