“Racism is wearisome,” writes Shelley Burne-Field. “Literally tiring. It does not create a pearl after years of grinding. It creates sickness, fear, anxiety, sadness, resentment, and worry.”
If the words “white” and “sausage” in the same sentence makes you uncomfortable, please read on:
My sassy mokopuna just started primary school. I’m not terribly worried about her. She’s like her mother — aroha and kindness burst from their hearts. My mokopuna’s skin is warm, milky-white, and she carries the sea in her eyes. Plus, she possesses legit antennae for bullshit.
I do worry about the books she brings home. Pulled from the pink canvas book bag, the thin booklets are slapped onto the kitchen table to be read immediately.
My mokopuna’s eyes are glittering by now. The power of her will to learn has gathered, gathered, and now floods into my sitting room. The stories are not “See Jane Run”, but not far off. With easy lines to learn by rote, and easier messages to absorb. “I can kick the football.” “I can throw the cricket ball.”
These tales are complete with pictures of kids in a faraway land kicking soccer balls (old English leather ones) and other kids in the same faraway land bowling cricket balls (old English leather ones) playing in front of old pavilions, whitewashed, and no doubt smelling of leather.
My mokopuna dazzles me with every word. We high-five and whoop and holler. She’ll be fine.
I do worry about my other mokopuna. His heart is the same — bursting with aroha and kindness. Yet his skin is velvet, chocolate-brown, and he carries the breath of kawakawa leaves in his eyes.
At 16 years old, he stands at 190cm, tall enough to change lightbulbs without a ladder, lift his sister onto his shoulders, and play basketball. Although he hates basketball and prefers to study Greek mythology and history.
I worry about my son, too. Also bursting with aroha. His skin is coffee-kissed coconut and his eyes churn like fire beneath the whenua. Being a growing tween, he chows down cheese by the 900g block, and is in the top two percent of the top two percent for giftedness in his age group. Before your eyes glaze over, that means he’s smart. Smarter than me or his dad.
My son told me last night he’d never experienced racism. That meant more to me than his first Christmas. I hugged him and told him I hoped he never would. We high-fived and hollered. Before he went to bed, he yelled out:
“Hey Mum, except for the sausage thing at school, eh?”
“What sausage thing?”
“‘Member? At school that lunchtime?”
“Oh, that sausage thing.”
I’d forgotten about that. I remembered being worried before, but kissed him good night and said, “You’ve got this, times are changing.” Don’t worry, I said to myself.
Why would I worry about the gentle souls of my tama and my mokopuna? Why should I worry about their lives?
Fear. Fear, because in Aotearoa the lives of the brown boys and girls in my whānau don’t matter as much as the lives of white boys and girls. They just don’t.
The “sausage thing” at my son’s primary school was like walking in on a cheating spouse. The signs had revealed themselves slowly. A stray receipt in a jacket pocket here, another chick’s tights on our boat there.
At my son’s new school, warning lights flashed, not about infidelity, but systemic racism. Unfortunately for my son, my sunglasses were tinted with a colonised lens at the time. That specialised tint came with the label: “I-don’t-want-to-be-the-Māori-mother-that-people-call aggressive,” so I didn’t act decisively enough at the start. Aroha mai, my son.
We’d returned from Australia when he was six years old, where he had been treated like a famous All Black at his primary school. He loved it. We came back to Aotearoa and attended a generally wonderful country school, set under the Ruahine pae maunga. The parent group was generally welcoming. Lots of farmers and farm worker whānau. The roll was small, under 30 tamariki. A handful of Māori kids, but mostly white.
When a person of colour enters an environment like that, you’re not completely unaware of racism, but there is always an element of hope.
After a few weeks, my boy began crying at bedtime, saying he “must be the bad kid”. He kept getting told off and he didn’t know why. We would chew over the day’s events after reading Orwell’s 1984, or William Golding’s Lord of the Flies — every night — and try to get to the bottom of my son’s pain.
