‘I’m brown. But I’m also a white person.’

by Evelyn Marsters
Sun 11 Jun 2017
15 min read
2
  • The Marsters family in Berlin: Evelyn (second from left) with her brother William, dad Simon, mum Jennifer, and children Abel and Nina-Pearl.

This chapter by Evelyn Marsters, “Shifting Borders”, is extracted from Fair Borders? Migration Policy in the Twenty-First Century, published by Bridget Williams Books.

 

I’m thirty-six and sometimes I forget that I’m brown.

I’m not kidding — sometimes I catch myself in the mirror and I’m like, “Ah, that’s right, you’re a brown person.” But the truth is I’m also a white person.

I was two in 1982 when we crossed the Tasman Sea from New Zealand and moved to Queensland, Australia. My multi-ethnic, multi-coloured family was probably quite a shock in our newly carved-out brick-and-tile suburban neighbourhood.

In the 1980s there were only a scattering of people in Queensland who were not white. It was a poster-suburb for sandy white beaches and monoculturalism, so our presence caused some curiosity. My dad is brown, I am brown, my mother is white, and my brother is white.

During this time my father was often working in another part of Australia, so my white mother faced a probing of my brownness alone. One jolting incident — I personally can’t remember this, though I was there, but have been told the story by my mother — is set in a squash court changing room. My mother was changing her clothes when a woman asked if she had felt uncomfortable placing a coloured baby to her white breast.

Can you imagine how shocking it was? The embodiment of our familial love had been challenged on account of the colours of our skin. The retelling of this story made me aware that my otherness was, at times, painfully experienced by my mother.

In my early childhood I became aware of this subtle harassment. I attuned myself to the conversations of people sifting through our private lives, trying to make sense of our brown and white combination.

These moments made me want to reconstruct myself — into a white-faced little girl. I’d seen my mother put foundation on her face to give herself a caramel hue, and this seemed like a logical solution. So when I was around four years old, standing in an Australian chemist, I asked my mother to buy me the cream that would change my face.

 

1983, at the pharmacy. Tweed Heads, Gold Coast, Australia.

“Mum, you know that cream you put on your face to look brown? Is there a cream that I can use to make me look white?”

 

When I was eight we crossed the Tasman Sea again, this time towards Aotearoa New Zealand. The four of us resettled in a suburban coastal area north of Auckland.

I had overheard my parents talking about the noticing of my brown skin by other people in Queensland — the stares, the leers, the probing questions. In these hushed conversations, New Zealand was proposed as a more comfortable society for multicultural families. A place where Evelyn’s colour wouldn’t be such an issue.

Yet the place we arrived at, north of Auckland, was anything but diverse. In fact, it had all of the whiteness of Queensland. I noticed this immediately because when we arrived back in New Zealand I knew I was brown. I’d been in school for a few years by then, and the kids made sure I knew which side of the white/brown border I existed on.

In my Queensland primary school I had been one of only two children who weren’t white. In Ōrewa, I definitely wasn’t the only brown kid at school, there were just about enough to make up the front line of the kapa haka performance at end-of-year assembly. But even at this age I experienced feeling like a minority and different to the other children.

 

1989, at primary school. Ōrewa, Hibiscus Coast, New Zealand.

“Marmite! Marmite! Marmite! You’re the colour of Marmite! It’s like someone got poo and smeared it all over your face. Hahaha, you’re a poo face!”

“Sticks and stone may break your bones but words will never hurt me.”

“Whatever, you’re crying!”

 

Over time, my brownness became synonymous with long hurtful explanations and frustration. The outright colour shaming by children stopped at the exact moment that questions about my identity and cultural belonging by teenagers started.

In high school, a constant stream of justifications about my personhood needed to be made. Eventually I learned to push back against people’s prejudice and became more resistant to the questions. I started to tussle with the inquiries, and I tried to alert people to the ridiculousness of their questions. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr and Oprah were the subjects of my research studies; I was seeking an explanation for the racism I was experiencing.

I realise now that I was attempting to simultaneously exist on both sides of the white and brown axis, trying to protect the territory of my skin.

 

1993, on the school bus. Milford, North Shore, New Zealand.

“Where are you from, Evelyn?”

“I was born in Whāngārei.”

“No, but where are you from?”

“What do you mean? Whāngārei is in New Zealand. I’m from New Zealand.”

“No, like, why is your skin brown?”

“My dad was born in Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands.”

“Ah, so you’re an Islander.”

“Yeah, so are you. New Zealand is an island.”

