ReadingRoom

Talia Marshall on white power

An essay, and memoir, by Dunedin writer Talia Marshall on fighting the White Power bitches at school

Sophia turns up at my new place by happy accident. We haven’t seen each other properly for over 20 years but we’re friends on Facebook. One of the reasons I like Facebook, apart from the photos of meals, is the pictures of people’s kids I went to school with. I can’t get over how beautiful they all are. The talents we buried in them because our group of girls had babies young, at 17, 18 and 19, with me the last at 21. The buckets with lids we bought in case the sweet little idiot we’d traded our dazzling youth and liberty for drowned in Napisan.

Kyrie, the friend I still think of as closer than a sister, was the one most unhinged with love over her first baby, she carried a film cannister everywhere to check for choking hazards. But I’d lost touch with Sophia by then and maybe she was the best teen mum in Aotearoa. Before she arrives, I confess to my flatmate that I was always a bit scared of her at school. We were in the same group of girls but at 13 she seemed to possess the contained sensibilities of a 35-year-old woman, she rimmed her cat’s eyes perfectly with kohl. The other thing Sophia possessed apart from a steady hand was her voice, she could really sing.

Then she arrives and I’m so pleased to see her in my kitchen, shy, but still regal as a figurehead. She hasn’t aged much either and I tell her so and because she’s a Virgo I apologise for the mess and the smell. And then on the deck with drinks, looking over the bright gully with the sea at our backs I want to laugh and reminisce about the tiny flygirl-gang-of-not-much colour we had back in 1992. Me, her, Jasmine, Kyrie, Asela and Sarah. We called our collective nemesis the Oi Oi Girls but we were known as The Six.

Sophia slips her guard when I laugh about us and reminds me of something I’d forgotten. But then we establish I wasn’t there in the corridor the day she and Asela were walking past one of the White Power girls we were locked in a war with. And it wasn’t the one we’d christened Pennywise after the clown in It but one of her friends who told Sophia that she felt sorry for her … and when Sophia asked why, the Oi Oi Girl said it was because she didn’t know how it felt to be a nigger. And Sophia whacked her three times with her schoolbag.

Later, four of The Six were called into the Principal’s office, just like the Young MC song, but it wasn’t funny when Mrs Kennedy, a despotic and charismatic general of girls, told us to sit on the floor. She had two West Highland Terriers that lived and pissed in her office and it was hot that day, her carpet was steaming with their stink. We told Mrs Kennedy we didn’t want to sit on the floor, since all the white girls had chairs.

Sophia tells me now that Mrs. Kennedy said girls like us would be, “used to the floor”.  I do remember the feeling when the Oi Oi girls, with their silly erect fringes and moussed side wings snickered at us from above. On the available chairs. A fairly even war had suddenly tipped into being lopsided.

I laugh to Sophia about the way Mrs Kennedy’s long denim skirt, her uniform to oversee us in our army of kilts, always made it look like she was carrying her bum out in front because the seam cut down the middle of her pot belly. Powerful people are often cartoonish in their appearance and here I am as an adult mocking it and being reduced to the schoolgirl again.

Back in 1992 we told our parents and they complained to the Human Rights Commission, an institution fresh from Geoffrey Palmer’s Bill of Rights. Statements were taken and meetings were planned while our parents got to know each other better as they fought the school to get them to admit Mrs Kennedy’s treatment of us had been racist, possibly worse than the girls who were openly racist. There is one final meeting where the rent-a-kaumatua Mrs. Kennedy brought in to save her Pākehā face nods off in the corner. I don’t remember the Oi Oi girls being there and maybe this, and his nap, are telling.

I'm walking one of the thin South Dunedin streets home from Intermediate and a White Power girl, one of the older ones, waits in the middle to spit in my face

We’d been taken out of school while all this was going on, but on the Monday, our first day back, Mrs Kennedy called an impromptu Junior Assembly. She boomed at us across the parquet of the gymnasium that there was no racism in her school.  And I wanted to walk out, I was booming on the inside with wanting to walk out, but I was too close to being suspended for being so disruptive in class.

