Genesis Te Kuru White was two years old when his father, Black Power leader Whitiaua Sonny White, decided that he wanted change for his whānau. The key to that change was reclaiming their taha Māori and learning what it meant to live as Māori. Here Genesis, who’s 31 now, tells Dale how that went.
Tēnā koe, Genesis. What’s the kōrero behind the names you carry?
Tēnā koe, mātua. When I was born, my pāpā held me in his hands, and the words he spoke over me were: “This fulla’s gonna witness the end times.” And with that he gave me the name Genesis.
And your middle name?
Te Kuru is my mum’s maiden name, and White is my pāpā’s surname. On our Te Kuru side, we whakapapa back to Te Arawa, Ngāti Pikiao, that area. The White name comes all the way from Ireland.
Can you tell us about your mum and dad’s lives, and maybe paint a picture of your whare with your brothers and sisters growing up?
My pāpā, Whitiaua Sonny White, hails from a long line of rangatira. His great-great-grandfather was William Bertram White, and my understanding is that he was a land surveyor. From what I read about him, he was the one who surveyed the Horowhenua.
His son, also William Bertram White, did mahi similar to his pāpā. One of them, I’m not sure which, was instrumental in setting up the constabulary here in Aotearoa.
Then you come down to Sonny White, my great-grandfather, the product of my Irish koroua and my kuia Hikihikinoa from Waikaremoana. Sonny White was married three times, I believe, and from each wife he had a number of children. My pāpā comes from the second marriage. His father was Raymond Titoko White, and his mother was Te Waiti Hare.
Going on to my mother’s whakapapa, she is Te Arawa on her father’s side and Ngāti Pūkeko, Ngāti Awa and Tūhoe on her mother’s. My mum is Tui Joanna Te Kuru and her father is Urikore Te Kuru. He comes from a place called Tapuaeharuru, on Lake Rotoiti. My nanny, Te Tira Kahurangi Te Kuru, came from Poroporo.
Thanks for that kōrero. Was your beautiful reo part of your childhood? Or did that come later in life?
I guess there is a whakapapa to everything, āe mātua? With that, I’ll tap into my Black Power whakapapa.
Back in 1992, there was a hui called for Black Power, and the kaupapa of that hui was: “Where to from now?” Those were hard times. There were big shifts happening around the country in regards to the Black Power nation. The hui was held in Whakatāne and there were 10 there from the iwi I belong to, Black Power Movement Whakatāne.
Everyone was invited to feed into the conversation. You’ve got to be mindful that, at this time, our people were very much disconnected and disenfranchised from who they were as tāngata whenua nei.
Well, after everyone had the opportunity of speaking, it came to my pāpā’s turn to speak, and he suggested something that was a bit out of the box for that time. He said: “Let’s try something that belongs to us, but we’ve never gone there before.” And they went: “What’s that?” And his reply was: “Our taha Māori.”
You’ve got to understand that none of them could speak Māori. The majority of them had little or no understanding of who they were as tangata whenua, so the response to that statement was along the lines of: “What the fuck? How the fuck is that going to fit into our world?”
This was the whakaaro. But my old man had anticipated that reaction, and his response was: “Kei te pai. I will commit myself, my wahine, and my children to the kaupapa. We’ll go out and seek the knowledge and bring it back.”
And on that journey, mātua — the learning of the reo and te ao Māori — we were opened up to that world by my pāpā and my mother making that decision in 1992, in order to create a platform for us as Black Power Movement Whakatāne to stand on.
I was two years old at the time. There are seven of us, and I’m the sixth.
There’s a richness to your thinking, bro, that belies some of that negative perception that gang culture has, but what’s the story of you and your whānau? I’m picking your dad was a member of the BPs well before you came along. Did you grow up in a house where Black Power was normal and celebrated?
My pāpā was one of two national rangatira in the Black Power Movement. And, yes, Black Power was very much a part of our upbringing. But what Black Power Movement meant to us might not be the same as for somebody else, you know what I mean?
As far as I was concerned, Black Power Movement was about us discovering, defining, and becoming conscious of our taha Māori and who we were as Māori — and being able to maintain that in our lives.
As far as the partying and the raging and all that stuff goes, when I was younger none of that stuff was in our life. It actually wasn’t allowed to be there.
As far as my pāpā was concerned, he had a mission, and he set out on that mission, and he did everything that he could to ensure that we were given a platform to know and understand who we are as individuals, as tāngata whenua, as Māori.
And, from there, to be able to utilise that knowing and understanding to take Black Power Movement Whakatāne to another space, to another level.
Is your dad still with us, bro?
He died two years ago. His unveiling is in a couple of months.