“Nah, but you’re brown, you’re a brown Islander.”

 

In high school the categorisation of people into groups based on colour, class, gender and interest became overwhelming for me. Everywhere around me, other students wanted and needed to fit into and be placed inside boxes. Some people existed in overlapping boxes by playing sports and music, and some people were excluded completely from group membership.

I observed these memberships closely because I was confused by the tension between my personal and collective identities. I felt like my existence in multiple categories and social groups restricted me from feeling wholly present. I felt like I was being compartmentalised: it was like a violation of my physical body and my fragile teenage soul.

I am unsure how other teenagers negotiated these at times treacherous movements between social groups. Perhaps some people didn’t feel the same violence in being questioned about their identity.

On a really bad day, when I didn’t know where I belonged, I didn’t feel like retreating. I wanted to protest and shout, “Stop asking me questions about where I come from and why I look the way I do! Leave me and my body alone. Do you know what it feels like? Like you are violently reaching through my rib cage and trying to extract a blood quantum blueprint of my life.” I wanted to be heard and to exert my own identity, without being questioned about my collective membership to particular groups.

 

1995, in the principal’s office. Milford, North Shore, New Zealand.

“Evelyn, your home room teacher has sent you here because of an argument about filling in your correct details for the office.”

“But I did fill in the form correctly.”

“See this question here? It asks for your ‘ethnicity’ and you need to put down that you are a Pacific person.”

“Why? I’m a New Zealander too, a Pākehā as well. My mum is a Pākehā.”

“Don’t cause trouble, Evelyn.”

“But if I feel like a New Zealander and I am born in New Zealand then surely I am a New Zealander. I feel very strongly that I am a European New Zealander as well.”

“Evelyn, I’m going to be honest with you. We get more money from the government with the more Pacific people and Māori students we have in the school. So it’s important that you tick that box.”

“Oh okay, if that’s the case, then sure, I can be a Pacific person for you. But you are pushing me into ticking that box. White people like you obviously have a few issues with me trying to be white so I might as well give being brown a try.”

 

I asserted myself in the principal’s office that day not simply out of revolt, but because at that age I felt closest to my Pākehā heritage. I was being totally honest. At that time in my life I didn’t know much about being a Pacific person; I was raised in my mother’s world. Together my parents had built, from the ground up, a middle-class white lifestyle. Growing up I had horses, a swimming pool, international holidays and European cars. These in themselves felt like obstacles to confidently asserting myself as a Pacific person. Why? Because my life didn’t look like that of other Pacific families.

The back story is that my father was separated from his Cook Islands family in his early childhood. He knows only part of his migration story from Rarotonga because the trauma of the journey wiped his memory clean. What I do know is that he was abandoned, abused and orphaned and then became the foster child of a Presbyterian white couple who had one disabled son. His childhood movement across the New Zealand border fractured his link to the Pacific Islands.

However, his connection to his Cook Islands family was tenuously reasserted in his teenage years when his brothers and sisters were sent from Rarotonga to a nearby Waikato boarding school. In the next iteration of his life, parenthood provided my father with a new motivation to strengthen these fragile ties with his birth family. Not for his own sake, but for the sake of us, his children. I remember the first time I visited my grandmama’s house in the 1980s.

 

1980, at my grandmama’s house. Ōtara, Auckland, New Zealand.

“Mum, who is going to be there at the house where Grandmama lives?”

“I don’t know, there is always a lot of people there. Simon? Do you know who will be there?”

“No.” (My dad is not much of a talker, but looking back he was probably just as anxious as I was about seeing his family.)

“Evelyn, everyone is going to want to kiss you, it’s okay. Let them kiss you and kiss them back. If you can’t remember names call all the older men ‘Uncle’, and all the older women ‘Aunty’. All the children are your cousins.”

"Okay Mum."

I stepped over the wooden doorframe and pushed the white lace curtains out of the way. I looked into the sitting room and my eyes caught hold of a large, highly glossed picture of Jesus hung in centre place on the wall above the television. His hands were held outstretched in a familiar posture of welcoming. On the left-hand side of the Jesus picture delicately hung a fine string of yellow shells. The two other old-fashioned pictures on the walls also had these shell ‘eis draped on them.

I cast my eyes downwards to the worn, floral-patterned carpet and I was struck by a strong combination of smells. There was an aroma of steaming meat mixed with the earthy smell of soil and potato peelings. There was an acidic, urine-type smell blended with the sugary scent of coconut oil, Milo, milk powder and dust. I could smell dampness, mould and Sunlight soap. My senses were completely overcome and I was afraid.

