A hard day to be wahine Māori

Leonie Hayden gets in her feelings about a shitty day for Māori women.

There are days in my job where I feel nothing but hopeful. Like when I think about the work being done by Nuku100, telling the stories of 100 indigenous women. Or I get to wānanga with Donna Kerridge and Ayla Hoeta, or I watch documentaries about wāhine like Whaea Michelle, or interview leaders like Marama Davidson, or read incredible personal essays by Becky Manawatu and Emma Espiner. The warmth of mana wāhine surrounds me like a cloak. Most days.

And then sometimes the spell is broken by stories like Guyon Espiner’s exposé of the inhumane treatment of women in Auckland Women’s Prison, where he has laid bare the degradation they face; the human rights they’re denied. Here in our little Pacific idyll, world famous for compassion, governed by kindness that looks suspiciously like the colonised status quo, unarmed Māori women are being pepper sprayed and made to beg for food. Corrections NZ has not disputed any of it.

After being isolated and tortured they did what hopeless people do – they tried to burn it down.

I know if my reo was better I would have the words to express how I felt reading that story. There was haka in my heart. I wanted to open my eyes wide and tear my skin.

Not five minutes after I finished reading that, after I had taken some deep breaths in the bathroom, I clicked on another RNZ story, by a talented teina, Te Aniwa Hurihanganui. I gave Te Aniwa a small start when I was the editor at Mana magazine and have followed her career as a reporter for RNZ with pride and interest. But what I read brought the haka right back. My downturned mouth strained against the skin. My hands fluttered with anger.

She wrote with clarity and generosity about a violent, racist email she received while in the safety of her kāinga, surrounded by whānau. It’s heartbreaking to read, the man’s words are so full of hateful bile. He uses the n-word, and mutt. I wanted to roar.

It seems he didn’t get the memo about kindness either.

Up until October 2020 I had a folder called “See you next Tuesday” on my computer. It was full of the types of emails that Te Aniwa wrote about, from the stupid to the violent. I too have been called the n-word, and a terrorist. I’ve been called many things the dim-witted sender thinks are insults but aren’t: angry (true), fat (proudly) and a lesbian (I wish, who would choose to be attracted to men?). My beloved Ātea section, my sanctuary, has been called a “ghetto”. Then there’s the wonderfully witless “you’re racist for saying that thing is racist”, not to mention plenty from the “Māori weren’t here first” brigade. Enough straw men to start a bonfire.

I, like Te Aniwa, have been told I should write about “how Māoris abuse their children” instead of the violence of colonisation, as if I haven’t written about the tamariki in state care a thousand times, and the whānau, hapū and iwi who are desperate to keep them out of that system and in loving, stable homes.

I thought of that folder as my receipts, something I would save until the sheer weight of them crashed my computer and I could spew them into the world and yell SEE WHAT I MEAN. Y’ALL ARE RACIST AS HELL. I would be vindicated and right. Not happy, just right.

Every now and again I would put one of the truly dumb ones on my Twitter timeline in the hopes that other people’s mocking laughter at these lizard-brained dinguses would help dissolve the vice grip of rage around my heart. And it works, mostly. You laugh at the replies, sympathise with the many other journalists with similar stories and then you move on with your life.

But much like Te Aniwa fearing for the young niece at her side while she read the tūtae coming off her screen, when you hear about a teina receiving these awful messages they’re brought into a different light. I want them to stop being part of the furniture now. I want the kindness we were promised. For Te Aniwa and her niece and all the wonderful rangatahi Māori that we need in media, but who might not feel welcome because of exactly this response.

I’m not saying it’s the government’s fault that Te Aniwa and I and dozens like us have to accept vile hate mail as par for the course in our jobs. But a failure by every government to commit to decolonisation means that people like that will always feel that their putrid, monocultural purview should trump ours. And we can’t lie to ourselves that it’s just an out-of-touch older generation, “products of their time”. I’m ashamed to say I’ll often do a Google deep dive into my abusers, and one of the most recent was barely out of his teens. Let’s not forget the Christchurch shooter was in his 20s.

Anyway, I’ve since deleted that folder. I realised after a particularly traumatic message that its weight will never satisfy me, but its absence might.

I’ve replaced it with a folder called “nice things” – emails from people offering tautoko. Until then I hadn’t really thought about accepting the nice things, I thought that was being too much of a kūmara. I thought there were See You Next Tuesdays and everything else was just doing your job. But if 2020 has taught me anything it’s how to be grateful for what you have.

In the end Te Aniwa reported her abuse to the police, and they paid the man who sent her those awful emails a visit. Just a warning. He said his phone had been stolen; wasn’t him of course. Cowards on the internet always have someone to blame; a stolen phone; a blank avatar to hide behind. We put our name and our face to what we say, and proudly. Just sayin’.

“Māori are always fighting for something,” Te Aniwa wrote in the conclusion of her courageous piece.

“Disrupting narratives and deflecting racist emails are my small contribution to dismantling the colonised mindsets and institutions that this nation is built on.

“It’s an uphill battle and burden that I hope my niece Māreikura will never have to carry.”

Your tuakana will help you carry that burden, e hoa.

Today wasn’t a hopeful day but tomorrow might be.

You can show your support for Mihi and Karma featured in the RNZ story about prisons by writing to them through Prisoner Correspondence Network Aotearoa.




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