I listed all of us before, all the girls, but Sarah and Jasmine are not the ones who are made to sit on the floor, even though Sarah is closest with Sophia, Sarah is Pākehā and doesn’t get involved. Jasmine is mana whenua but pale, so the N word, and the denial of it was reserved for me, Sophia, Kyrie and Asela, Māori and PI, barely coffee coloured and called palangi by browner girls too, but still brown enough to brand us.

We tried to change to the liberal, co-ed high school across town. They’d heard about our gang of troublemakers and only accepted me which was stupid of them because I was the most trouble. If we were just Pākehā girls, there is no way we would have been called a gang.

Another memory surfaces, I’m walking one of the thin South Dunedin streets home from Intermediate and a White Power girl, one of the older ones, waits in the middle to spit in my face. I’ve always known this happened, really, I’d just assumed she spat on me for being up-myself, not because I had the audacity to be up-myself and a bit brown.

When I was little, I used to scratch my thighs over and over, not hard, but wishing the white marks down them would stay. I wanted to be Smurfette, which is slightly confusing, as she is blue. The original patupaiarehe. I have written about the racist treatment of my darker son and me by a partner before, but I thought this abuse was personal and specific. Devastating but isolated. What Sophia tells me makes it harder to sustain this fantasy.

Because this stuff happens to me, and even more to my browner friends, all the time. Like the little boy who asked me to read him a story when I was 11 and when I hesitated said, “That’s right. Maoris can’t read” which was funny because reading is the only thing that comes naturally to me. I’ve been told too many times I’m lucky I don’t have a Māori nose while they flatten their own, aping my culture at me. I have enough of one to know it’s a statement that stinks.

As I’ve got older the fact I’m Māori has become less obvious to the eye, I can’t lie out in the sun anymore because it gives me hyperpigmentation, I break out in dark, uneven patches, the kind people buy creams containing peroxide to cure. Now when people guess what I am, they go for the exotic option and it gives me some pleasure to tell them I’m tangata whenua, with just two words I suddenly belong here more than them.

But the fact I am pale now, that I teeter on being white-passing, acts like a local anaesthetic, and protects me from racists even when I’m an accidental witness. I’d have to get a moko kauae to let people know where the staunch comes, and I do want a moko kauae, but this desire has nothing to do with Pākehā nor does it solve the fact I can feel for, but not feel the accumulated shame of my darker friends and whānau. The shame is it’s whakamā that does not belong to them.  Racist conversations still have the potential to make me feel excited rather than plain exhausted. Theory can turn me on, I can speculate, but my attempt at empathy is felt in ‘darker’ bodies as a material and ongoing mamae, whether it’s a foot, a knee, or a hand to the throat, it’s still the freezing burn of oppression.

 Yet in Aotearoa, oppression for Māori is connected to the loss of our whenua as much as our skin, which is also why whakapapa is such a precious ‘commodity’ because it ties us back to the land in what is often our absence.

It wasn’t until I started publishing that I really entertained the notion of being oppressed, and only because I wanted to articulate things that were unpalatable to liberal Pākehā, not to poor white bitches from South Dunedin. At least Mrs. Kennedy primed me for how much liberal white women can lie to themselves when their conceits are put to the test.

Sophia says she was called a nigger again when she was 16 and had her head stomped for it. I can’t remember if she said boots or fists but she fingered for the old memory on her face. She mentions her Samoan father with the famous boxing nephew she barely knows. I muse that it’s an ironic disconnection given the reason she was being subjected to racist, violent abuse is absent from her life. But it’s not ironic, it’s just painful and unfair.

Why is it that poor white trash could feel superior to us?

Because it’s Dunedin, Sophia and me figure out we have people in common, I mean to the racist fuckhead who assaulted her. And it makes me rethink my colour chart of oppression, because Sophia is pale as me. Women of colour is such a vague notion anyway and the acronym BIPOC registers as alphabet soup to me. It swoops the specificity of belonging here, my native stake in that, under the brightly coloured skirt of the indigenous global village. Like we’re all the same worry dolls Pākehā can buy at Trade Aid to alleviate their guilt at the privilege they can’t shake off as breezily as Taylor Swift. I’m sorry, but our web is not for catching your dream.

