Thursday, April 13, 2017

The problem with being 100% Māori.

Māori TV’s programme ‘Native Affairs’ recently ran a story which followed up on a story about ‘Māori identity’ they aired in 2016. A presenter who appears regularly on the programme undertook an DNA test, and in the story this week her results were released: she is 100% Māori! As soon as this news is announced by the white scientist, the presenter beams and raises her hands in the air triumphantly. She has won! She has overcome! Something in her saliva told a commercial geneticist something which she didn’t know about herself before! In a follow-up piece published by The Guardian, she describes her own daughter reading about the outcome of the test online and responding with similar glee: “My daughter... stormed my room this morning brimming with pride.”

The problem with race and blood

The story aired on Native Affairs opens with a series of clips about race, including Hitler addressing a large rally, and an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jnr’s famous ‘I have a Dream’ speech. In this way, the story is positioned as part of a global story of oppression on the basis of race. At one point in the story, this focus on race is localised as the presenter considers a series of anti-Māori claims in New Zealand which hinge on the idea that there are ‘no real Māori’ left anymore. The logic goes that if there are no Māori people then there is no reason for Māori rights of any kind, which on the face of it feels racist, and certainly it emerges from the same historical context as the kind of racism alluded to in the Hitler and King clips. And absolutely Māori people have been, and continue to be, subjected to racism in many forms.

However, the idea that ‘there are no real Māori people left’ is a specific kind of claim: the ‘elimination of the Native’ (as Patrick Wolfe put it) relies on a particular colonial anti-Indigenous logic. Once Indigenous people are removed, land and other resources become available. This removal has taken various forms over time. In all colonies, albeit to varying degrees, the removal of Indigenous people has taken place through violence: massacres, armed warfare, genocide, deliberate acts of starvation and disease, and so on.   In some places, most notably Australia, Indigenous people were legally assumed to not exist (and so the continent became British on the basis of terra nullius which means there was noone there before). In other places, Indigenous people have been physically removed (as in the major forced migrations undertaken in the US of many Indigenous nations in the nineteenth century, including what is now known as the Trail of Tears). And, in many settler colonies in which the pesky Indigenous folks refuse to be physically exterminated, claims about Indigenous disappearance morph into the cultural realm: ‘real Māori people’ shouldn’t speak English, occupy postions in the middle class, live away from the pā, etc etc etc.

But one of the other ways that Indigenous people have been removed has been through a very powerful story: a story in which the passing of the last Indigenous person is widely mourned or celebrated. These ‘lasts’ are found all over the map: Truganniny the ‘last’ Tasmanian, Tommy Solomon the ‘last’ Moriori, Ishi the ‘last’ of his tribe in California; often their bodies (living or not) have been displayed and paraded publicly. Focusing on ‘lasts’ is actually a good strategy if you are trying to acquire Indigenous land and resources. All you need to do is come up with a definition of ‘Indigenous’ which is ever-shrinking, and this is where blood quantum comes in. Each of the ‘lasts’ noted above were known for being the last ‘full-blood’ person of their community, an idea which suggests an Indigenous community only exists as long as there are individuals who are ‘purely’ (yep, 100%) Indigenous.

The idea that blood is able to be divided into fractions is only able to be understood as a metaphor. Countless people have reflected (some hilariously, some devastatingly) on the problem of imagining that blood can be drained from an individual and sorted into separate bottles by racial type. And yet, the idea that people can be half something and quarter something else is a powerful metaphor, and one which is used against (and in some cases by) Indigenous communities in many places. For years, New Zealand census data listed Māori people as full-blood, half-castes and quarter-castes. Wherever it is used, you can trace the blood quantum back to land and resources: in Hawai’i, for example, Hawaiian homestead land can only be inherited by people who have at least 50% Hawaiian ‘blood,’ a situation which has pretty bleak implications for individuals making decisions about family and partnerships. (See Kehaulani Kauanui’s book Hawaiian Blood for the backstory and analysis.) The idea that ‘blood’ can be sorted into fractions contains its own mathematical trap: as one of my students put it several years ago, ‘you can only lose Indigenous blood.’  Colonialism and claims of race and blood have played out in opposite ways for enslaved and Indigenous people: while the colonial project benefits from enslaved people of African descent to never ‘lose’ their blackness (because otherwise they would revert from property to humans), it simultaneously benefits from Indigenous people being incapable of retaining (or at least, being able to claim) indigeneity.