Let’s talk about schooling and work. Were you known as a Black Power associate in high school? Did you already wear the gears? Did people look down their nose because of your connection to the rōpū?
No, not really. We were lucky enough to be brought up in a whare that was very te ao Māori-driven and focused — though by no means were we perfect. My pāpā had his own demons. My mum had hers. And some of that was passed on to us.
My dad had been in jail twice for manslaughter. He wanted to change, and to make change for us, but it didn’t happen overnight. You can decide to change and put yourself on a new path, but it doesn’t make that path any easier.
Dad was constantly battling the demons from his past — and we, his whānau, bore the brunt of that. There was violence at home, fighting between my parents. So it wasn’t an easy transition.
But they got there in the end. It was my mother and his culture that saved my pāpā and pulled him out of that way of thinking and being.
And that’s what saved us too, in the end. At the core of it, we had tikanga and kawa, so whenever we stepped out, we stepped into that space knowing who we were. I believe that people saw that, and the fact that we were Black Power didn’t really matter to them.
So no, mātua, we didn’t have that sort of āhuatanga. I definitely saw it, but I never felt it directly.
The well-publicised battles with the boys in red, the Mob. These guys grow up in proud Mob houses, too, and Mob whānau, and they’re all Māori. Can you explain why there’s such tension at times between the BP and the Mob. How do you kōrero about it, bearing in mind that we’re all Māori men?
I think there’s plenty of examples in our history as tāngata whenua where there’ve been those tensions between different groups or ideologies or whakapapa. It’s not a new thing.
What’s key for me is that there are also examples in our history of where those whakapapa have come together. And, for me, my focus is not about the tension but how we find a way forward so we can create safe environments for our children and our mokopuna.
My focus is not about my time, it’s looking into the future. And what drives me is knowing that we have mokopuna and mokopuna tuarua and tamariki coming up behind us.
I guess like my father before me, the important question for me is: “What are going to leave for them? Are we going to pass on all the bullshit that was passed on to us? Or are we going to create a new pathway moving forward?”
How’s it working in your personal circumstances, Genesis? Are your own kids following in your footsteps?
It’s not about them following in my footsteps, it’s about understanding that you have your own feet and your own life to walk. And, at the end of the day, my role as a pāpā and within Black Power Movement Whakatāne is to create a safe space to the best of my abilities, so that people can discover and define and maintain who they are.
What’s the background to the establishment of Black Power? Do you know its history?
My understanding of our history is that it was through racial tension that our forefathers came together. At the time, there were the likes of the Black Panthers in the US doing what they were doing.
The whakapapa that I was given by my rangatira (Bongee Mahauariki) was that, before Black Power even became what it became, the rangatira Ray Harris in Wellington had a crew called the Black Bulls.
In Whakatāne at that time, there were 200 teenage boys at the Whakatāne High School who were part of a group called the Rat Patrol. They heard about Ray Harris and went down to Wellington and joined in on what he was doing. They decided they needed a stronger name, so they took away “Bull” and put “Power” up there.
How would you describe our people on the marae, around the community, the relationships that they have with Black Power? Do they see whanaunga rather than a patched member?
It really depends on who you are, where you are, what you do, what you think. I can only speak for the iwi and the hapū that I belong to (Te Tini o Meketū ki Whakatāne — Black Power Movement Whakātane) because there are many different facets of Black Power, as there are in the Mongrel Mob or any social group.
Even in te ao Māori, we have our waka, and from those waka there are many iwi, and within those iwi there are many hapū, and within hapū there are whānau, and within those whānau are individuals. And so, throughout all of that, you have different personalities, different ways of thinking and whakaaro.
To answer your question, it really depends on who you are, mātua. It really does. I’ve seen situations where a group of people have gone onto a marae with their patches and they’ve been asked to leave. Then you have us, where we’ve come to that very same space and, because we don’t have the same take, we are welcomed.
And I think what that goes back to is us being who we are as Māori, as tangata whenua, and the way we conduct ourselves.
Guys drawn to gangs — often the picture is painted of people disjointed from the richness of our taha Māori, but is poor schooling also part of the problem? Is it factors like illiteracy that sees guys clustering together as gangsters?
Everyone has their own reasons as to why they join something, right? It may not necessarily be a gang, it could be a rugby team, a rugby league team. From what I’ve observed, everyone gets grouped into this one pot, and gets labelled.
For example, Māori have been grouped into this single identity, but when you look within that group, there’s many different people, many different whakaaro, and everyone has their own mana.
The problem with grouping people into one space is that their identity, their whakaaro, their mana becomes overlooked. What happens is you have this group of people, in this case “gangs”, that have been labelled this thing, and are now being tarred with the same brush.