Black people are right to say no one gets to use the N word except them, the problematic grit which gilds the pearl is it’s white people who still wield the word with the most violence. Our uneasy solidarities are a response to their smashing singularity. And that smashing word is hate.

Even when we resist this by using a school bag as a weapon. Even when we buy into it and kohl our eyes like Cleopatra.

Why is it that poor white trash could feel superior to us? Class does not answer this question, because in that arena, in the stomping ground of South Dunedin we were equals. This is why I tend to give the side-eye to Pākehā who only analyse society using a Marxist lens. It ignores the muddiness of everything, the slippage, the mysteries we can’t account for, the terrible, sweet smell when something is off.

I could look up the Oi Oi Girls on the internet, I could stop making fun of their hair and humanise them. I could stalk pics of their beautiful children and what’s happened to the curated version of their life. But lately social media has become a bit much for me, like it’s cocaine and I’m Scarface hoovering it up from my laptop. I suspect having this much access to the outward-facing inner lives of others, the people we used to have to imagine, has been a curse and a blessing for writers. And I don’t really believe some of the stories we are telling on social media trading on our trauma and feel jaded and ashamed of myself for those moments when I have become a mouthpiece for tropes that already sound tired to my inner ear

And really, all we get to do these days is talk about how much everything has hurt, or hurts us, and that doesn’t sit right with me, especially because I love to wallow in pain and dwell on sharp little splinters of memory. It makes me suspicious when others don’t question their own tendencies, the pleasures involved in magnifying vicarious trauma. Maybe it’s because social media relies on so few of the senses, it’s not a place where I can easily smell a lie. Maybe it really is easier to feel for a sad story in the flesh.

Dunedin is white, ancient and politically red, resistant and gnarly, long-suffering, fucken cold, private and kind

Because even after Sophia tells me about what was said to us on the floor, I still believe we were not bullied by those girls. It was a War.

And the funny thing about Mrs Kennedy is that before the war I was briefly her pet.  Maybe she had mistaken my loudness and erratic outbursts for leadership qualities, as I was sitting at the naughty desk in the admin block when she grabbed me. She interrogated me in her weird charismatic way and figured out I was doing kapa haka. We were hosting the Māori speech competitions that year and she decided she was going to write something I could say at the closing.  She found Pōtatau Te Wherowhero’s whakataukī in a book,  Mā pango mā whero ka oti te mahi,  which translates as: by the black and the red  the work will be done, plaiting tino rangatiratanga colours into the coming together of kingitanga under one mantle.

She also writes that we need to see more Māori girls in commerce which sounds weird, and as not-mine as the whakataukī when I read her speech aloud in the auditorium. I am gleefully failing Economics at the time, getting 39% in the final exam. It was nice of Mrs Kennedy to write me a speech, in my experience nice Pākehā love putting their words in our mouths, or even better our own taken from a website or a book. I mean when I think of these significant encounters in her office, the thing that strikes me is that both times smelt like piss.

I saw Mrs. Kennedy using the self-service kiosk at New World the other day, I mean of course I did. She never recognises me or chooses not to but she remembers my mother who also went to her school. I’ve had to change her name and the names of us girls because in Dunedin everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who knows something about you.

Dunedin is white, ancient and politically red, resistant and gnarly, long-suffering, fucken cold, private and kind.  Having pushed out Kāi Tahu to their more coastal settlements, Māori became such a novelty here that the nu-locals turned out when the Taranaki prisoners of war arrived from up north. Later Dunedinites protested because the prisoners weren’t receiving their proper ration of tobacco. I mention this last detail not only because it makes nice of us; but also because it illustrates how the subjugated are less of a threat if they are a pitied minority.  And I mention the private character of my beloved city perversely because it is why everyone knows someone who knows your business, it’s just whispered behind closed doors. The gossip is subterranean as Toitū, the stream running under Rattray St. And Caversham and South Dunedin are its broken heart, “living on the flat” here is  a state of mind.