The story of blood quantum underpins constant bubble of questions in New Zealand about whether there are any ‘real’ Māori left, which in turn are underpinned by an assumption that there are not. This is a useful strategy for people who want to make contemporary anti-Māori claims, because it allows them to simultaneously acknowledge prior Indigenous presence while insisting on current Indigenous absence. (This duality, of course, both updates and draws on the ‘smoothing the pillow of the dying race’ colonial claims of the late nineteenth century.) It feels tempting to challenge the claim there are no ‘real’ Māori left by producing an example of a ‘real’ Māori. ‘See,’ some people on social media have agreed with the TV presenter, ‘there are some full-blooded Māori out there! So now those racist people can stop saying there aren’t any!’ But like attempts to ‘disprove’ stereotypes by proving their opposites (eg by producing a sober Māori person for someone who claims all Māori are drunks), this approach to colonialism fails to understand that the original colonial claim (eg that there are no ‘real’ Māori left) is not operating according to logic; rather than nodding the head and saying ‘aha! I see! There are real Māori people left after all!,’ the claim will keep shifting to enable a claim to be made about Indigenous absence. The way to challenge stereotyping, and the way to challenge claims of Indigenous absence, is not to disprove them by proving their opposites. Instead, it is only possible to challenge them by pulling them apart: by understanding their history, by understanding their deeper claims, and by refusing to engage with them as logical (and, thus, ‘disprovable’) arguments.

Saying “I am 100% Māori” reinforces, rather than undermines, a claim that there are no ‘real Māori’ left: it allows the logic underpinning a colonial argument about blood quantum and ‘purity’ to remain unchallenged. (And, irresponsibly, it implies something about Māori people who would not receive 100% certification from – triumphantly putting one’s hands in the air quietly suggests how less-than-100% Māori people should respond.)

The problem with genes and science

When I posted the story on my facebook newsfeed, someone I don’t know wrote a fairly lengthy reply which assumed I (and others commenting) had not actually watched the Native Affairs story or read the accompanying article. But, more concerningly, the person assumed that the ‘science’ peddled by commercial organisations like is beyond question. The percentages and their associated claims offered by the TV presenter and were repeated by this stranger as a kind of ‘truth’ about which I was having an inappropriate response. But what kind of ‘truth’ can a saliva test at tell?

There are (at least) two answers: one is that a wide range of experts have weighed in on the limitations of this kind of genetic testing; and another is that (a little like engaging with blood quantum) it is important to take a step back and ask a broader set of questions about the uses of western science against Indigenous people.

It is simply not possible for a single genetic test to make a set of claims about the DNA of a single individual: these tests either trace the mitochondrial DNA (mother’s mother’s mother etc) or the Y chromosome (which the TV presenter would not possess if she is genetically female. And so, any one test can only trace, and thus account for, a particular lineage. But, more broadly, the important thing about genetic testing for ‘ancestry’ is that there is no single genetic marker which is found in, and only in, each respective community. Instead, companies like compile all the results of all of the people who have done tests with them and line these up with the claims these people make about where they are from. This allows them to build up a series of genetic markers which they suspect is more likely to be found in a particular large grouping of people. The presenter is advised her DNA contains a certain percentage (98%/ 100%) of ‘Polynesian’ genes – there is no specific genetic marker for being Māori. There is nothing about the presenter’s genes which say ‘this person is Māori’ as much as there appear to be similarities between the DNA found in her saliva and the DNA foud in saliva contributed by other people who claim to be Polynesian. The idea of specific genetic percentages is itself as metaphoric as fractions of blood.

