This morning as I stood waiting for my coffee order a woman reached across me to take a paper without saying excuse me or smiling. I had to lean back or she would’ve pushed into my chest. For only a moment I wondered if she hadn’t seen me as surely if she had she wouldn’t have loudly exclaimed to the man with her, ‘let’s see what the maaaaaris are getting now, haha.’ She said it so close to my face that I could feel her breath on my cheek but she didn’t look at me, she looked right through me. She was aggressive in movement and mean in words.
I try, always, to seek out a reason someone would do something like that, would treat me like I’m invisible when she had to move my yoga mat to take the paper but I know why and it’s not because she was distracted or hadn’t seen me. Once I would’ve been grateful to be ignored by someone like her. Much rather that than be noticed or, as today, for her to make sure I am aware of her disdain. Both, by the way, always feel exactly the same.
She’s a racist.
I doubt she’d call herself that. She’d probably say she was just joking, that I’m over-sensitive or that Maori are given special treatment and why shouldn’t she question it? I doubt she’d be the slightest bit interested that I’m not in fact Maori myself.
She’s still a racist.
I know we don’t like saying that in this country. It makes us uncomfortable. We think we’re better than that. It’s easy to point at America or Australia in smugness if we compare the state of our indigenous, Pacific, Asian, anyone-other-than-obivously-kiwi-slanged-white people to theirs. It’s convenient to gloss over all the issues lurking under the surface that allow ugly people to show their true colours as acceptable in our society.
No pun intended.
But I’m fifty now (have you heard?!) and I practice yoga on and off the mat (yup!) and that beautiful combination has helped me find my voice and no matter that I don’t look like I did thirty years ago, I refuse to be invisible.
When I used to be asked where I’m from I’d answer Wellington. Truly, in naivety I thought that’s what they (usually men) meant. Only when they’d question me further would I realise they really wanted to know why my skin’s brown. Sometimes the question is formed as what is my culture? Which to me has always sounded like am I cultured? Yes, I want to say. I know which forks go with which knives and I was always taught to put the loo seat down and write thank you cards and take a house gift and never ask guests to take their shoes off or talk about money or politics.
Written down it looks like I come from the House of Windsor.
Part of my own issue with racism is that I had no armour, no self-awareness to fall back on. Basically I had no inkling, for an overly long time, of the fact that I was brown. My family was pakeha and I was loved and protected and, well, perhaps a little cosseted. I was blissfully unaware the entire world was looking at me as a coloured girl first and foremost, while to my family I was just me. In truth (prepare yourself) we never actually discussed it until I, in an extremely late and pretty pathetic attempt at teenage rebellion, started snooping around to find out some answers to what I felt (rightfully) should have been mine.
Small tangent here: It wasn’t till I was thirty with a child of my own that I met my birth father, mum’s first husband, and family. Then I found the browness. It was from Rotuma! Two sisters! Extended family! Everywhere! A whole lot of browness and I never felt whiter!
Another tangent here: Rotuma is a small island north of Fiji. Although under Fijian government now, Rotumans are Polynesion, not Melanesian. Also, shocker, we have brown skin. (Race joke. Too soon?)
Once I went to look at a flat and the guy who greeted me at the door said, ‘oh wow, you sounded so European on the phone. Cool’. I got the room and looking back I think I only took it because I wanted to live up to what he thought I was.
Once I stood watching my daughter perform with her ballet class at the Parnell Rose Gardens and a woman stepped backwards onto my feet. She turned, apologising profusely until she saw me and her face closed down. There’s often that.
Once I knocked on the door of what I thought was a friend’s new house (my sense of direction completely on point as per usual) and the women who answered suggested I try across the road as there were more of ‘your sort’ over there. Good one, Ponsonby. Gentrification suits you!
Once I stumbled down a tube carriage after a night out in London. When I passed by a small group of boys, one of them looked up and said, ‘nigger, go home’. No small talk on the Northern Line.
Once I went home to a new friends place to play after school. We must have been seven or eight. Her mother was sewing and looked up, smile fading as she slid her eyes over me. She called her daughter over and said well within my hearing, ‘I don’t want you bringing maaaaaris home. Tell her to go.’ I went, running all the way round the corner to my house, straight into my mother’s arms. I was rigid with … everything. I had no concept of what I’d done wrong, only that I somehow WAS wrong.
Conincidently when my husband and I first got together a friend wondered why I didn’t tell her he’s part Maori. Ah, what? I hadn’t even noticed. Both he and I were brought up with absolutely no knowledge of our own cultures so were determined our child would live a life with no secrets, no unspoken shame or fear, we would be open books! All inclusive! Colour blind! Yada, yada, you get the picture. Anything she wanted to pursue we would go out of our way to encourage and seek together thus ensuring a solid foundation, firmly planted roots, a right to be who she was without being defined by the colour of her skin. Because in the world I’ve grown up and still live in, that seems to be something you have to explain in one way or another.
Then out she popped. (NO, SHE DID NOT! VERY BIG TANGENT! BIRTH!) And what we seemed to have in our hands was the (most beautiful) whitest, blue-eyed babe there ever was. Kinda funny when you think about it.
But of course, our fears, my fears, were exactly that. My fears. She has a parent who is brown and sometimes people ask her about it and she has answers and a side of sass that I never possessed and that I love and revere in her.
The universe has a funny way of bringing things round to where they started without ever offering up a resolution.
I recognise racism when I see it. I live it as a pakeha or white person never could. It’s not meant to be offensive to say that. It’s just a fact. Like the #metoo tag that brought women together all over the world there’s a shift in the air. Might now be the for indigenous people to be seen and heard? Not as an oversight, not as annoyances, not as second, third, fourth class citizens. We can’t despair globally without looking in our own back yard too.
It’s the underhand comments, the jokes that don’t get called out on, the snide remarks always followed by ‘but not you of course’ that feeds the stealthy depths of racism we live amongst.
This morning; the paper thing. What’s the big deal, you might ask? Well, it is and it isn’t. If none of these incidents have ever happened to you then I suppose it might be hard to see how I’d read something into it. If you recognise this simple moment then you too know what it’s like to be seen as something less.
Yoga brought me to a place of trusting myself more, of understanding that only I know my own self and if I look for acceptance or worth from outside then I’ll never feel at peace. Sometimes that can seem a parody of itself. Sometimes though, it saves me from myself.
Racist lady today, I forgive you. You’re ignorant and you choose to be ignorant. This time though I looked at you till you looked back at me, I made you see me even though all I saw was a raised eyebrow. I believe that comes from fear and I understand that. You see, we have more in common than you know. That probably doesn’t make you feel good but it sits better with me.
I felt brave. I felt whole. I’m on board for not accepting the status quo any longer. And I’m raising a freakishly strong fist quietly to say we got this.
Photo by Jakob Owens
© The Yoga Connection 2017