Sunday, 6 May 2007

‘Sweet As. . .?': a report for Wel-com - Suzanne Menzies-Culling

On 9th and 10th June, St Anne’s Hall Newtown was the venue for one of the best conferences I have been to in the last few years. Organised by a small group of Wellington based Pākehā and NZ born Chinese, we were given the opportunity to explore what it is to be a New Zealander and how we identify ourselves and each other.

Over the two days, we were treated to three keynote speakers and a series of panellists. On Saturday we heard about the construction of NZ’s national identity and how race influenced that, issues of whiteness in pursuing justice in Aotearoa, and “Native Pākehā” - where Pākehā indigeneity is a useful foil to Māori indigenous rights.

The first keynote speaker, Avril Bell set the tone for the morning, speaking about Dominant culture and the construction of Pākehā identity, as over the years since colonisation began we have not only been able to outnumber the tangata whenua, we have been able to forget where we came from. We now have a situation where to be “kiwi” is synonymous with being White/Pākehā/European and where being white means it is assumed that you are a kiwi.She talked about the Politics of Disappointment and challenged us to address our historical amnesia, and she also made the point that it is us Pākehā, the political descendants of the colonisers, who have come to see ourselves as “The” people. The problem for us is that we are not “the FIRST” people!

In the afternoon Wong Liu Shueng spoke about growing up in small town New Zealand and about the her growing awareness of racism, of how prejudice learnt early is never re-examined, and how experiences of life have been the motivation to work on issues of racism, minority groups , power relationships etc. As a fifth generation New Zealander, she raised the question of “How long does it take before we are considered NZers?”

The afternoon panel dealt with white privilege and dominance and featured two women panellists who were immigrants to New Zealand, both activists who asked searching questions about where we are heading as a society and we were also treated to poetry read by poet Alison Wong who was the 2002 Robert Burns Fellow at Otago University.

Underlying the whole day for me, from both all the speakers and panellists was the “longing to belong” The Sunday was headlined as “Beyond dominant culture: creating new dynamics” and Moana Jackson Ngati Kahungungu, Ngati Porou titled his keynote speech “The Politics of Identity”. He spoke of Māori having whakapapa which determined relationships. ( Papa.. being a foundation, whaka to make or build upon.) For Māori, identity was not a racial or an ethnic classification but was a definition based on relationships. When Pākehā arrived, they were a different people who didn’t fit into the Māori world and relationships, so words had to be devised to describe these people. These were a different set of relationships that grew from a different place.

The panel that followed also continued the theme of identity, including the politics of multiculturalism and minorites, challenging the connection of ethnic with the exotic -asking “What’s in it for me?” and about Pākehā becoming open to what they don’t know and not needing to know everything.

One speaker talked about the need to separate the nation from the state. The point was made that the dominant culture decides the rules of the game and decides who are insiders and who are outsiders.

The afternoon opened with on exercise run by a couple of Māori Women counsellors who got us to critique the North American models of counselling that are now being used here to train students.

The final panel was titled “Ways Forward - envisioning future paths” where the four panellists shared information and experiences of how to build to sustain struggle, about Pacific minorites thriving in other dominant cultures, a new paradigm for a multi - ethnic Aotearoa and a warning of what can happen if the “dots don’t join” in creating models within a dominant culture.

All in all, our bodies minds and spirits were well cared for much with good food, good information and inspirational speakers who shared with openness, good humour, and patience. It was a time to rekindle old relationships and initiate new ones, and it was a privilege to have the opportunity to participate in such a ground breaking conference, one whose time has well and truly come.

Suzanne Menzies-Culling

First published in Wel-com, a Catholic newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North dioceses.

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