What does 98%, or 100%, actually mean? It is a scientifically impossible yet easily-extrapolated claim based on a set of claims about being based in science which is itself dubious (or, at best, extremely limited). Then why would it feel like ‘truth’ to the stranger who wrote on my facebook wall and, indeed to the presenter? Because we are constantly told a series of stories about science as a (neutral, unchallengeable, simple) arbiter of ‘truth’ – and the interesting thing is that genetic science is just the latest in a long, long history of science being used in order to reinforce colonial claims about Indigenous people. Through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, scientists pulled out measuring tapes and metal instruments to record the dimensions of skulls, limbs and other body parts in order to produce a picture of humanity in which people could be sorted into racial types. It can be easy to blindly accept the ‘science-ness’ of genetic testing in the early 21st century even as we imagine we would never be fooled by truth claims about racial difference (and racial hierarchies) made by this kind of ethnographic science of a century ago.

We’ve seen this all before, of course: certain kinds of science being used in order to prove ‘once and for all’ truths about Indigenous people for which Indigenous people already have complex explanations. The history of human migration across the Pacific region, for example, has been carefully preserved by people across the region in oral traditions, songs, dance, material culture, technologies, and so on. For generations, Europeans have sought to ‘prove’ things about human migration across the region through various strategies which claimed to be the ‘final’ word on that migration because it was scientific. The most recent version of this has, of course, been genetic science: the tracing of history through DNA tests which gained some wider interest around a decade ago, such as through the popular 2006 documentary. The opening words of the documentary? “In New Zealand, we all come from somewhere else.” While Māori people have no problem discussing and celebrating our migration histories in most contexts, it seems striking that these opening words gently reinforce the idea that Māori have no special or particular relationship with New Zealand. The elimination of the Native indeed.

No, the point here is not that Māori don’t have ancestral connections across the Pacific region. The point is that we allow ‘science’ to make a set of claims about us that are presented as if there is a ‘truth’ that science has access to which our other accounts of who we are simply cannot grasp. A claim about Māori lineage accompanied by a mathematical expression like ‘98%’ feels more ‘true’ than other kinds of claims.

We also see it elsewhere: genetic science (and especially commercial enterprises like, although they are by no means the only players in this marketplace) being used in order to ‘prove’ or delegitimate all kinds of Indigenous claims of connection and heritage. Among others, the Indigenous Studies scholar Kim TallBear has written and spoken widely about this in the context of North America (especially in her book Native American DNA); she problematizes the science, but also the ways in which this ‘science’ is used in, as well as against, Indigenous communities in order to undermine (to trump, if you will) other claims of connection and belonging which have worked for millenia. She has also explicitly responded to claims made in ads for these genetic ancestry companies in which people ‘discover’ they have a certain percentage of what is described as Indigenous ancestry. Interestingly, there is a link between the anti-black racism alluded to by the footage of MLK at the beginning of the Native Affairs story: these genetic ancestry companies have also built up a large market among the African American community, providing ‘answers’ to questions about African origins which centuries of enslavement have rendered irretrievable. It seems has figured out all of our weak spots.

These comments about science and colonialism are not themselves anti-science. They are, instead, comments about the ways in which we should hold science to the same accountability we hold any other source of information, and we should not get all distracted by the truth claims made by people who spit out percentages despite their scientific method being widely critiqued. Responsible scientists working in the area of genetics would presumably clarify the limitations as well as possibilities of any claims they make.  

The problem with colonisation

So then, why would a TV presenter who publicly demonstrates her grounding and proficiency in Māori language and culture feel so triumphant about someone telling her (yes, on the basis of fuzzy science) she is 100% Māori? Why would she report on a global news site that her daughter is just as thrilled? What is it about all of the things she already knows about who she is (tribally, linguistically, culturally) that they feel insufficient when compared to the ‘truth’ offered by the man from How can a percentage derived from questionable commercial science be such a source of pleasure?  

Why would something posing as ‘journalism’ fail to draw on any analysis of the ways in which blood quantum has historically, and continues to be globally, used in order to undermine Indigenous people? Why would it fail so spectacularly to challenge rather than reinforce the colonial logics of blood quantum, even as it attempts to gesture to the problematic way that a story of ‘no real Māori anymore’ is used to challenge Māori people? And, why would a TV show which purports to centre ‘Native’ affairs, screened on a TV channel which purports to centre Māori perspectives, be prepared to provide free and uncritical advertising for a specific company?