I chatted with the teacher, keeping a practiced, reflective air. I put on my nice scarf and visited with the principal. She would look into it.
That day, he came home in tears saying the principal had grabbed his arm, hard. She’d said he shouldn’t go home and tell his parents everything that happened at school. My puku was beginning to churn, just like my son’s eyes.
In October, he hadn’t earned a single certificate for the entire year. Not one. I’d already mentioned it to the teacher. Can you just find one thing he’s done right, I asked. He really thrives on praise. “That’s not our policy,” she told me.
The kōwhai were blooming, golden and welcoming. Summer was aching to arrive, and the school began sausage sizzles at Thursday lunchtimes as a fundraiser. Kids could bring $2 and get a sausage and bread. The school might cook other days, but they would let parents know. Each Thursday, my boy would trundle off to school with his $2 in a plastic zip-locked bag.
This particular Thursday, he came home with his $2 and said they had cancelled because one of the three mothers couldn’t come in. Okay, fine. No biggie. I rang the school. Would they be cooking tomorrow? I could cook if they needed, I told them.
No, no, they said. Next week.
However, Friday rolled around — the very next day. A spare hour presented itself and I grabbed it, rushing to the school to spend lunchtime with my boy, and maybe chatting about how the teacher held him in class at playtimes and some lunchtimes so he could finish his interesting worksheets. More cars were parked at the school than I’d expected. Sausage sizzle smells rode the air.
My antennae prickled, but I shrugged it off. Then I saw quite a few white kids eating sausages in bread. The teachers’ kids, the parent group kids, the farmers’ kids. The Māori kids were not eating sausages, including my boy. To be honest, a couple of the poor white kids didn’t have a sausage either.
In a high, nervous voice, I greeted my son. I remember my throat squeezing in on my larynx, and I didn’t mention the sausage thing at all. His eyes were welling. He really wanted a sausage, but they weren’t allowed one. I asked the other kids who didn’t have a sausage whether they had wanted one, too. Yes, they did, they said, but they didn’t have any money.
A group of white mothers and teachers buzzed around the barbecue. My voice was squeaky, but I put on my best smile. Oh, sorry, I must have missed the pānui? My boy didn’t have his $2, darn it all! They laughed and gushed. “Just a last minute thing,” tee-heed one of the mothers. Her kids didn’t have any money either, but they just wrote out an IOU. He he. Ha ha.
I rushed out to the car to grab some gold coins for all the kids who didn’t have a sausage, but when I got back they’d closed the lid on the barbie. There were no sausages left. The white kids and white adults were finishing, licking their fingers, tomato sauce coating their lips.
My son and the other Māori kids, plus a kid with a permanent limp, and some farm worker kids in holey t-shirts, ran off and played, laughing. What else could they do.
When I wrote a letter about it and met with the chair of the Board of Trustees, she said she didn’t see a problem with it, really, and she truly thought I was overreacting. Maybe that’s what some of you think as well. Tough. My son still remembers the feeling of being labelled a “bad kid” and having to watch the white, “good kids” get a sausage.
I won’t let you off the hook. My son was denied, and had to watch his Māori friends be denied a sausage because they had no money that day, while his white friends were trusted to write with pencil on a piece of paper the $ symbol and the number “2”. The brown kids were never offered this magical thing, these pencil marks showing “$2”.
This paper strip wasn’t a gold coin, yet it could act as a key to unlock an invisible door. This secret contract between white children, white parents, white teachers had been revealed, like a lover’s note written in lemon juice and burned with a candle. Spelled out at lunchtime on a Friday, under the shadow of the Ruahine pae maunga.
Racism is wearisome. Literally tiring. It does not create a pearl after years of grinding. It creates sickness, fear, anxiety, sadness, resentment, and worry. In society, racism is entrenched in our tired civil institutions. The worn framework that holds up our very way of life.