What’s important to me is to ensure that, again, a space or platform is created where people can define and discover who they are as individuals. And be united in that knowing, in order to move as one.
Have you done time, cuz?
No. But I’m nowhere near perfect. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve been in periodic detention and under supervision. That was the result of a gang fight and being arrested for domestic violence.
I’m not proud of that. I’ve had my own ailments as an individual — my own battles, my own development, my own insecurities. But those experiences have brought me to where I am today. I’m doing the best I can, and I learn and keep learning — and I’ve strived to stay on the right path, and to better myself.
And, as I said, I think that comes back to my upbringing and to the decisions made by my parents way back when we were babies, to follow a different pathway for us. Our culture has given me the foundation to be able to lift myself out of the darkness.
What sort of mahi have you done over the years?
Well, I’ve been a part of many different kaupapa. I’ve been around the world. We’ve established our own kura. Now I’m at Waikato University.
I don’t know too many BP guys who are fluent in te reo and studying at Waikato University. It paints a vastly different picture from the usual perception people have of Black Power. On the writing, how did you develop the confidence to put your thoughts down on paper and have it critiqued by people and enjoyed by people?
Again, I go back to the foundation that was laid in the whare that I grew up in. For me, the only challenge is finding a pen! The words, the thinking, the whakaaro, the concepts — they all come from the household I was raised in.
What do your mates from the BP think of you being a writer?
Oh, I don’t know, mātua! I never asked them.
You’ve never asked them?
You might have to go and ask them yourself!
Ah, good on you! I talked to Harry Tam the other day, and there’s almost a fascination in the wider public about gang culture. A kōrero like this, along with pieces you’re writing, counteract a lot of the negative stereotypes, but as you touched on before, our people have been painted in a negative light for so long.
What’s important is us defining ourselves on our own terms and not letting labels keep us boxed up in this restrictive way of thinking.
I go back to my upbringing, and the values, the knowledge, the mātauranga, the examples that were taught to me. The sort of whakaaro and ideals and tūmanako that I grew up listening to were about tino rangatiratanga, mana motuhake, self-determination, self-actualisation.
Determine your own destiny, determine your future — those were the sort of whakaaro that were taught to me as a young boy.
That’s what Black Power Movement means to me: to become conscious, to bring to life, to discover myself, to define myself, to maintain that discovery and those definitions. Then we can move together as a unit, as one.
While we may carry that warrior within, we’re nurturers and teachers and supporters as well. Do you think sometimes people can only see one side of the man when he has a patch on? You know, not acknowledging that he’s a dad and a grandad and a supporter of community and sport.
It all depends on your understanding of what that word “warrior” means, nē?
As children, we learned that a warrior is a multi-faceted thing. It’s about striving to be a good pāpā, it’s about striving to be a good man, it’s about striving to be a protector — it’s about being all these and many other things.
Things that I’m still learning and working on.
You know, white New Zealand is pretty threatened by BP guys and their leather jackets and patches. It’s quite out of their comfort zone. But do they have any need to be threatened or uncomfortable in your presence?
Let me answer that this way. The patch does not define who I am. What I do defines me. My behaviours and my actions define me.
Going back to my pāpā, he talked about a time where the patch would only be used for ceremonial purposes. That was part of his vision back in 1992. That whakaaro has taken 30 years for our people to be okay with, and to get used to.
At the end of the day, we know who we are inside. We know who we whakapapa from. I can only speak for me, but I only wear my patch for ceremonial purposes. That’s the only time you’ll see me wearing my korowai.
I want to acknowledge the mahi you’re doing. What are you studying at varsity, Genesis?
Indigenous studies and Bachelor of Arts in te reo.
Beautiful. And what else do you do? Got any interesting things that you do outside of what we’ve been speaking of?
I’ve been a part of so many things, mātua, it’s not funny! I sailed across the Pacific. That was interesting.
On the voyaging waka?
Yup, a few years ago. It was the Waka Tapu expedition in 2013 with Jack Thatcher and Hector Busby.
What impact did that experience have on you?
A huge one! It gave me the ability to step out of the environment that I was in and to be able to get some perspective on it.
I remember one of the nights I was out there on deck, and as I was reciting a few karakia, the words were jumping out in front of me, and it was like: “Wow, is this what my ancestors saw?” As I was going through those ancient karakia, I could visualise exactly what our tūpuna experienced.
And just thinking about what our ancestors did, what they achieved, was another reminder to me of who we are as Māori and where we came from.
Yeah, we’re human, but we can do better, be better — and that’s what I’m striving for.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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