The Kenyan writer and scholar Ngugi wa Thiong’o has famously spoken about what he calls the ‘colonisation of the mind,’ and the ways in which decolonisation is not just a political or singular act but an emotional, psychological and ongoing process.

We already have our own ways of knowing who we are: they are connected to the transformative, complex and dynamic concept of whakapapa. I hope that one day we will feel more confident about making a set of claims about who we are – not just ‘factually’ - but according to our own logics.
Sadly, but surely obviously, you can’t have it both ways: you can’t claim to be undermining the damage done by claims about disappearing Natives while presenting yourself as Native #1. 

You can’t fight blood quantum with blood quantum. But you can fight it with whakapapa.  

Native Affairs

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Anchor                                                 (for Matiu)


Before you were born, we decided you would be our weapon
Our strategy
Our bullet-proof vest.

That you would speak the language which we could not.
And, by so doing, would right the wrongs
or turn back time
or some other cliché about gently nudging recent ancestors
who loved us by pretending they couldn’t speak it either.

It was unfair: a newborn baby taking a first breath
surrounded by adults wanting to trick you into believing in a taken-for-granted world
which for us remained a fantasy.

Wanting every utterance of yours to be different from our own:
picking up shame from where it has pooled around our feet;
scooping it into buckets, or cups, or bails;
holding it out for you to make it all disappear.

You were our baby in the manger:
the one whose tongue would save us all.


Over time we have come to know that words on the page are unkind to you.

You know so much of two spoken languages
but Maori boys at school are not judged for poetry.

These adults in your life still as hopeless as ever,
waving to you in your world across a thin crack which some days feels like a ditch.

We read earnest articles about the importance of reading.
We quietly panic about gaps at high school and fear that you could slip between them.

We sit in our houses of books and try to find the line
between reading as medicine and reading as punishment.


And then you skype with me late one afternoon to practice your speech
which begins with your pepeha as if that is the most ordinary way to start
when you’re eleven years old.

How could we have guessed that this language would be your weapon
Your strategy

Your bullet-proof vest.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

A view of Brexit from elsewhere.

Like so many others around the world, I was glued for much of yesterday to my twitter feed, facebook posts, a 24 hour TV news channel, some googling, and occasional texts with my Dad. It was all Brexit all the time. For much of last nite I sat on our couch in front of the heater, a Maori person next to my Fijian husband, on a very cold evening on Darug land. Glued to the incoming information, trying to make sense of it all, I couldn’t help but ask myself whether my interest (obsession?) with Brexit was a sign of colonial ties or global connections. And now, the next morning – which is cold but sunny – I am typing a blog post about the UK. I am sketching what I see. Sketching?

In 1840 – yes the same year that the Treaty of Waitangi was signed – a British man called Thomas Babbington Macauley wrote about a future moment in which
some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul’s.
This image of future ruin (the “broken arch of London Bridge”, “the ruins of St Pauls”) was conjured at a time of British imperial expansion and enthusiasm. Not only did it predict the end of empire but it also predicted who would view, and sketch, that end. (Let’s be clear: in 1840, and indeed most of the 19th century, ‘New Zealander’ was the term used to refer to Maori people.) In 1872 Macauley’s written vision was translated into a visual image by Gustave Dore which is easy to google but which I’ve pasted here to make things easy.

Macauley himself was a pretty interesting character, known as a politician and historian and already deeply entangled in the British colonial project. He was particularly (in)famous for his ‘Minute on Indian Education’ in 1835, in which he both ridiculed the many knowledge and literary traditions of the subcontinent and suggested the imposition of English (as language and as literature) as an explicit and specific colonial strategy. The wonderful scholar Gauri Viswanathan has shone light on the extent to which English as a discipline which we now teach in schools and universities (which I have taught and continue to teach in universities) can be traced to India rather than to England (where universities at the time were more interested in Classical – Greek and Latin – literatures). So, Macauley had been thinking about imperialism and conquest and the very specific stakes of representation (reading, writing, sketching) for quite some time.