For white people, I imagine, the structure is affirming. As affirming as breathing. For brown people, it is debilitating. From the first sneeze of life to the final exhale. Day after day. Night after night. Our wairua becomes exhausted and frayed. The framework of our society isn’t affirming, no, it becomes the bars of a prison cell, or worse, the snuff box of false hope. We sniff it, daily, trying to rally, knowing it will rot our septum as easily as a cocaine habit.
In the provinces, racism seems worse. The Hawke’s Bay-type provinces are paradise in my eyes. But they are also terribly racist. And therefore exhausting places to live and work if you’re brown or black.
I’ve worked in a few of those civil institutions. A prison. Councils. Hospitals. Power companies. Social services. I’ve done other jobs, too. Cleaning motels, orchards, in the guts room at the meat works. I’ve been a student in the university system, too, many times, with degrees out the wazoo.
Before those years of study and mahi, I left college as a seventh former with a wonderful reference from my French teacher. I’d wanted to learn te reo, but was made to take French instead. C’est la vie!
At college, I was a “good kid” even though I was brown. I was told this by a fellow student who is now a politician. In English class, I remember her saying that I wasn’t one of those Māoris. I was good. She actually said “good”, just like that, as though I was an avocado that she’d squeezed, and found to be acceptable to her taste.
When I left school, I was shy but confident that, academically, I was okay. I sent out six CVs with my picture displayed at the top. “RUNNER-UP TO DUX” was proudly typed in capitals. I posted the CVs to three banks, a pharmacy, one accountancy firm, and a lawyer’s office. They all had vacancies for what we’d now call interns, but I never got an interview.
A few weeks later, I remember struggling with the idea to take my photo off the CV. At the library, I kept looking over my shoulder, embarrassed as I removed the photo before photocopying a new CV. My cheeks felt slapped red. I was sweating. My trust in the community was leaking out of the pores in my skin.
Lo and behold, I got two interviews at the same banks that had previously ignored me, but after the interview, no job offer. At home, I worried until the next year — second to Dux — weeding Dad’s gardens, preserving golden queen peaches for Mum, and applying for more jobs.
In the end, my sister got me a job stuffing gherkins into a jar at the local pickle factory. I had to put up my hand to go to the toilet, but it was a job. Racism was already starting to grind, and I was only 18. To be honest, it hasn’t changed much. Luckily, I was made for school.
Imagine a little boy, super-hero crazed. Saving his whānau from evil. Now imagine this Māori child at an early childhood setting, mainstream, white. The secret contract writhes in the ether, protecting, protecting. There may be a whisper from a racist teacher, a glance, narrowed eyes, or pinching fingers. Another amazing teacher may appear, but often not.
Then the boy goes to primary school, and he is older, wary, but hopeful. Still a beautiful tamariki full of life. The bus is loud with chattering pelicans, and fireworks popping. The boy is told to stop making noise. Stop chattering. Yet, only the boy is told off. The white kids keep chattering. He hops on the bus, day after day. Wanting to speak, but his eyes become downcast and he quietens.
The boy has a wonderful principal who helps him. Yet another white teacher can’t pronounce this boy’s name and simply calls him “R” for short — it’s easier, but it’s not his name. It doesn’t carry the meaning behind the name. Why his name matters. The same teacher says “Mahrees” instead of “Māori”, and doesn’t flinch an eyelid.
Then secondary school, where the target on your back is either bright red, or invisible. The mah-rees are revolting, sir.
You are told not to take graphics and robotics, but sign up for cooking. You are not given the option to go on the ski trip, but to the local pool instead. You are asked to perform the whaikōrero and kapa haka for all civil events to tick a box, yet you and your brown mates are never invited to have tea and tan slice.
Then the boy hops onto the bus home, and he does this day after day after day after day. And when the boy leaves school because he feels disenfranchised, isolated, so stink . . . when the boy leaves school to choose, let’s be fair, anything other than the racist grind, then he is called the failure, the dropout, the statistic, the layabout, the no-hoper.
Yet, what a glorious and brave boy, to choose something that will ensure he is despised by those who hold the structures of our institutions so tightly — to leave school. Just thinking about it makes me shiver.
