Growing up as the most ‘white-passing’ member of my family meant that I have always struggled to place myself within my culture. Internalised racism and lack of knowing my language meant that often, I was doing everything I could to appear as white as possible. I have many memories from my teens of being described as ‘exotic’, being asked where I’m from, and of people assuming my race. I felt awkward about myself and my culture, and it was always strange men asking or prying, so I never responded with any confidence, or at all. In New Zealand, I feel like people were able to place me/my features or, when they asked about my background, it came from a place of humility and knowing. These days I always respond with confidence that I am Māori.
Moving to Australia has been challenging in this aspect, a lot of people don’t hear me when I pronounce Māori correctly, they ask: ‘What?! Mouldy?!’ And snigger under their breath. What makes them think that is appropriate or funny? I’ve even had friends do it. You think mispronouncing the name of my blood, my spirit, my tīpuna and whanaungatanga is funny? It’s a form of erasure and its disrespectful as hell.
Working on Smith Street for years has provided a few interesting encounters. I had a drunk old man tell me one day that I was Vietnamese. I kept trying to ignore him, but he persisted:
‘I’m Māori’, I told him. ‘No your not! I know Māori people, they are big and fat! Tell me what you are!’ I ended up telling him to go fuck himself. I had another old man approach me at Woolies, and follow me around, telling me how much he loved Māori people. I was hungover; he had no concept of personal space, and I found it very creepy. These experiences are of course not unusual or unique and are part of living in a patriarchal white supremacist society.
On the flip side, I was having a cigarette one day outside work, when an older Māori lady who worked at the offices down the road asked me for a lighter. ‘Where are you from girl?’ She said.
Her voice sounded like the voices of my aunties from the far north, it felt like a warm hug, a fresh piece of fried bread covered with butter and jam and a cup of blend 43 at the Marae. From that day on we would check in on each other, share a smoke, talk about how much we missed our families. It was the same question, but it was coming from a place of recognition and solidarity, of knowing and acceptance. It was a breath of new life into the otherwise tiresome question: ‘Where are you from?’