My father gently pushed me into the living room and I found courage, looked up, and saw three large fleshy female bodies moving towards me. The bodies of these elderly women were rolling and wobbling underneath colourful flower-design dresses. They had delicate rito flowers behind their ears and all three aunties were wearing the exact same shade of red lipstick. Simultaneously the women encircled and enveloped me with their strong wide arms and I was pressed hard against their enormous breasts.

 

I was both terrified and excited that day in Ōtara, in a way that I never felt when I was with my mother’s Pākehā/Papa‘a family. This was probably the first time I had been at an occasion when brown people outnumbered white people. I remember the exhilaration of feeling whole and completely comfortable within my own skin. These visits raised other internal questions about family structure and class, but at last I felt I could be brown, entirely brown.

When I started university I held tightly on to moments like that afternoon in Ōtara and I reimagined and reasserted myself as a Pacific person. I boldly and proudly changed my ethnic questionnaire responses to “Pacific person”. The university, the doctors, the census, they all had me newly recorded as a brown person.

This reclassification of myself had less to do with strengthening cultural ties with my Cook Islands family and more about not being accepted as a white person. Being white had proved so difficult and tumultuous that I sought to claim my brownness and live as a Pacific person.

Unfortunately, I soon realised that the academy is also made up of rigid boxes, and that being brown was as much of a challenge as being white. At university there were new confrontations to my identity.

 

1998, on Symonds Street. University of Auckland, New Zealand.

“My dad is picking me up this afternoon. Here he comes now.”      

“Fark! Is that your dad’s car, does he drive a BMW?”

“Yeah, that’s him.”

“Hahaha! I knew you was a PLASTIC!”

“What do you mean? What’s a plastic?”

“You! You’re not a real Islander, you’re like one of those plastic hula girls that people put on the dashboard of their car. You’re a fake Islander.”

 

And so this wrestling continued into my twenties. However, during this phase of my life I had the tool of intellectual inquiry as a newfound vehicle to explore myself as an intergenerational migrant. It wasn’t obvious to me at the time, but the reason I became fixated on Cook Islanders’ migration was that it helped me to understand the lives of my own Cook Islands family, whom I hardly knew at all.

By designing research studies anchored in the Cook Islands I was able to immerse myself and increasingly participate in my heritage. That particular afternoon in Ōtara, etched so strongly in my memory, became a catalyst for wanting to know more about the people I had called Aunty and Uncle; about how their patchworked lives came together to form a family, an ānau.

I wanted my own mobile trajectory, to live a life which transcended the borders between New Zealand and the Cook Islands. Through my research I was seeking to mend the broken cultural link of my father’s generation. I also wanted to understand these Pacific migration systems theoretically, and how past colonial relationships meant that borders between the Pacific Islands and New Zealand existed for some, but not for others.

 

2002, at a Masters research proposal seminar. University of Auckland, New Zealand.

“Do you expect there will be any ethical tensions while you are researching in Mauke, Manihiki and Rarotonga? Will language and cultural protocols be an issue?”

“No, I don’t expect any. I am a Cook Islander.”

“So you speak Cook Islands Māori?”

“No, but most people speak English.”

“Were you born there?”

“No, my dad was.”

“Hmmm ... Right.”

 

I continued researching Cook Islanders’ transnational lives throughout my twenties and early thirties. What had started with careful listening to the stories of my father, aunts, uncles and grandmother became multi-site ethnographic research into the personal migration experiences of Cook Islanders.

Maybe I’m an illegitimate Pacific Islands second-generation migrant. A privileged know-it-all plastic. But these migrant stories, combined with my own reflexive identity inquiry, allowed me to realise that and write about how the struggle and pain caused by migration is intergenerational.

So while I was collecting stories to answer my post-graduate research questions, I also chronicled my own migration stories. These ones here. Mostly they are about being “too brown”, or “not brown enough”. They are stories about the borders that we reinforce inside ourselves; about the borders which rigidly exist within our societies. Some of these migration stories are painful and some are embarrassingly amusing. Like the time I lit a mosquito coil while on my first research trip to an outer island in the Cook Islands.

 

2003, Mauke. Cook Islands.

Metua came in and presented me with a packet of mosquito coils arranged neatly on an old saucer, with matches and a small silver stand for the coils. She closed the lever windows, telling me it was a good way to keep out the mosquitoes and the sounds of the pigs. She wished me a good rest and left through the makeshift pareu curtain door. I took the flat round pad from the packet. The dusty surface was marked clearly with coil designs. I found the small indented lines to fit in the silver stand and then lit the whole thing. I felt so authentic at that moment. I fell asleep feeling deliciously Polynesian.