Now, people who know about Macauley’s vision of the Maori person gazing at ruined London know that he was most directly talking about the Catholic church rather than about the British empire. And yet, there are some good reasons for seeing this as a vision of imperial (not just Catholic) ruin, and it fits into a series of many such images from the period that Julia Hell describes as the “ruin-gazer scenario” and David Skilton describes as “tourists at the ruins.” Writing about ‘Ruins of the Future’ in the context of Imperialism, Julia Hell describes Macauley’s particular vision of what she describes as the ruin-gazer scenario’s “most ironic nineteenth century version,” and argues that:
the imperial subject observes the colonized as he contemplates a scene of imperial ruin – while Macauley and his metropolitan readers look at the Maori looking.
In her analysis, she suggests there is a layering of gazes:
The scopic structure of this scenario, that is, the constellation of subject and object, look and gaze, is intriguing: while both of colonizer and the colonized look at the ruins of empire, the true object of desire in this scenario is the gaze itself, the scopic mastery exerted over the colonized. In the end, the imperial subject is still the one who is looking.
She draws attention to the gaze – the idea of who gets to look and who/ what – and reminds us: while the Maori person gazes at London, who’s gazing at the Maori person? In my case, it’s another Maori person. Specifically, a Te Atiawa/ Taranaki person. It’s me: thinking about what it means to gaze at the ruins of London. It’s me: thinking about what it means to gaze at the ruins of the place which has left so much of my own country, my own people, and myself, in ruins.

On one level, I don’t feel so invested in Leave or Remain as much as I feel invested in two strong elements of how these two positions have been described. Sure, if I’d had a vote I would have cast it for Remain – my critiques of the dodgy elements of the EU are outweighed by the alternative which has already begun to unfold or, perhaps, unravel. At the same time, I can still hear the voice of an African American scholar who was visiting Cornell when I was there as a PhD student in 2000 a few weeks after Bush the Second had been elected into office; speaking about Black people in the US who had voted for Bush, the scholar was clear that we must not further dehumanize or undermine the intelligence of people who have already been treated to such treatment for so long. Certainly this is thin ice – I am not equating whiteness in the UK with Blackness in America! – but just as certainly we can think about the many people who voted for Leave who did so out of a sense of frustration with the disempowerment, disenfranchisement and dehumanizing elements of their own lives.

But as I said, I am less concerned about the Remain or Leave than I am about two elements that are inextricable from this referendum: one, the spectre of immigration as a threat unlike no other; and two, the ability for the British to continue to treat their colonial history the way they always have done – they ignore it. People have written, and tweeted, and status-updated, and memed enough about both of these over the past few days and, indeed, years. But as I sit here, gazing at the ruins, or thinking about what it means to be a Maori person gazing at certain kinds of British ruins, I cannot help but think that these two are so closely connected that they are indeed the same thing.

UK citizens (or formerly, British subjects from Great Britain) have, since 1769, consistently been the largest immigrant group in New Zealand: they and their descendants make up the majority of our population and have done for well over a century; and they continue to make up the highest proportion of migrants to New Zealand. Because of the way that colonial apron strings and white privilege work, new white British migrants are not understood as ‘immigrants’ in New Zealand in the way that Pacific Islanders, Asian people, or other nonwhite migrants are… they arrive and are immediately at home. When TV ‘news’ cameras scan a group of people standing around for an auction, British migrants are not coded as the ‘other’ who are gobbling up all the houses in Auckland (or Sydney).

It is so deeply frustrating to hear British people whine about immigration when their compatriots jet off around the world with reckless abandon, and when their distant cousins are the majority of the population in these white settler colonies. No, I am not saying that British people shouldn’t be mobile – I am saying that British people are mobile, in ways that don’t seem to count as ‘immigration’ from their own point of view. Here we see the double standard: this is about race, not mobility. Nonwhite people are immigrants, and live in diasporas, while white people are expats or just flow between countries (a la the horizontal colonial networks Ballantyne has written about) and get to fit right in. I wonder how many of the middle class people in New Zealand and Australia who deplore ‘immigrants’ coming to ‘take our jobs’ caution their own privileged children against venturing out on an Overseas Experience or Gap Year because to do so would be to take someone else’s job. Of course, this is more complicated for the many British people who are not themselves white: constantly having to explain where they’re really from, as are all other nonwhite holders of ‘white’ passports; as if such citizenship could only be fleeting, and secondary to a real place of origin, even though asking white people in New Zealand and Australia where they’re really from is considered uncouth, stupid or revolutionary.

