Everyday acts of colonisation — “all those nasty, casual, overt, or coded interactions that all people of colour are accustomed to as part of our day-to-day existence” — require everyday acts of resistance, writes Aroha Gilling.
I was privileged to hear the late Moana Jackson speak on many occasions, and I never failed to be enthralled, challenged, and inspired by his content, demeanour, and ability to capture an audience and carry them along.
He provided me with the phrase “everyday acts of colonisation” — all those nasty, casual, overt, or coded interactions that all people of colour are accustomed to as part of our day-to-day existence.
Maybe it’s being overlooked in the queue at the chemist even though you’re at the front of the line. Or it’s the noticeable change in the tone and the lack of warmth of the greeting you receive, if you receive one at all, in the clothing store.
Maybe it’s the snide remarks from the adjoining table when you’re out for dinner with your whānau. Or maybe it’s constantly having any medical issues attributed to your ethnicity — or being denied treatment and told to change your lifestyle even when your diagnosis is the same as a Pākehā friend who was immediately prescribed medication.
It’s all this and so much more, and it is relentless.
These petty and not so petty acts build up in our systems. They tamper with our wellbeing and affect our wairua and tinana. They may stop us accessing services, or walking into certain shops. Or they affect our social, health, employment, housing, and education opportunities.
They come out of nowhere and with no warning. They may be delivered by complete strangers or sometimes by our nearest and dearest. They hurt us. Sometimes immediately. At other times, there’s a slow accumulation of small wounds until they become a huge aching grief.
I was waiting at the airport luggage carousel recently. I’d just spent a week immersed in te ao Māori supporting a noho marae and working alongside a fantastic team of Māori colleagues. My friend had gone to the bathroom, so I was collecting his luggage and mine. He had two soft-sided black suitcases with fluorescent ribbons, and my cargo bag is grey and green with a green organza ribbon.
I was standing near the belt enjoying three little tamariki Māori who were playing happily near the conveyor belt, amusing themselves by trying to guess when it was going to start. Their giggling was infectious.
The luggage began to appear, and our bags soon came into view. I scooped up the first two, swinging them dramatically to entertain the tamariki. A Pākehā woman in her 60s swept into view and loudly asked: “Have you checked the tags?”
As I was the only adult nearby collecting bags, I assumed she meant me. So I replied: “No need to. They’re all marked with coloured ribbons!” She huffed off. As she passed us heading out of the terminal, I noticed her bags were blue and purple hard-shell suitcases.
Why on earth did she feel the need to question my honesty when her bags were clearly different from ours? What’s the message the young ones receive from witnessing an interaction like that?
I’m glad I replied to her without any hint of apology. I’m also glad I wasn’t rude, even though I wanted to be. I want those tamariki to grow up knowing they have a place in the world, and that they don’t have to apologise to anyone for their existence or have to ask permission or seek approval from Pākehā. And instead of dwelling on her everyday act of colonisation, I decided my time was better spent thinking about my own (and others’) everyday acts of resistance to colonisation.
I exchange music with a work friend. We have extensive shared playlists of old favourites and new discoveries. One day he sent me a song called Rebel Rouser and wrote: “Sounds a bit like you!” I took it as a compliment. It reminded me of the time when a regional manager called me an “agitator.” He meant it as an insult. I saw it as a compliment.
“Rebel” and “agitator” have long been words used about Māori. I’m a rebel or an agitator if I don’t agree with the Pākehā majority. I’m “challenging” when I present a Māori worldview where usually a Pākehā view dominates. I’m “demanding” when I expect Pākehā to pronounce my name correctly. I’m “difficult” when I make a distinction between respecting Māori culture and appropriating it.
I’m all those things and more, and I embrace them because they’re my foundations for resisting colonisation on a daily basis. This is an always-and-forever project because, as Tame Iti reminds us on his T-shirts, we are “colonised AF”.
My mind often drifts to the lyrics of a Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody song “From Little Things Big Things Grow”. That was inspired by the Gurindji strike and the First Nation struggle for land rights and reconciliation in Australia. Big ideas, political action and systemic change are critical to shifting the narrative from the dominant colonial story to a more equitable Te Tiriti o Waitangi based one that centres Māori alongside Pākehā rather than marginalising us.
I’ve been fortunate to contribute to big systemic change, but it’s the little acts, the personal struggles on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute basis that I find both potent and fascinating.
Decades ago, I worked out that all those everyday acts of colonisation could be used to illustrate and educate. I’ve used countless examples in my teaching to fire up all my students. To communicate to the Māori students that they are seen and heard, and to encourage the Pākehā students to begin or continue to develop their critical thinking. Somehow the power of those petty acts is dissipated when they’re put to good use.
Some of my proudest moments as an educator have been when I see students develop their own response to what they learn. I’m reminded of one student who started the course believing that an individual was helpless to influence political change. She went on to lobby parliament. Another student wrote a tangi leave policy for his employer, and countless others crafted Treaty policies for their agencies. A group of students surprised me by graduating in T-shirts that said “Honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi”, in front of the local conservative MP.
When I recall these constructive and courageous examples, the mamae of those everyday acts of colonisation just evaporates.
My cousin uses another tactic. He has a glorious, quickfire and expressive sense of humour. Several years ago, when he first moved to a new house, he wrote an ode to his suburb. Concealed in its heart was a direct message to an elderly Pākehā woman he’d met at the bus stop: “Muggings are more convenient at night. You don’t look like you’d taste nice either.”
When I asked him what had inspired his commentary he said: “You know, just the usual. The sideways look, the pinchy lips, pulling her handbag close. Just the normal stuff!”