I woke up in the middle of night suffocating from pesticide smoke. The smoke was so dense that I had crusty residue framing my eyes and my whole face was stinging. I remembered where I put the coil stand and felt around to find it. I found the saucer and my fingers moved through a fine powder so I could tell that the coils had finished burning. I opened the lever window and fell asleep again. I decided at that moment that I didn’t like mosquito coils and that I would rather sleep covered in DEET.

The next day I watched as a four-year-old lit a coil in the evening. He took the flat surface pad and popped out one coil, which he lit, leaving the other coil for another evening. I was so embarrassed. I hoped that Metua hadn’t seen my mistake and told other people in the village what a fool I had been. I felt sorrowful that I had failed. I could wear all the tiare-patterned dresses in the world and they would still know that I was a Papa‘a.

 

Although my Masters research was a success in the academic sense, the process did not settle my internal conflict between existing in both brown and white worlds. I still had much to learn about my ancestry, and my connections with my family and my own identity felt fragile.

What I didn’t expect was that, in my mid-twenties, I would become a mother and a wife, and these two events unexpectedly cemented me more closely to my Cook Islands heritage. The two significant events allowed me to participate in the rituals and ceremonies that surround Cook Islands women during these important times in their lives.

During my Masters research I had felt like an observer of my own culture. But as I grew older I started to recognise a dismantling of my internalised brown and white borders. It was maturity and adulthood that provided me with an opportunity to participate in the Cook Islands community.

Cultural ties — manifested in the form of the gifts of fabric, money and the wisdom of raising a healthy Cook Islands child — bound me more closely to my Cook Islands family; and even though motherhood came before marriage, and despite my family’s strong Christian faith, my decision to raise a child outside marriage was embraced. The focus was placed upon the resilience and health of our newly formed small family.

I still lived a middle-class Auckland lifestyle, but I found the movements between my life and the lives of my Cook Islands relatives easier to navigate because parenthood provided me with many shared experiences.

Two years later, at our wedding, I was gifted many tīvaevae and my cousin performed a solo dance for me and my husband. During this dance my whole body quivered from the enormous love that was being expressed to me through my cousin’s graceful movements. I cried because I was being celebrated as a Cook Islands’ bride, and included within significant traditions.

At my son’s hair-cutting ceremony my husband’s family and both my Pākehā and Cook Islands family came together to celebrate not only my son’s coming of age, but my new little family’s position within the wider ānau.

During this same period of my life, I also began PhD research, because although I felt less like I had to justify my belonging to Cook Islands culture, I still had many questions about how Cook Islanders co-exist in both New Zealand and Cook Islands societies.

This time around I reimagined and reintroduced myself in research and professional settings, as a “New Zealand-born Cook Islander”. At last I felt like I had found an equilibrium between my white and my brown heritage.

My life and my scholarly work existed across the cultural divide of my childhood, and as such, the colour of my skin and the multi-coloured skins of my family were no longer my cultural reference. I belonged to and participated in the culture of a second-generation Cook Islander born in New Zealand, and I felt grounded in both places.

By my thirties I had learnt more about the centrality of interpersonal relationships within Cook Islands culture, and my construction of a brown and white binary began to fade the more these relationships came into view.

I came to understand that my familial relationships were borderless. They exist through time, throughout space, and across generations.

 

2013, at a Cook Islands Health Conference. Avarua, Rarotonga.

“Meitaki maata, Evelyn, for sharing your PhD research findings. We would like to acknowledge what a great job you have done capturing the obstacles our people face when seeking health care in both New Zealand and here in the Cook Islands. We wish you all the best in your new life in Berlin. Do not forget about us, enjoy your time away, learn a lot, and then come ‘home’ to us.”

 

 

Shifting Borders, by Evelyn Marsters, is from Fair Borders? Migration Policy in the Twenty-First Century, edited by David Hall, and published by Bridget Williams Books, Wellington.

Evelyn is deputy editor at Impolitikal and a freelance academic consultant. She has a PhD in Development Studies from the University of Auckland. Her research interests include migration, transnationalism and remittances, health inequalities and Indigenous research methodologies. Her work to date has centred on the Pacific region, especially the Cook Islands and New Zealand. A mother of two, she currently lives in Berlin, where she is exploring ideas of personal and political borders.

 

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