In the face of racism

By Hayley White

Reading time: 7 minutes

From the time British colonisers imposed their culture on Māori, they gave this country the worst inheritance possible: racism. It led New Zealand to become what some consider, an inherently racist country. We have systemically oppressed Māori for centuries and that has embedded itself in our society. Since then, Māori have been fighting for their culture and fighting to reclaim a history that was taken away.

A confrontation happened on the 1st of May 1979.

When I heard that the Auckland Theatre Company was putting on a production based around one of the worst showcases of Māori appropriation and mockery in New Zealand history, I was prepared to be filled with righteous fury.The Haka Party Incident, a production written and directed by Katie Wolf, tells the horrific story of New Zealand’s last

By Hayley White

Reading time: 7 minutes

From the time British colonisers imposed their culture on Māori, they gave this country the worst inheritance possible: racism. It led New Zealand to become what some consider, an inherently racist country. We have systemically oppressed Māori for centuries and that has embedded itself in our society. Since then, Māori have been fighting for their culture and fighting to reclaim a history that was taken away.

A confrontation happened on the 1st of May 1979.

When I heard that the Auckland Theatre Company was putting on a production based around one of the worst showcases of Māori appropriation and mockery in New Zealand history, I was prepared to be filled with righteous fury.The Haka Party Incident, a production written and directed by Katie Wolf, tells the horrific story of New Zealand’s last major race war.

For 25 years, Auckland University engineering students staged a ‘Haka Party’ as part of the university capping ceremony. They would wake up in the early hours of the morning, get drunk and create general chaos around the city and on the university campus.

The Auckland University Māori students tried to put a stop to the Haka Party every year, but the engineering students refused to listen. The Māori association and various students wrote letter after letter, but each year they were denied. Their objections were laughed off by the engineering students and they were told that it was only a joke.

On the 1st of May 1979, He Tauā (a Maori and Pacific Island group formed in the same year) organised a peaceful protest to try and talk to the students and ask them to stop their ‘Haka party’. When He Tauā tried to protest against the haka party, a fight broke out. It only lasted three minutes but saw almost all of He Tauā students arrested and beaten by police. All were charged and sentenced with rioting and many were charged and sentenced with assault. This three-minute war between the engineering students and He Tāua brought a lot of things to light in New Zealand, not least of all how racist New Zealand really was.

Unfortunately, The Haka Party Incident brought forward racism issues that still continue to affect Māori in New Zealand today. Not too long before the play was released, some America’s Cup partygoers made headlines around the world for mocking the Māori pūkana, an intimidating face typically made during the haka. They faced intense backlash and some apologised for their actions, but it still brings up the question: Why did they do it in the first place? Especially in a time when there is no excuse for being ignorant.

As I mentioned earlier, colonialism and the demonisation of the Māori culture allowed racism to take root. The establishment of Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi) was a way for Māori to retain their lands and resources as well as live as equals with Pākehā, but that wasn’t the reality. The government continued to disregard the Treaty for 100 years until the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975 where New Zealand’s proud ‘bi-culturalism’ was adopted by the government in the 1980s.

The government’s half-assed attempt at trying to assimilate Māori into the colonised way of life has not been successful. The majority of people are reluctant to allow the government to compensate Māori for stolen land, and one in five older Māori (aged 80-90) say that colonisation still impacts their lives today (Meihana, 2016; Dyall et al., 2014) as cited in Houkamau, Stronge & Sibley, 2017). On top of that, Māori continue to experience racism in workplaces, education, health care and other institutions. Even worse is that the Ministry of Social Development estimated that one in four Māori experience racism and discrimination in a year (2016). So, while we sit in a lovely, air-conditioned theatre being educated on the biggest race war in New Zealand history since the colonisation of Māori, we still have a long way to go.

I reckon that’s because racism has evolved. It is no longer explicit. You will get the odd person come forward and say something extremely racist that makes others turn and look, but oftentimes now, racism is underhanded and can sometimes go unnoticed. Whether it’s systemic racism where the inequities between Māori and Pākehā are made obvious through laws or organisations or the odd ‘joke’ that no one finds funny, racism is still evident in this country.

Māori continue to struggle to find their feet in a society where they are disadvantaged from the start, but they cannot make the change on their own. It is not hard to tell someone when they are racist even if they didn’t mean to be. It is OK to point out what someone did or said in the moment and even the smallest steps can lead to the biggest social change. So tell that person to stop doing the pūkana, tell your friend that their ‘impression’ is actually a racist stereotype. Be brave, and dare to be the change you want to see in the world.

To immerse yourself in more articles like this, Subscribe or Log in