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The Colour Of My Skin Tells It All

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By Seamus Malietoa

The Black Lives Matter movement has (thankfully) taken the world by storm. With emphasis on America, the world watched as black people and their allies began to stand up across the country and demand their basic, human rights. It caught on like wildfire, and soon countries everywhere were calling out the oppression of black people. 

This movement is not just American or European. In our little country of New Zealand, we like to think we’re not racist. After all, Maori culture is a huge tourism draw, one which we like to pride ourselves on. 

I’m a solidly built, curly haired and dark brown Samoan and Niuean man. When you look at me there can be no mistaking my Polynesian ancestry. The sad truth is, I experience racism and profiling reasonably often here in New Zealand.

I only know myself as a brown New Zealander. My ancestry and DNA goes back to the Pacific Islands but I don’t have any connection to my roots or culture, I don’t even know which Island I am from. My history has been stripped from my family through generations of cultural erosion to fit into a european-centric society. I have little first hand notions of my people’s history, language or traditions.

My parents always wanted the best for their child. They wanted me to do well at school, keep out of trouble, get a good job and live a happy and prosperous life. To make them happy and to secure my future. I stepped into that eurocentric system that unfortunately didn’t leave much room to discover, learn or practice my culture. I was lucky to excel within the New Zealand education system and became articulate in my first language, English. I achieved the goals I set by working extremely hard, hoping that I would have the lifestyle my white peers took for granted. I thought that complete immersion into “whiteness” would see me accepted as they were, Which in retrospect was naive.

My dark brown skin is still on me. No matter how many degrees I get, I still look like a Polynesian. I’m still watched cautiously when I walk into shops. I still get followed by shop assistants. Status and occupation truly don’t matter when you are born with brown skin. The plight of black Americans haunts me. The colour of my skin speaks so much louder than the country I was born and raised in, the passport I hold, and the social norms I live by. I have always felt I am brown first, Kiwi second.

I researched “Do Black Americans know their Ancestral origins?” African Americans were forcefully taken from Africa, severed from their culture and acculturated into a new one when they were sold white men. They took their slave owners’ surnames, meaning when they were re-sold to a new owner they had to change their surname again because they were considered property, not humans. Any documentation or identity papers were destroyed, there were no African ancestral stories to tell as they were all wiped out. The only way they can learn about their African origin is through DNA tests, but the test results are complex as many don’t just descend from Africa. They have European, Caribbean and American lineage too. 401 years later and they are still dissociated from their roots and culture. Black people were forcefully enslaved to build America. All these years later they are still fighting for their basic human rights for equality, to live peacefully on the land they helped build and being told they should be thankful for the situation many find themselves in.

George Floyd was not the first black man to be murdered unjustly by the police, but he is the straw that broke the camel’s back. You can only push people so much until they start fighting back, even after centuries. PoC and their allies have been protesting not just for George Floyd, but for the many other black lives that have been taken with barely any repercussions for the perpetrators. 

Our Pacific Island community takes a lot of inspiration from black culture, black fashion, black music, and black dance. This affinity we have with Black American culture is yet another reason why it’s so important to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Our history, whilst not identical, does draw some similarities with the history of African Americans.

Even before the great chain of Pacific Islands migrating to New Zealand, we were invaded, oppressed, and segregated by Britain, Germany, and France. Colonialists came to the pacific Islands while people were simply living their lives. Was it perfect? Of course not, is any human society? However the Island people were in charge of their own politics and way of living. While the invasions don’t compare to the fate of the African slaves, there is the same element of Europeans thinking their intervention and interference was not only justified but necessary.

In more recent history Pasifika people faced what came to be known as “The Dawn Raids”. Pasifika families had been encouraged to leave their Island homes and come to New Zealand to help with the heavy manual labour involved with building the country. By the Mid 70s Islanders, who had built a life and a family in New Zealand, were expected to return to the Islands. This was due in part to an economic downturn which meant in turn, many of the jobs Island people had held were no longer available. Pasifika people were essentially expected to quietly leave the country they had helped to build when they were no longer convenient. Dubbed “overstayers’ and massively politicized.Prime Minister Norman Kirk created a special police task force to find and arrest “overstayers” while the mainstream media emphasised crime committed by Māori and Pasifika people. This task force opted to raid the homes of Pasifika families at the crack of dawn to catch their targets still in bed, leading to the name Dawn Raids. They were then arrested and deported back to their place of birth. Families were separated from each other and left stranded in unfamiliar situations. 

In response, Kiwi Polynesians created their own Black Panthers group, inspired by the Black Panthers in America to fight for the right to stay in New Zealand as well as equal treatment and the right to equal opportunity. It would be a huge mistake to say “we need to move forward all that was history”. We have museums and books as well as elders to educate ourselves on history. History is mandatory and we must always reflect back to our past to better ourselves. We may have made good ground, but there is still a lot of work to be done if we are to achieve a truly equal New Zealand.

Some Pacific Islanders may not agree with what we’re doing in New Zealand. But they must remember that Pacific Islanders had to fight hard for their rights to stay and have the same opportunities as white citizens.

I support the BLM movement.

1970s Christchurch, NZ during the Dawn Raids. Image via The University of Canterbury.
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