Sunday, 6 May 2007

White Dancing - Danny Butt

[Adapted from a talk to the Sweet As? Conference, June 2007)

It was a great honour to be invited to speak at the conference, to such a great bunch of people. I really enjoyed the discussion. I’d especially like to acknowledge two people who I treat as teachers through their work. It was a great honour to speak following Moana Jackson , whose reputation extends to the international environments I occasionally work in, such as the United Nations Development Programme. From Moana I learn to get to the bottom of the issues in this colonised land; and the value of persistence and determination. From the work of Teresia Teaiwa, I learn that getting to the issues in the Pacific is sometimes less important than showing a way to get there, and the way she uses a shared vocabulary of moves from Santa Cruz, which she knows directly and I only know through books, helps me understand how to orient myself toward teachers in Hawai’i, Samoa, and Aotearoa.

I would like to extend my gratitude and appreciation for the hosts, Hannah, Kate, Kirsten and Nigel, for the invitation, the hospitality, and the commitment.

I’d also like to thank the anonymous commenter on the Sweet As blog, who suggested I get dropped with Russell Brown in Ruatoria for a kind of “Pākehā Survivor.” I assume that the commenter didn’t know something funny, which is that I spend time in Ruatoria when I’m out in the Waiapu region as I have been every summer for the last six years. But I don’t want that experience to be seen to justify my comments, as I spent some time familiarising myself with indigenous issues and ways of thinking before I ever went into a Māori context, and that showed me that knowledge and experience is actually not that important when working with the culturally different. Rather, it's about having genuine curiosity to learn and openness to new ways of doing things. In doing collaborative work, I think the most important thing that Pākehā need to develop is not our knowledge but our imagination, to be able to empathise with what it might be like for an indigenous environment to engage with us across our vastly asymmetrical histories.

I want to talk a bit about myself, not just because I’m an egomaniac, but because I don’t want to create an abstract model for Pākehā or anyone else. These never work. Also, if I talk about my experience, you can just decide what parts of it are like your experience and what parts aren’t and this can be the basis for us to talk about our differences.

“Australians don’t dance or sing.” says Scully, the protagonist in Tim Winton’s book The Riders. I was born in Australia and identify as Pākehā- I’ve lived in Aotearoa for nearly 15 years, and in many ways the reason I call Aotearoa home is to escape Scully’s prescription for me, a fate worse than death. But although I was brought up with the classic white settler belief that you can turn yourself into whoever you want, yet increasingly I realise that we only really grow up once, and that creates who we are. Of course, who we are is not a static, unchanging thing - we’re always moving, always trying to make ourselves and our environment different, but we can also recognise ourselves in the past.

So we are constantly becoming who we already are. But we do this by hybridising ourselves with things that are not ourself. We are kind of genetic engineers of the self - we’re the same species as we've always been but we mutate new strains of who we are, and see what grows. So I’m trying to work out how to be a white Antipodean male, when the way I was taught to fulfil that identity is obviously not sufficient. I want to be able to dance and sing. I want to offer hospitality to those who are different from myself. I want my friends’ struggles for social justice to begin to be achieved in my lifetime. Very little in the broader cultural environment I grew up in prepared me for that, so I’ve had to find it from other places. Already, I have to look elsewhere to find who I am.

As it turns out, it’s a good thing I came to make my home in this country, because from Māori I’ve learnt values such as whakawhanaungatanga, manaakitanga, and kaitiakitanga which - despite my very limited understanding of their true historical function - have become central to how I think about my life. And through my work with Māori I’ve developed relationships with tangata whenua in the places I was born in Newcastle, Australia, in Awabakal country; and where I grew up, in Gombemberri country on Queensland’s Gold Coast. As I’ve developed all these relationships I’ve learnt more about what it means to live in a place. And the people I work with do, I hope, learn something from me.

This is why I have no anxiety when confronted by tino rangatiratanga. Some of my own freedom is found in the indigenous struggle for self-determination. If the values I mentioned were also central to the New Zealand national identity I’d probably feel more comfortable with that. Whether this makes me qualified to comment on New Zealand identity or not I don’t know, but let me start by telling a story. As Thomas King says, the truth about stories is that that's all we are. So this is my story but I think it's also a Pākehā story, at the same time.

I’ve recently returned from China, taking an exhibition of three New Zealand artists (two Pākehā and one Māori) to the International Science and Art Exposition in Shanghai. Predictably, the Māori artist wasn’t able to attend in person because she was too busy at home, which I’m beginning to understand is typical of indigneous artists internationally. This turned out to be a bit of an issue on our sightseeing day to the ancient canal village. The clutch on the bus gave out on the ride home, leaving us stuck in the middle of the motorway in peak-hour Shanghai traffic, and we waited for 45 minutes for a tow truck to arrive.

Our young guide, Wendy, felt obliged to try and entertain us, so with our encouragement she overcame her shyness to sing a song from her homeland in the north of China. The song itself came from an ethnic minority in that area, but even as a Han majority person she felt proud to share that song with us, and our Shanghainese companion knew a few moves of the accompanying dance to help out with the improvised cultural performance.

After Wendy had finished she asked for someone on the bus to take a turn with the entertainment, and was met with silence from the New Zealand, French, Bulgarian and Japanese guests. She then said that as the supposed leader of the group I should take responsibility for this and handed me the microphone. Now my musical experience is in experimental noise and punk rock, so let’s just say that I’m no tui. I’m not a natural performer at all, and I wasn’t quite sure what the appropriate response would be.

If I was to mirror Wendy’s example, I could probably get through Tutira mai nga iwi unaccompanied, and maybe Paikea with the help of some of the New Zealanders, but that didn’t feel right. On the other hand, dipping into my own cultural heritage for material from the likes of Jimmy Barnes (I worked as a roadie for him in work experience during high school) didn’t seem like it would quite work either. And so I just took the mic and went into talking about how I was feeling in that moment, and how one of the most important things I’d learnt from indigenous cultural contexts was understanding that when you’re a guest and it is appropriate to behave in a certain way (singing for example), this is more important than whether you feel like doing it or not or are good at it or not, and that’s quite liberating. You don’t have to worry, you just do it. That’s why I’ve never understood why people are so scared of the Māori context because they’re scared of doing things wrong. Everyone usually knows what to do and there’s always someone prepared to tell you. It’s much more hospitable than the Pākehā institutional environments, where as we heard yesterday you’re expected to know everything in advance. That’s what I grew up with, and it’s stupid. That’s why I also think it’s dangerous for white people to do whiteness studies. Because we just end up needing to know more about whiteness than everyone else as well, when what we really need to learn is that we can just relax and let other people know more than us, and this is simply an efficient way of distributing information around the community. Letting other people to know more about us than we know ourselves is a great relief.

Anyway, I'm just trying to learn how to tell stories about my intercultural experiences that feel legitimate to me and to my friends of all cultural backgrounds. This is what I would like to near from Pākehā more than anxiety about our identity. I don’t think the anxiety helps anyone. When Pākehā talk about our identity we’re usually in this mindset where we’re being forced to do it and we're waiting for a hug from the ethnic others to make it OK. This isn’t going to encourage other Pākehā to think about these issues, there’s no upside in being forced through the wringer. For me - despite going through the wringer once or twice- discussing my cultural location, understanding that it's national identity is less important than its genealogical relationship to the land it comes from, is not a source of anxiety, but a source of learning and growth. And I think we can sell this better on the white left, and if we do then everyone will benefit.

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