Growing up blonde and Maori - An essay by Sara Orme
When I was sixteen, I moved from Christchurch to live with my Father (Ngati Awa & Te Arawa) in Auckland. I was sent to Diocesan ‘school for young ladies’. I’d never really understood or experienced racism like that year. My introduction was one memorable night where I witnessed white, private school boys yelling out ‘coons’ and ‘hori’s’ to all the dark skinned people waiting at various bus stops around the city. I asked them to stop and explained that these people are good people and they could also be my relatives. When I explained my Maori heritage, which I have always identified and been proud of, they all stopped, focused on me, laughed almost hysterically, and finished by saying ‘but, you don’t look it’.
That is right, I don’t look Maori and I have always been gutted about that, but I am maori, and these are my people and that year I came to understand judgements based purely on colour and race.
I also have another vivid memory. At thirteen, I took Maori as my language subject at a mid decile high school in Christchurch. I always saw myself proudly of mixed ethnicity. Always ticked the Maori/European box. Always asked to tick two boxes if there was only one. But my Maori teacher and fellow Maori students saw me as white, blonde and assumed some sort of white privilege I might have had. In retrospect I was bullied by all including the teacher. They knew nothing about me and the ancestral hardships that filtered down to me and my own family. They didn’t know that my Grandmother was also punished to speak her native language and my Father was also having to learn Te Reo, to which he later became fluent.
This ended an opportunity to learn my language and I don’t think I ever got over it.
Reverse racism? Well, yes, but then this can assume racism is anti dark-skinned people and that’s a problem in itself.
It would be fair to say that most people, both White and Maori, who hear about my ‘Maori heritage’ assume that I must be just ‘a bit’, and that I’m probably part of the new renaissance of Waka blondes who are renewing their cultural interest. But the truth is, I’m more than a bit and I have grown up very much knowing my heritage, my Whakapapa, my Whanau, my Marae, my Turangawaewae. The hardships, the love, the boil ups, the pipi digging, the crayfish diving, the poverty, the toughness, the cultural wealth, this has always been part of my life.
That year, at Diocesan, revealed many life lessons. ‘That Maori’ was my Father, my whanau, my everything and I was old enough to understand the implications of this for him. For us. For all people of colour. Always this feeling of being on the outside.
But like the rest of my whanau, he, and I were always proud. I saw this as my privilege. My privilege that I had a deep cultural heritage, privileged enough to understand the depths of racial despair, privileged enough to know cultural richness, privileged to see life could be hard and privileged that I could choose to go between the worlds of private schools and my whanau in Rotorua and TeTeko. Just like my Father had done.
My late father, Arapeta Orme, was a lawyer, advocate for Treaty of Waitangi claims, Winston Churchill scholar studying race relations, a Christchurch City Councillor and a representative for New Zealand to greet dignitaries such as the Queen. He was also a rugby player for the Maori All Blacks, New Zealand Universities and Canterbury.
Dad’s father was English from Birmingham, with Viking links and probably a link to my blonde gene. He arrived in Rotorua, New Zealand as a young boy. When he married my Grandmother, Tirita Tautuku, who was considered ‘as full as they come Maori’ living in small rural TeTeko, his family disowned him and later disowned their children. Despite this Dad was always proud of his English roots and throughout the rest of his life he would traverse between the two worlds.
A turning point happened when Dad was fifteen and at Rotorua Boys High. When asked what he wanted to do as a profession, to which he replied that he wanted to be a judge, his teacher openly said that he would never be able to be a judge and laughed. He walked out of class, out of the school gate and never returned. My aunty describes Dad setting up a tent in the backyard, because their house was so small with a lot of people. He created a makeshift desk with his kerosene lamp where he would study night and day for his upcoming school certificate exams. He passed and passed well.
Meanwhile, my Grandfather, although uneducated himself wanted the absolute best for his son. As a working class man he was quite entrepreneurial and opportunist. Whether it be managing workers in the forestry or running Orme gas station, he was always looking for something to better life for his family. Waitaki Boys High came up as a good option for my father to complete his final school years. He was academic, bright and importantly a top sportsman and that door opened for him.
Dad hitchhiked down the North Island and trained in the South where he was greeted by the Headmaster's wife and stayed with them for the first week.
There were no ‘brown boys’ at Waitaki during this time and not that many in the South Island in general. Dad found his ‘Englishness’. Charming, educated, sporty and good looking, Waitaki loved him. He went on to Canterbury University where he was politically active, highly social and met my Mother, Penelope, a fine arts student.