What does this say about how racism conceals these boys behind a white lens? Let’s change those glasses, shall we? Let’s swap out that racist lens. That boy — what courage! What fortitude! What validity! Oh, to choose to be somewhere other than the place where your brown life does not matter as much as a white life. Oh to choose to matter.
You think this is a fictional mock-up? Think again. My nephews. My friends’ kids. My whānau. From the cradle to the grave — and a prison stretch in between for the dispossessed, or a noose around their necks.
In Hawke’s Bay, Māori and Pasifika boys and girls are three times more likely to commit suicide than white boys and girls. We have a higher rate than the rest of Aotearoa. We have a higher rate than the road toll. We have a higher rate than diabetes.
I suspect the grind of racism plays a role. When I was at primary school, my 10-year-old friend hung himself. It is a tragedy unsurpassed, but not a surprise to me when brown boys and girls kill themselves.
Suicide prevention plans are written. There is much gnashing of teeth, but resources are scarce. Not enough social workers in schools, or counsellors, or psychologists, or mentors, or adults walking alongside. Not enough cash.
There is an equity gap between mental health resources provided for white people versus brown people. A recent drought has amplified this unwritten rule. Farmers with million dollar mansions sitting empty at Kinloch received food parcels during the drought. Not their farm workers. Just the owners and managers.
The money came — as it always does — from pulling local and central government levers. The old boys’ network. The old girls’ network. The white people’s network. The levers were fully oiled. Consequently, fully resourced mental health teams were pulled together for rural folk, and are available, free of charge. Even for house calls.
I struggle not to bite a hole in my lips. We chew them endlessly, figuring out ways to help our Māori and Pasifika children who are also in pain. Not more. Not less. Also.
I often tell my husband that he is at the top of the food chain. He is in his 60s and white. (As an aside, at a bowling tournament in New Plymouth, a white lady with soap-bubble hair sidled over to me. She said I must feel so lucky to have gotten myself a white man. I do feel lucky, but not because he’s white. It’s because we love each other, and he understands his big-cat status.)
Conversely, I am near the bottom of the food chain. Near the bottom. Brown, wāhine, educated, and middle-class. I feel the grind, for sure. But my Māori sisters in poverty must ache. Their lives don’t seem to matter in our society, sometimes at all.
There may be cries of: “Oh, but what about the netball stars, rugby stars, squash stars, softball stars, the newsreaders, our favourite musicians?”
Yeah, nah. I’m talking about the salt of the earth māmā who toils. The ones surviving in gangs, or she who keeps the ahi lit at the marae, or wāhine who work two or three jobs, or the ones on sickness benefits, or the ones in and out of prison, or the jobless, or the kuia looking after mokopuna alone, or the wāhine who have been middle-class, or upper-class and have fallen onto hard times dealing with mental health illness, or physical illness, or whānau illness, the one who covers her toothless giggle, or the one bullied out of work or school or life, those who were never nurtured by a teacher, or a coach, or a boss, or a supervisor, or a doctor or anyone who may have given her a chance, a kind glance, a job, an opportunity, a smile. A meal.
I imagine the grind of racism when you’re at the bottom of the heap must be worse than death. Utterly soul destroying. These wāhine deserve a damehood for retaining the ability to smile and stay alive. Our sisters are pushed deep into the whenua, only popping out occasionally like mushrooms after a shower of rain.
A white friend told me that when she married her Māori lover it was the social capital racism that affected her. Let’s call my friend “Mrs White”. After getting married, her name changed to “Mrs Māori”.
In the time it takes for Shania Twain to whisper “From this moment”, Mrs White lost a big chunk of her social capital and got a little taste of the grind.
Social capital is a western academic term. Generally, it defines citizen success in a democratic society via advantageous human networks and relationships.
Social capital may include a social contract (an understanding) within a local community. Such things as paying on the 20th of the month, knowing hidden pathways to jobs, easily accessing goods and services, leaving an IOU if you’re $4 short at the dairy, a tab, access to trees cut down for firewood by the council along the grazing mile, a $3000 bull provided to the local school for a raffle fundraiser, the ability to access the hierarchy of needs: power, water, food, shelter, friendship, love.