My cousin is tall and broad. He is a gentle giant with a sharp, well-honed wit and a big laugh. He doesn’t mug or eat elderly Pākehā women. Instead, he works as a registered social worker. He has a degree despite being told as a child that he was stupid because of his undiagnosed and unmanaged word and number dyslexia.
He wears jandals year-round and you can hear their gentle slap-slap announce his arrival. He befriends elderly cats and people’s mothers. Above all else, he’s staunchly and unfailingly loyal to those he cares about. His humour is his tool to express his daily acts of resistance to colonisation.
I borrowed one of his lines once when a colleague asked me if I’d enjoyed my Waitangi Day. I told him I’d had a very pleasant Coloniser’s Day. He seemed a little taken aback. To his credit, he went away and thought about my words and came back to say he understood there was far more meaning to Waitangi Day for me than just a day off work. We were able to discuss it openly and honestly. It was a good talk.
Te reo Māori is an ongoing battlefield rife with acts of colonisation and resistance. I’m a second-language learner and it’s a daily challenge to remain alert and actively working on my reo Māori.
But it’s a challenge I welcome, because it means that, with each vowel I say well, and each tīpuna name I speak aloud carefully, and every time I use a new word appropriately, I’m contributing to the recovery and maintenance of our language, the mana of te reo Māori. And I’m taking another small step on my own lifelong journey. I’ve learned not to be too hard on myself, to do what I can, when I can, and to keep setting myself learning goals.
I was at a meeting where a passionate wahine Māori laid down a wero to the predominantly Pākehā group about their constant butchery of tīpuna names. She was clear about the impact of the constant colonisation of our beautiful language. It hurts. It causes physical, mental and emotional pain. How can we participate when all we hear is mispronunciation and disrespect? It’s incredibly difficult to remain present, compassionate and active when this happens.
If I bring it up, then I may be subject to attack, excuses, pleas to understand and to forgive, or requests for help. I once had a senior colleague tell me he was unable to say my name correctly because he was English. I’ve been told to stop being so uptight and so angry. I’ve been told countless times that mispronunciation is just local dialect or “that’s how it’s always been said”. I regularly hear that if we say a reo Māori word correctly, no one will know what we mean. On a weekly basis, someone asks me to translate or explain a word.
Please take responsibility for your own learning. I had to. Don’t expect me to fix it for you or make you feel better about behaving poorly.
I have an extensive wardrobe of T-shirts. They’re great souvenirs from a diverse range of sources and events as far back as the 1980s until today. They’re fantastic talking points but they also attract attention.
The one that has attracted the most extreme attention is my Arohamai! Remember Parihaka 5th November 1881 T-shirt. On the back, it lists a timeline of the events the Crown is responsible for including the “invasion of your village 5th Nov”, “Forcible ejection of 1556 people from their homes”, and “Backdating of legislation to make legal the govt’s illegal acts”.
I’m used to people remarking on it, usually in a curious or interested way. One day a woman in a supermarket screamed abuse at me over it and threatened to rip it off me. This happened years ago, before the Trumpian rise in bigotry and overt racism was commonplace.
It was terrifying — and shocking. Whenever I wore the T-shirt after that, I’d have a little frisson of fear. But I kept wearing it until it was threadbare because even what you wear can be a daily act of resistance to colonisation.
I recall as a young woman travelling with older, savvier Māori colleagues. When we arrived in Wellington, they marched down the airport taxi rank, ignoring the cars at the front of the queue until they got to one in the middle. When some of the drivers called out, my companions just replied: “We support Māori owned businesses!” It was a simple but powerful lesson in everyday acts of resistance.
Many years ago, I made a new friend. He was bright, articulate and charming. We spent a happy evening by the outdoor firepit at the Mussell Inn in Golden Bay talking about all manner of topics. But when we touched on Te Tiriti o Waitangi, I realised his knowledge was basic.
I decided to take a chance, and told him I wouldn’t discuss it with him until he’d done some reading and we had some common ground beyond the tropes and popular misinformation. He went away and bought Michael King’s The Penguin History of New Zealand, which he then read. We spent many more pleasant evenings engaged in interesting and informed debate and discussion.
Sometimes, resistance is taking the time to respond to an elderly Pākehā aunty who asks why Māori hāte white people. Taking the time to explain that, from a personal perspective, I dislike the system that was imported into this country and then imposed on Māori. That I detest the myth making and lies told about my tīpuna. And that, more than anything, I mourn the hundreds of thousands of bright lights snuffed out, or who never reached their full potential, because of the impact of that colonial system and its lies about Māori across nearly two centuries.
Other times it’s as basic as taking a deep breath when I answer the phone with a cheerful “Kia ora!” and it’s received on the other end by silence, a sharp intake of breath, or giggling — and then I carry on with: “Ko Aroha tēnei.”
More than anything else, I have learned from Moana Jackson to state my case confidently, to come to the discussion with my kete full of good quality knowledge, solid thinking, and well-crafted arguments. If all the groundwork is in place, I’ve learned that there’s no need to shy away from the challenging ideas.
Say them aloud, and hold the line firmly. When I do that, it saps some of the sting out of those hundreds of malicious or careless everyday acts of colonisation — and it reinforces my commitment to creative and compassionate everyday acts of resistance.
Aroha Gilling (Te Whānau a Apanui) is an adviser to government departments on Te Tiriti o Waitangi and mātauranga Māori. She has a background in adult education and social work and currently lives in Nelson. She has a Master of Indigenous Studies from the University of Otago.
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