Article originally published in Fightback magazine’s special issue dedicated to paid radical writing by women and gender minorities.
By Malia Grace. Inspired by recorded talanoa with Fetuolemoana Tamapeau, Gem Wilder & Malia Grace.
F: It’s really interesting how different and similar our experiences are. I can’t really get away with just looking like a palangi
M: I kinda can – gesturing towards three old skinny palangi men, reading newspaper in suits – at THAT table, I couldn’t.
F: Could anyone at that table? – we giggle – I haven’t really inherited hesitation in the same way a lot of our New Zealand-born Pasifika people have ya know; in terms of identifying as Pasifika; or not feeling Pasifika enough. I mean one thing that’s always struck me, like in my family, and how I was affirmed as Pasifika; is that I had never heard the term “plastic”
G looks at me and I know her pale looking Fijian-Maori 2 year old is on her mind
F: I’d never heard someone go “plastic Samoan” or “plastic brownie”
M: Kinder surprise?
F: Really?! Have you had that? It’s a ridiculous term. It’s a strategy that divides us and it’s all to do with colonisation, know what I mean?
M & G: Totally!
F: It’s what’s in the backdrop of us having to prove authenticity all the time in a way that palangi don’t have too.
M: I’ve only just recently stopped calling myself plastic.
F & G: Really?
M: Yeah – I feel myself blush – I have to say I never saw it as a super bad thing. The only times I’d find it a bad thing was when I was at Island funerals and functions, but even then I’d be quite aware that even though I’m “plastic” in comparison to them, those people judging me are surely pretty “plastic” in comparison to whoever is in their head, ya know? So I always just thought of it as being closer to both worlds.
F: It’s like we’re all plastic, kinda thing, which is not really what we wanna be saying. It’s more like – she pauses – we wanna be like, “We’re all Pasifika” and some of the conversations have been gravitating towards “We’re all plastic” instead, which is not productive.
M: Yeah totally. That changed for me going to university, doing Pacific Studies, reading Epeli Hau’ofa. Before that, I had even enrolled as New Zealand European with no indicator of Tongan.
F: I can’t ever imagine being in a situation, in my whole life; where that could happen.
Suddenly I feel very aware of the different shades at the table. G interrupts my thought –
G: I always felt internally connected to my Fijian side, despite being white. Going to uni gave me access to feminism. I had gone through high school and all that; before, not identifying as a feminist.
M: I don’t know there was much on feminism at uni for me. I think being able to get away with being both brown or white in different settings though, helped me understand differences between things at a young age. I remember the Tongan alphabet poster being next to the English alphabet in my house and trying to match up the letters with each other, asking “If that one is ‘B’?” and “Is that one ‘C’?” Realising they didn’t match up and instead, that they exist just as very different things, is something, some people just don’t seem to learn. I definitely feel privileged being in that knowingness.
G: Yeah, I find it really comforting going to spaces where I’m not battling that kinda – searching for words – I say “ignorance” but I don’t mean it in a put down way, I just mean it as an absence of knowledge, so when I go to things like Kava Club/Chop Suey Hui or doing the Maori & Pasifika Creative Writing paper, where you don’t have to start off fighting through that lack of knowledge, and teaching, and waiting for that catch up to happen, it’s so nice to be around people that get it.
We all sit nodding, smiling at our own experiences of these places. F looks at us both, checking if anyone else wants the air space before she proceeds –
F: It’s more palangi situations actually, I think – referring to uncomfortable spaces – especially not being straight as well. There was a trend, this idea, and to me it’s a myth; of brown people being anti-gay or inherently homophobic because they’re inherently “church-y”. Yeah, so kind of dealing with people’s perceptions and that they really take those myths on board and believe them. But it’s something that I’ve always NOT believed because Pasifika isn’t one-dimensional to me. So its like “why are you focusing on that?” There are Pacific people that aren’t cool with it, just like there are palangi people that aren’t cool with it. She jokes – It’s just that we look more notice-able because we’re better looking – the three of us fill the room with big Island laughter.
G: I can’t think of a place where the two [Pasifika & Feminism] are uncomfortable and I think that is just because I’m more intrinsically feminist rather than activist feminist so its with me no matter what space I’m navigating. I think with intersectional feminism – like that whole thing of the “white feminist” having become a joke – the feminist groups I belong to, use that term and I totally understand what it means, but it’s always white women that are using it. They’re totally onto it women as well, but there just seems to be a real disconnect from their own privilege there.
M: That’s something I think we’re quite lucky in because of our Pasifika status, we get skilled at the whole two-worlds negotiation cause we’re constantly, daily, right now even, positioning ourselves, and making that position known.
F: And that’s so important aye? – nodding
M: Referring back to the two spaces though, I probably feel more that way about my Pasifika identity than my feminist identity. I grew up with mostly boys, so I sometimes think I’m feminist out of survival. Until very recently, I still battled the male opinion in my head that comments on my clothes etc – I take a moment to think – I get quite self conscious of my brown in spaces like Kava Club/Chop Suey Hui/ Maori & Pasifika Writers things, cause I always feel that there’s an expectation from people. Like people expect me to know Tongan things or make jokes I don’t understand. I kinda have to position myself as like “Na sorry, I don’t actually know much at all” Cause I don’t feel like I have much Tongan knowingness.
G: Yeah, I come into spaces, like “I’m here to be educated” but also because I’m white I feel like – pausing – people know I belong and that I do actually get it, and I’m not here as a tourist ya know?
M: How do you negotiate that?
G: I don’t, I can’t, I just have to keep going and keep learning and talking to people and eventually I won’t be seen as the “oh who is that white girl?” As I learn and connect to Pasifika culture more, I’m sorta naturally drawn to the feminists within that culture so as I come into my Pasifika culture, I’m coming into it seeking those people and those stories.
F: That’s what it is – her finger points in the air – our Pasifika – fumbling on words – what I was tryna get to earlier, of how like, I don’t see my feminist and Pasifika identity as separate. It’s because our indigenous knowledges already have those ideas networked into the way we be. Its just not labelled the same thing as what palangi do. We have our own ways of navigating “feminism” and other “ism’s” differently. They’re completely already networked into how we do things.
M: Yeah – nodding and rushing through a mouthful of food- that makes me think of something a friend said to me recently about secret knowledges. PhD/degree etc are all ways of keeping secret knowledge exclusive and protecting it she said. I wonder if our silence on certain topics works in the same way?