When Mrs Māori rang up to get her washing machine fixed, she was told that she would have to pay up front, if they could get there at all. Remember, a few weeks ago Mrs Māori had been Mrs White. She explained her previous identity, aggressive and pissed off, and after profuse apologies, her washing machine was fixed 120 minutes later, and she could pay on the 20th of next month, just as before.
Phew. Mrs Māori rebuked the service centre for their racist tendencies, and learned her lesson well. She is now Mrs White on the telephone, every time.
To run a household well, social capital is as essential as money in the bank.
However, what about our Māori sisters whose skin is as black as the eye of a toutouwai? What about our sisters who can’t change their last names, wouldn’t want to? Our sisters who can’t change their black skin, would want to, if we’re honest.
Imagine a wāhine running a household with three bright-eyed tamariki, uniforms needing to be washed. A black sister holding the fort — fighting the grind day after day after day after day. Your one washing machine breaks down. Your one washing machine that services your whānau, your sister, your sister-in-law, your niece, your brother’s whanau, etcetera.
You ring the service centre. Hi, it’s Mrs Māori here, I really need my washing machine looked at. Sorry, you have to pay $200 up front, and there will be a travel charge of $70, and you have to pay the rest on the day of service, and, actually, we have an account in arrears for a person with your *insert Māori name here* . . . yes but that’s not me . . . I’m sorry, we can’t help you.
The shame of a stink uniform. The shame of a stink placed onto your skin, so baaaaaaaad that you cry that ugly cry, or stare pitifully into space, or *insert coping mechanism here*.
You think this is a mock-up? Think again. My sister. My friends. My fellow school mums. My whānau. I dare you to debate the washing-by-hand argument. I can smell the wet, mouldy home on your breath. If you’ve never dried work socks or a school uniform in the oven, with respect, please stay silent.
Recently, I was a district councillor for a term. The racism, sexism, dishonesty, greed and double standards broke me. Thankfully, I have a husband, friends, and whānau who armour me up.
After I saved my life by leaving council, a black sister stood for mayor. Facebook comments compared her sacred moko kauae to a barcode for welfare. He he. Ha ha. At candidate evenings, during this wāhine’s speeches, white men and women laughed and scoffed. White business owners and white farmers guffawed and sniggered. I was there. I heard and saw.
At the end, I stood and clapped, loudly. This mighty wāhine confided in me that she knew she’d lose, but she wanted tamariki in our community to see her try. I cried for both of us.
When she lost by a landslide, she didn’t hide, oh no. She went shopping to support local. A white woman was talking to the retailer. “I’m so pleased that mah-ree didn’t win,” she said. Just like that. “I’m so pleased that mah-ree didn’t win.” Not, hey, I didn’t agree with her policy on wastewater or her thoughts on a new recycling centre. Just, “I’m so pleased that mah-ree didn’t win.”
Our black and brown lives matter. Our Māori and Pasifika lives matter. The lives of my tama and my mokopuna matter. They matter just as much as white lives. Not more. Not less. As much. The grind wears us down. Killing us. It all gets way . . . too . . . hard. Wearisome. Tiring.
Usually, we’re supposed to ask for a call to action, some sort of social change, at the end of an essay or a speech. But I’m just too fucking exhausted.
I’m going to kiss my husband and my tama and my mokopuna good night.
“It’s okay darlings, times are changing. We’ve got this.”
In the morning, I’m gonna whoop and holler, and give them high-fives. Day after day after day after day.
Shelley Burne-Field is a writer who lives in the Hawke’s Bay. She has always worked in “helping jobs” like social services, local government, prisons, healthcare, community and youth development. Her stories find a home at events like union rallies, addiction centres, schools — anywhere that hard but hopeful tales may touch someone’s life for good.
This piece was Highly Commended in this year’s Landfall essay competition.
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