By Shelley Burne-Field
“In my 20s and 30s, I recognised the spasm of terror deep in my gut whenever I was put into the spotlight. It was clear that if I matched a negative stereotype — a brown stereotype — then lightning and thunder would rain down on my carefully smoothed down, frizz-free head.” — Shelley Burne-Field on stereotypes and whitewashing.
A few years ago, my husband and I visited Grieve’s Jewellers in Hastings. My husband identifies as a Pākehā New Zealander, born here, from Irish and French heritage. Āe, passionate and skilled.
It was his birthday and I wanted to buy him a watch for a present. I had a wad of my hard-earned cash burning a hole in my pocket when we reached the store. My tāne stayed outside, on the footpath, while I went into the jewellers through the sparkling doors.
When I got inside, two Pākehā women were serving behind the counter. Only two customers were in the shop, both white. One of the customers asked to see a small stand of watches which sat on a shelf behind the counter. The assistant brought the watches to the front counter. Both women smiled and chatted. I milled around the shop waiting to look at the watches. Ka pai.
When it came to my turn, the stand of watches had been returned behind the counter, so I asked the assistant if I could see them.
“No,” she said, eyebrows raised. “Look at them from there.”
I got flustered and fingered the bank notes in my pocket. I had money. My face flamed redder than her lipstick and I turned around to garner anyone’s help. The others had turned away. My voice came out as though the roll of bank notes was shoved down my throat, trying to choke me.
“But, but . . . you just showed that other woman?”
“It’s against store policy,” was all she replied.
I remember my guts bunching up and cramping, and the feeling of crying. I was humiliated and stumbled back outside to my waiting husband and told him what had happened. I felt impotent and numb. He was shocked and kissed me and whispered in my ear that it would be all right. I love you, he said. Then he walked into the shop, alone.
He asked to see the watches. The woman behind the counter was happy to oblige, and brought them right up under his nose, pointing out the lovely gold timepiece at the bottom, whereby my husband told her that the last customer she’d denied was his lovely wife and she’d lost out on a considerable sale. He told her the store’s behaviour was shit and that she, and the store, could go ram the watches up their a-holes, and we’d never be back.
We didn’t set foot in their jewellery store for years. But I have been back, in an up-yours, Pretty Woman kind of way.
Did I need my Pākehā husband to save me like Richard Gere? No. But it was nice that he did. These days, I feel strong enough to be able to stand my ground, and use any racist situation as a teaching opportunity.
In Hawke’s Bay, racism is a daily grind. Don’t believe me? Just two days ago, I was racially profiled in Havelock North. It hurt like a steel blade, as always.
My daughter had gone into a pharmacy and I was waiting for her on the footpath in front of some shops. It was a beautiful, sunny morning. I’d been waiting for maybe 10 minutes when a blonde Pākehā woman in her 60s stalked out of the clothing shop towards me. There was a rack of clothes on sale out front which I briefly looked at. The woman stepped up to me. Right up to my face.
“What are you up to?” she demanded. Her voice was stern, confrontational.
I paused, stunned. There was no “good morning”. No “can I help you?” I said that I was waiting for a friend. She looked up and down the street, then looked me up and down and said something like: “Where is this friend? Is she coming soon?”
I was too taken aback to think of a cutting response, so I just muttered “Yeah”, and she went back inside. But five minutes later, she was back, asking where my so-called “friend” had got to. This time, I was more prepared with a smart comeback, and she walked off with her nose in the air.
But I was still upset so I went into the shop and told her, as calmly as I could: “Excuse me, but I wanted to tell you that your actions were extremely rude.” “Oh,” she said, “I thought you were lost.”
Later at home, a delayed reaction set in and my son held me in his 13-year-old arms while I cried. “It’s okay to be upset, Mum,” he said. “Remember the people who love you.”
I have Māori and Sāmoan whakapapa, but I didn’t grow up around marae or learn to speak te reo Māori or have anything to do with Pasifika life.
What I have grown up with is the knowledge of how Māori and Pasifika are seen by the rest of New Zealand. By Pākehā in particular. I’ve grown up knowing what it’s like to have people make up their minds about you on the basis of negative stereotypes that have taken root in our collective consciousness.
Centuries-old stereotypes have been expanded under cover into modern use. Lazy, violent, primitive, dishonest, greedy, exotic etcetera have been woven into hammer topics of welfare, beneficiaries, obesity, disease, criminality, violence, and poverty.
The funny thing about stereotypes is that, as that old fluoride toothpaste ad goes, they get in. It’s important to understand how they manifest in our daily lives.
Stereotypes affect, and infect, all of us — including those of us who suffer because of them. They don’t just live in the heads of those who use them to hammer us, but in ours as well.
I know that stereotypes have affected the way I see myself, and also the way I live.
Let me tell you another jewellery story.
When I worked in the retail arm of our local power board, an older woman came into the store to pay an account. Two of us were on duty behind the counter. I mentioned how lovely the customer’s gold charm bracelet looked, chunky and glinting. She thanked me and took her receipt. An hour later she returned.
“Where’s my bracelet? You took it,” she accused me, not my colleague.
“No, no I didn’t,” I said, shaking. “Did you retrace your steps?”
