I was rehearsing a speech in Māori the other day when my 10-year-old son interrupted me to ask if, at the end of my total immersion reo Māori course, I would graduate as “a full Māori”. I had to pay him 20 bucks to use that quote in a public forum. That was the deal. But I think it was worth it, because his faux pas really got me thinking.

As a pale-skinned Māori, I’m often asked how much Māori blood I have, as though a Maori identity can be more concentrated in some than in others. Not to mention the awkward questions like: “Are there any full-blooded Māori left?” and “Are you a quarter or an eighth?”

I don’t think anyone means any harm by these queries and I try not to be offended because I think they come from genuine curiosity. But it’s difficult to explain whakapapa in a language that is widely understood. After all, you can’t “see” whakapapa. Colour, on the other hand, is very visible.

So, despite my discomfort in these situations, more often than not I find myself drawn into the conversation. I point to brown objects in the room, like a freshly steeped cup of black tea, or the wooden dining table, and I say ridiculous things like: “My brothers are that colour — you know, really quite brown.” And when I explain that, for some reason, I just came out white, people have been known to remark with an air of generosity: “Oh, but now you mention it, I can see it in your nose and lips!”

The sad thing about these exchanges is not that people sometimes believe your physical characteristics can determine your identity — it’s just the way human beings tick. We all take short cuts at times, and we put people in boxes based on assumptions that may be completely false. It doesn’t make us bad people.

But what is sad, is when we assume that legitimacy and belonging are one and the same — and that, in order to belong to a certain group, you have to be legitimate according to some external and objective criteria. (Perhaps there’s even a course you can do, and a qualification you can get?)

Legitimacy works a bit like a gate, allowing some people in and keeping others out. We may resent it when people think that skin colour or the shape of your nose can indicate your identity. But it’s not the only criteria at work. I’ve experienced plenty of situations, for example, where I’ve felt like I wasn’t a “real Māori” because I didn’t have the reo. Or because I couldn’t stomach kina. Or because I have no “natural rhythm”, and couldn’t do a convincing pukana to save myself.

Of course, that gate works both ways. When I beat the competition at the Papakura inter-school cross-country at the age of eight, it was attributed to my “Māori blood”. It’s no surprise then that the times when I feel like I most belong as Māori is not on a marae, but on a sportsfield.

Ascribing positive character traits to others based on their ethnicity might sound like a compliment, but it’s no less diminishing than giving them negative ones — as Morgan Godfrey writes in e-tangata (Warrior race?). The truth is, there is no single legitimate way to be Māori. Or perhaps more accurately, there are many ways to be Māori — just as there are many ways to be Pākehā.

Some people never feel any confusion or self-doubt about their identity, and I envy them. But for me, with Māori and Pākehā whakapapa, I have always felt as though my identity was constructed on shifting sands. One minute I belong as Māori — the next minute I feel like I’m on the outside looking in. One minute I belong as Pākehā — the next I feel like I don’t fit in at all.

Sometimes I feel like I have to choose between the two, as though belonging is a mutually exclusive affair — and that it isn’t possible to be both Māori and Pākehā at the same time. That by claiming one identity, I’m denying or rejecting the other. Or worse, that certain positive traits can be attributed to one “side” of me and certain negative ones to the other.

It hasn’t always been clear to me why I’ve felt this way, except that often my belonging seemed to be judged by others based on their idea of what a legitimate Māori identity is, or ought to be.

Of course, it doesn’t help matters when I fuel these judgments with my own insecurities. Like comparing myself to those whose reo or understanding of tikanga or appetite for kina is so much better than mine. Or chastising myself when I don’t look the part. Or pronouncing words wrong. Or sneaking off to a motel because I just can’t do another night on the marae. “Motel Māori” — that’s me.

If there’s one thing that has helped settle these doubts about my identity, it’s been learning to speak Māori. And that’s not because it’s given me legitimacy. It’s because it’s given me a sense of belonging. It seems so obvious after the fact, but of course language would be the key. When I was 17, I went to Chile as an AFS exchange student and, at the end of the year, I could speak Spanish with some fluency. And more importantly, I felt like I belonged.

Nobody questioned my right to speak Spanish, or the legitimacy of my sense of belonging despite not being Chilean. What’s more, I didn’t have to speak Spanish perfectly. The language was merely a vehicle of communication and connection, at the same time as it gave me a new lens through which to view the world.

So belonging and legitimacy are not the same. Legitimacy is an ideal — an impossible, elusive, and not particularly helpful ideal. It’s also a gate that is often controlled by others, and is based on their own preconceived ideas about who is allowed in and who is not.

Belonging, on the other hand, comes from within. It doesn’t require us to be the best or the most fluent. It shouldn’t require us to elevate one part of our ethnic make-up and subjugate another. Nor can it be determined by what we look like or any other narrow criteria.

Belonging is simply about a connection to people and a shared understanding of the world.


© E-Tangata, 2015

More info

Morgan Godfery - Warrior race? Pull the other one

Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.

If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.