Nov 16, 2013

It's time to talk about colour: why we have to reject labels like 'white Maori'

Manuera Benjamin Riwai Couch: a former All Black, Minister of Maori Affairs
and the first Maori after the abolition of the half-caste rule to win a "European"
(now called general) electorate. Couch is perhaps the father of the ideologies about
Maori development that run through National's Maori MPs. HT Te Ara.

We hardly talk about skin tone. That’s not because we live in a post-racial society, but because our identity as Maori is grounded in whakapapa. Aesthetics don’t define Maori-ness.

But that doesn’t mean colourism is a non-issue. The reverse is true. Colourism is encoded in our colonial memory and the heady hangover remains.

In New Zealand “half-castes” were privileged over “full-blooded” Maori. But the division between full-bloods and half-castes – or dark skins and lighter skins - wasn’t unique to New Zealand. We inherited it.

In the early days of colonialism Britain would divide its slave labour according to skin tones. In the fields of the American South slave owners would privilege light skinned slaves over dark skinned slaves. In South Africa the difference in skin tone (and other features) determined whether a person was black or coloured. Blacks had to carry dompas, coloureds didn’t. In Australia the Half-Caste Act gave states the power to remove “half-caste” children from Aboriginal care and assimilate them into white society.

Early commentary on half-caste Maori cast them in a positive light. Josiah Firth, an early New Zealand farmer, went as far as to celebrate half-castes. He wrote:

“The Half-Castes of New Zealand are in general a fine type of men and women… They are of fine physique, the women being often very handsome…” 
“I have employed Maori half-castes as stockmen, boatmen, and one, as Captain of a river steamer, and I never had better servants”.

But the full blooded or the dark skinned Maori was a paradox. Writing in the early 1900s a perplexed Professor John Brown tried to get his head around Polynesian beauty standards that didn’t value whiteness:

“The finest type of European faces might… find their match in these islands of the Pacific, [but] these were not the most admired by the dusky races, just as the fair skin that sometimes appears amongst them was not admired”.

In an effort to try and explain why Polynesians beauty standards favoured dark skin and “flat noses” Brown argued that it was a result of conquer and intermarriage by and with Melanians who were “negroid” in appearance.

From the early days of settlement and into the 20th century New Zealand society has tried to classify and understand Maori according to skin colour, blood quantum and – but to a lesser extent – cultural practice (i.e. assimilation). But the most telling factor in whether a Maori was half-caste or, well, just a Maori depended on whiteness.

I hope it’s obvious why this matters: skin tone was and is loaded with social and political assumptions. Today there’s a difference between being labelled a “white Maori” and just “Maori”. They’re categories based on appearance, but the first category carries an unearned privilege over the second. Whiteness means full integration and acceptance. Just being Maori implies browness. There are a set of assumptions attached to being brown. Think of the warrior gene.

In a Euro-centric society whiteness can be monetised. Overseas research has indicated that a relationship exists between skin tone (colourism) and upward mobility. A Brazilian study found that people with lighter skin and mixed ancestry have higher rates of social mobility. Anecdotally, the same could be said about New Zealand. Skin tone can have a tangible effect.

Rejecting this is hard. But it starts with self-identification: owning our own identity and using whakapapa as the true measure of identity. What’s external isn’t important when whakapapa is adopted as the only measure of identity. If we can cut ties with labels like half-caste, white Maori, plastic Maori and the others, then we’re half way there.

But rejecting the assumptions that come with being, say, outwardly white is more difficult. The social assumptions attached to being coloured remain. Every Maori who can pass as white has witnessed the racism that seeps through when people think they’re in safe company. Changing that requires a cultural shift. But that comes later. The first step is for us to reject classifications based on appearance and embrace whakapapa as the true and only measure of identity. Other measures minimise people's identity as Maori. Once we get over the hang over from colour in the 19th and 20th century, then we can take on the rest of society.


  1. I should add that many Maori have absorbed the assumptions society makes about colour. When a person who is outwardly white claims their Maori whakapapa, sometimes other Maori find that hard to believe, untrue or think that "that person can only have a little bit of Maori whakapapa" and so on. But whakapapa doesn't distinguish in degrees. If you have a Maori ancestor, that's enough to claim Maori whakapapa. There doesn't have to be, for example, an unbroken line. There are a lot of horror stories of Maori who are outwardly white, but claim their identity as Maori, who struggle for full acceptance in either Maori or Pakeha society. That's why I emphasis that the change has to start with us.

  2. Tena koe Mokena
    The colour issue cuts both ways. Prejudice from main stream society if you are too dark. Prejudice from Maori and Pakeha if you are very fair. Both sides see the fair one as a wannabe, and don't take them seriously. Two of my five children are very fair, but having been brought up as Maori in a Maori community don't think anything of their colour until they are are away from home and are dealing with strangers. Then the rejection starts.

    1. You're absolutely right - it does cut both ways. We, as Maori, rightfully make a big deal about colourism in other communities, but it's alive in our own community too. It's an issue we have to deal with now.

  3. So glad you added the comment. 'Colourism' and other -isms are alive and well amongst our own - something I struggled with. I started to blog about it but couldn't bring myself to publish because that struggle has had a major impact on me and its very personal...not being accepted by the group of people you desperately want to identify yourself with because of your rich whakapapa, but because you appear fair-skinned or perhaps aren't into kapahaka for example, you are not accepted - that can take its toll on a young person. Change is good and it is happening slowly - we talk about institutional racism w police etc...but we also need to talk more about these -isms that are reinforced/perpetuated by our own people in high places / at the marae etc. Kia ora Morgan.

  4. Yes - this is a thorny issue that will continue to grow as the Māori population increases. I have always been quite conscious of my fair skin colour and have often been taunted by both Māori and non-Māori. Quite frankly it gets quite tiresome but I carry on making my contribution to Māori society. I can't change my skin colour, so some other people just need to change their attitudes.

  5. Its funny because we have the same situation in Canada with us Natives. I look white for sure. Born and raised in the reserve with my family, cousins and it was the biggest insult kids could throw at me when they were mad: "You f^inff white man". Even when we have the same grandparents? Oh well. Colour and racism will always be there. Funny because some dark skinned Indians have no clue as to where they are from, but are seen as more "indian" because of colour? I think you're identity gets really tested from all sides, your people and society.



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