I used to push a pram through the poor suburb of Caversham, my son’s father embarrassed that I favoured wearing red and black because the Mongrel Mob pad was on South Rd beside Betty’s, the matriarch of a Chinese grocer dynasty, who if you bought strawberries from her demanded that you’d also be needing cream. I would have looked like a brownish solo mum feeding off the state’s teat and I was but my son was not at risk of anything except people looking for deficits instead of strengths, for something or someone to save.

And I’m being disingenuous about the Oi Oi Girls when I say their lives are a mystery to me not worth seeking out, because lately I’ve got to know Athena, this hard little white woman, the Mosgiel version of a westie. Drinking, I ask Athena if she knew a girl called Pennywise at school and it’s like I am 14 again, same as with Sophia, I love this game. Athena tells me she doesn’t, but she knew the crew and used to stand on the street shouting Oi Oi in docs with white laces. And we laugh about that because she’s not racist anymore, which is an uneasy relief because it would be impossible to like her as much as I do then. She had her reasons, she had her reasons, but it didn’t stop her kissing the brown babies at her hip when she worked at Playcentre. A lot of Pākehā women living in state house suburbs are soft for our kids, have helped raise our kids, this seems like a reasonable place to start. I’m tired of hate, aren’t you?

I’m all for the revolution, for toppling statues and eating the rich. I am all for finally acknowledging the atrocities of a colonial past that still has its hooks on the future.  One of my guilty pleasures is watching documentaries about the Congo, a place where the imperialist project reached its destructive zenith with 10,000,000 dead, a genocide equal to the holocaust but far less storied. The piles of amputated Black hands required as proof of slave labour by a distant Belgian king, who was milking the rubber vines of the Congo so white people could have tyres.  

Yet within weeks of George Floyd dying, the massive brazen tragedy of it is already being used by people with no skin in the game, including me.  I know my place much better at 41, than I ever did at fourteen. But I wish too, that I was more radical because then the world would seem less grey.

I mean the gang only came up with Athena because we were chatting about all the other gangs of Dunedin, this constant dance of who knows who….? And it struck me that actually our poor white and brown communities are rich, interwoven networks and that is what people don’t understand about the racism here. It’s easier for us to ignore it, and to act as complicit agents because we can’t help merging into each other’s lives in ways where the animosity is bloodied and blurred by the ties we share, chuckling at the hard case, crack-up names we give our kids.

Laughing is much easier than crying anyway, when Athena tells me stuff about her past that would shame any trauma trader on Twitter into silence I finally break and shed a tear and know simultaneously and with some dread that it will disgust her. I have managed not to cry at her stories, so far, and had tentatively won some of her trust. The air crackles with my crime, but after a bit she only says snidely, about something else, that at least she’s not crying about it, and the tension slides.

Athena says she’s hungry so I make a joke to the host about making her some eggs. Cook Athena some eggs, I hoot, and then she does something amazing and surprising. She stands and sings Jake’s love song to Beth from Once Were Warriors, She sings it word for word and with so much joy the two kurī get up and start nipping and jumping at their leader in delight. It was one of her party tricks at the youth home and now the room swells with her. Like it or not, that movie is part of our cultural lexicon, a cracked mirror but a reflection nonetheless. The sepia filter Lee Tamahori used to celebrate the brownness of Jake’s shoulders, Grace’s legs and Nig’s tatts was rich with sentiment and that’s precisely why it is dangerous.

Clearly, I am too sentimental; it gets in the way of my feelings about race. And I hesitate to characterise this as a Māori thing, this softness, precisely because I am so keen to.

Leaving the lid off and studying the ruin is probably just my thing, really,  but it’s why I stay open to Athena, this tiny little goddess of war being hearty about the nature of love.  I mean these moments where someone is going to smash you or show you aroha hinge on a line finer than a needle, isn’t this why they glow?

* Made with the support of the Matatuhi Foundation *

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