They got married but Dad’s parents weren’t there. They weren’t invited. Mum tells me because he was embarrassed about his family. There was undoubtedly a period where Dad struggled as the Maori Boy. He was always proud of his heritage but it was his good English manners that made him more acceptable.
But Dad married my Pakeha Mother who did get to meet his family and immediately fell in love with them all. Even after my parents divorced, both my Mother and Dad’s family never let go of each other, to this day. Mum saw us as so lucky to have them in our lives, which we were.
There was a period that Dad’s intelligence, charm and good looks got him far. But later in life and in the white business world he became ‘that’ Maori boy and in the Maoriworld he was always ‘that white, lawyer boy’.
Ultimately living between two worlds led to significant life grief for my Dad. The poverty and racism to which he had grown up as a Maori boy never left him. He was caught between two worlds. He actively campaigned for racial equality at a time in history where this was considered combative and rebellious. Sometimes there were assumptions that his problems were alcohol because, well, he was Maori and that’s often considered a ‘Maori problem’. But, even in his rugby playing years he never drank. He understood the damage it did to families and whole communities.
His grief was a sense of deep loss. Loss of never being able to shine in a world that would never cherish him or allow him to grow and succeed.
I too am caught between two worlds, but being blonde masked a lot of racial bigotry that would have come my way if maybe I Iooked ‘more ‘Maori.’ I know that I have not suffered the deep grief and abuse that runs so deep for so many people of colour. My experience will never compare.
But racism for me is about the spirit of those before me. It is not about colour or economics but the struggles, pain and wisdom of my iwi and my whanau. I am blonde, I am white, and I am considered privileged. I am all those things. But I know I also carry the struggles of my Dad, my Grandparents, my Great Grandparents, my Iwi and their significant tribal losses and various historic punishments for being Maori. For them this was closely linked to their race. For me it is that spirit that has never left.
Being Maori for me is not about speaking Te Reo, or wishing I knew more waita’s than I do. It’s about my Turangawaewae and the powerful connection with the land, my whanau, who I have always loved and who have always loved me.
As my father used to always say, “There is only one race, the human race.”
I grew up understanding the implications all of this had for my father. For an economically poor Maori boy with intelligence and aspiration as an adult, it was a struggle. But he was strong and kept pushing through all that life threw at him. When in England as the Churchill scholar, studying race relations his research was appreciated, when he was home in New Zealand he was the rebel. But like most rebels history often proves them right.
I also carry my father's spirit of pioneering new ground, standing up for what’s right when often the status quo at the time is telling you, you are wrong. This is a good rebellion that oppression can sometimes bring, which is both liberating and empowering.
As a photographer this has also been my greatest gift. Traversing between different worlds with empathy, depth of understanding and determination.
Last week I wrote a tribute to my Father.
This is what I wrote...
11 years ago today I lost my Dad.
I’m not a religious person but I do believe in the spirit. Not a spirit that floats forever hanging around us but the spirit that finds new life. In us.The next generation.
Dad was a rebel and a pioneer. He studied law when only a handful of Maori attended university. He was a brilliant rugby player, playing for the Maori All Blacks, so close to being an All Black. Went on to study race relations as a Winston Churchill scholar. He also spent a day in prison, as a Christchurch City Councillor, over parking fines stating that he had parking rights over his rightful turangawaewae. His refusal to pay was embarrassing for the mayor, embarrassing for me, as a front page news story...
Life with Dad certainly wasn’t normal. We lived in a garage once while I attended a posh girls school. Showered in a glasshouse. Always an adventure roaming around NZ with no plan, digging for Pipis, gathering watercress, meeting endless relatives, chanting with the Rajneesh...
Life was never dull. One day I’d be meeting the Queen and various dignitaries and the next I’d be sitting with some of the poorest people in NZ. But it was all the same in Dads world. He’d always tell me there was only one race. The human race. No one is better than another.
It would be easy to gloss over the fact that Dad had many struggles. Struggles of growing up as an ‘aspirational’ half caste in a world that was difficult for him.
I stop to think about how far we’ve come here in Aotearoa and imagine how life might have been so different for such a bright star who was proud but also so conflicted about who he was.
Sometimes I feel I carry his struggle spirit. But I know I also carry his spirit of pure joy, freedom, one of never giving up and staying connected with our people and our land.
Long live your spirit Dad
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