It is also deeply frustrating to hear these proclamations of “Independence Day” and “freedom” as if the past centuries of British imperialism never happened. What do the current British colonies think about this idea of “Independence”? How about the many millions of people whose lives continue to be shaped by the ongoing effects of British colonialism? How about the millions upon millions of people whose ‘migration’ was the result of British schemes of enslavement and indenture? How about all of us who will never get an “Independence Day” in certain terms because the tide of history has flowed in a way that has shifted the banks of the river? If only the clownish proclamation of an “Independence Day” for the UK had a way of magically reversing the centuries-long processes of devastation and loss: if only the UK had to reckon with the effects of the mess it has made in New Zealand and Australia (and Fiji, and elsewhere in the Pacific, and Canada, and the Middle East, and Africa, and…). Where on earth do people in the UK think the immigrants are coming from? Do they think there is no connection between the UK and the places from which people are migrating? Are they aware just how many migrants and refugees have seen the British flag long before they arrived at the white cliffs of Dover? The English rugby team is touring Australia at the moment, and the media made a big deal before their first game about how the current English coach used to play for Australia. When he was asked about his sense of loyalty while singing ‘God Save the Queen’ with the team at the beginning of the game, he replied ‘I grew up here in Australia singing that song.’

I remember the first time I went to London. I walked around the streets after an overnight flight from New York, and was bitterly disappointed. It wasn’t any more flashy or substantively different than any city I’d been to by then. I didn’t know what I’d expected, but it hadn’t been this. I remember walking and thinking ‘they have taken so much for centuries from so many people and places, and this is all they could do with it?’ At least if the streets were paved with gold I could look at it and say ‘this! This is where it all came!’ That first time, for me, Britain already felt slightly ruined.  

In so many ways, the UK is a too-big dog which has run through a house and wagged its too-big tail next to a sidetable. And we – who used to be intact and distinctive and stable - are the smithereens and dust, scattered on the carpet. But the UK will never reckon with those things – with my shorter life expectancy, with third-world diseases in first-world countries, with third-world diseases in third-world countries for that matter, with language loss, with ongoing genocide, with political coups and dictatorships, with alarming rates of suicide, with overrepresentation in prisons and hospitals, with the miseries of cultural dislocation and its particular effects in relation to gender and sexuality, with the ongoing uphill journey that most countries in the world continue to deal with and will be dealing with for generations to come – because it can’t see them. And when it does reckon with them, it thinks of its engagement as an interested bystander rather than as the recidivist offender. Apparently it has no idea what it has done.

Maybe I’m giving the UK too much credit. I mean, let’s be clear about the incredible resilience, agency, creativity and stubbornness of Indigenous people worldwide – and the careful, hopeful and difficult work undertaken by many white descendants of British settlers of reckoning with historical and ongoing forms of colonialism in these countries. London has been in my facebook feed since before the referendum this week because friend and colleague Coll Thrush, an historian at UBC, is posting pics of his ‘Indigenous London’ field trip with Canadian students who are tracing the various sites and archives of Indigenous presence in that city over centuries.  

And maybe we’re not really gazing at ruins. Perhaps the UK will suffer some kind of economic recession but in a few years we’ll talk about it as a blip rather than a game changer. Maybe life will go on. Maybe Cameron will be eclipsed by Trump, and maybe the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will be eclipsed by an imaginary fence between the US and Mexico. Already there’s less #Brexit in my twitter feed.

London’s medieval bridge needed to be replaced at the end of the eighteenth century, and the new one – presumably the one upon which Macauley’s future Maori sat – was opened in 1831, funded by the Corporation of London and British Government both of which had tangibly benefited from colonial trades in bodies, lands and resources. But maybe Macauley was onto something: maybe the roots of the UK’s ruin were there, deeply embedded in the very moments that felt like dizzying heights of its colonial past. And maybe those from ‘elsewhere’ who quietly sketch on broken arches, whose lives continue to be as shaped by eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain as anyone living in the UK, can see something it’s harder to see when you’re mourning the loss of the bridge you thought was yours alone.