She must have dropped it on her errands in town but was adamant I’d taken it just because I’d commented on it. My Pākehā colleague stood up for me, and the manager took the woman into a room to calm her down, and then sent her on her way.
It took me years to get over the implications of those jewellery incidents. I internalised them to a point that they actually changed my own behaviour for the worse.
In my 20s and 30s, through the work years, I recognised the spasm of terror deep in my gut whenever I was put into the spotlight. It was clear that if I matched a negative stereotype — a brown stereotype — then lightning and thunder would rain down on my carefully smoothed down, frizz-free head.
It was the dread that I might, somehow, lose my passport to acceptance and employment in Pākehā land.
For example, I made absolutely sure never to take responsibility for keys or money boxes. I didn’t want to be anywhere near any responsibility with dollar signs that could be thrown back in my face.
Racist thoughts are often hidden out of sight — until 20 bucks goes missing. Then, expect to be cast into an interrogation room because you’re the only brown face around. I kept out of the torture chamber by staying incognito and unconsciously whitening myself up.
You see, in Aotearoa, I’ve felt this hidden pressure to fit into what Pākehā New Zealand culture considers “good” and “bad” ways of being. I’m sure there are many of us who have.
This is what I call “whitewashing”. It’s not an original term — but I think it fits.
As an aside, a friend — Mrs P — and I made the Hawke’s Bay outdoor bowls team back in the late 1990s. At that time, the umpires still measured the length of our white skirts. The hem couldn’t be higher than 30cm off the grass.
Mrs P was in the senior team and I was a junior. She was a magnificent bowler and such a joyful person. Unfortunately, Mrs P was denied the singles position in the main team. The reason given from a reliable source was that her bottom looked too big in the uniform and she didn’t represent the majority of players in the region. She didn’t have the right image.
Even as I write that story, it’s incredible to me that it’s true. Mrs P was Māori and a gun player. She won everything there was to win. She and I often laughed about how ridiculous the whole racist thing was, but I knew it cut deep.
I felt it too. I’d been rejected the previous year because of a coffee stain on my white dress and the bottom of my shoes were dirty. The soles of my shoes. I was told that to my face. It didn’t matter that I’d beaten the reigning champion.
Hawke’s Bay. Sheesh.
For the last 200 years, colonisers have constantly tried to line us up into something rigid that controls us, closes us in, and silences us.
A jagged picket fence. All of us standing upright, getting nailed, feeling the brush stroke go up and down — whitewashing us with stereotypes and lies. Pākehā New Zealand sees our position on the fence as always lower.
I’ve been getting whitewashed for many years now (my personality, not my bottom) and most of the time without actually knowing it. I think many wāhine and tāne have felt those paint strokes, without being able to put our finger on why it all feels so weird.
In Aotearoa, my very being can be negatively perceived. I intersect with various stereotypes. Brown. Fat. Assertive. Boil-up eater. Does it make it true for all brown people? Of course not. I am one grape in a great big, sweaty bunch.
One grape. But there will be other fat, brown, assertive wāhine who love double helpings of boil-up and doughboys. So what?
The problem is that Pākehā New Zealand uses this information to judge us harshly because we happen to be Māori and Pasifika — i.e. brown. They steal real-life situations, for example obesity, and flip, mutate and weaponise it into racist clickbait about brown fatness.
More horrifying to me is that Pākehā New Zealand also slaps glaringly false stereotypes on us because of their racist biases.
My friends look at me and see a loving friend. The white shopkeeper sees a thief.
The terrible irony is that some Māori individuals and organisations may also judge these complicated issues through a white lens — and then it’s only a short leap to distance themselves from those wicked problems and wicked people.
We become those Māori. You know, those Islanders. Over there. In those communities. It tears me up when some of our own brown champions start judging the judged. Assigning and believing the lies, and firing off white bullets. I care deeply about that injustice.
Take the new television series Vegas. It’s heartbreaking that some commentators are trying to shelve and taint this story as “deficit”. (Mental note: Brown people already look bad to racists.)
Vegas may not reflect everyone’s Aotearoa but it reflects parts of my reality. Mainly the reality that the dominant Pākehā culture has failed us. It’s no bedtime story — in fact, it’s violent and terrifying, yet I won’t miss an episode of this achingly redemptive and familiar tale.
Of course, I get the importance of our tamariki seeing strong, inspiring, clever, kick-ass versions of ourselves. Proud and aspirational versions. But we shouldn’t shy away from telling our stories because they may show an ugly or uncomfortable reality, or because they happen to intersect with some bullshit racist stereotype.
It’s a balance. The real trick is to honour all our realities with deep aroha, and acknowledge how negative stereotypes can infect all our brains, and all our lives.
Let’s carve ourselves a challenge, eh? A wero for 2021 and beyond.
Let’s stop whitewashing, and let’s reject hate. Let’s deconstruct stereotypes and then look past them. Then we might start to see the complexity of our own lives and the lives of those around us — to begin a collective journey to finally see the truth.
Shelley Burne-Field is a writer who lives in Hawke’s Bay. She has always worked in “helping jobs” like social services, local government, prisons, healthcare, community and youth development. Her stories find a home at events like union rallies, addiction centres, schools — anywhere that hard but hopeful tales may touch someone’s life for good.