Plastic Fantastic: the identity quandary for an urban Māori


For nearly ten years I lived with this idea that I’m not Māori enough to be Māori. Not because anyone told me that, rather I joined all the Maori groups at University and then discovered the term ‘Plastic Māori’ and could never quite shake the feeling that I was one. Te Ara even defines the term ‘Plastic Māori’ as one used “by more culturally nationalistic Māori to refer to Māori who did not know te reo, tikanga or their whakapapa.”

My father is of English, Irish and Māori heritage. He is dark skinned, can understand Te Reo but is not a fluent speaker: he is Māori. My mother however is of English, Irish and Nordic heritage. She is light skinned, and can recall the Bennett whakapapa with more confidence than I can: she is not Māori.

I am a proud product of these two people: English, Irish, Nordic and Māori. I am light skinned with dark hair. I know mihi but cannot speak fluent Te Reo. I grew up in the Tamaki Electorate in Auckland, went to public school, and visited my marae (Ohinemutu) for reunions and tangi: I am an urbanised Māori. Why is this important? Because often it is the urban Maori that find themselves feeling like ‘Plastics’.

Soon after Simon Bridges was elected leader of the National Party, up popped the articles questioning his ‘Māori-ness’. For some, his successful leadership bid could be nothing more than a PR stunt and the calls for Bridges to ‘walk the talk as a Maori' began. In response, I posted on LinkedIn that measuring how Māori you are is ridiculous. I also made the point to acknowledge that I had only just experienced this epiphany myself, since moving to Waikato.  The post is just shy of 7,000 impressions  to date and encouraged a wide dialogue.

My Modern [Maori] Family.

My Modern [Maori] Family.

“Like you, Holly, I’ve only learnt recently to stop identifying plastic Māori because others identified me as that.” Aaron Hape, Ngata Kahungunu ki Wairarapa Tamaki nui a Rua.

“This whole concept of quantifying your blood and race is weird. You can be Maori and not be dark brown, you can be Māori and not speak Te Reo. You can be Japanese and only speak English. It is the same. You can be white...and be proud of your Maori whakapapa as well as any other race.” Brent Norling, Ngai Tahu.

“I’m Maori. But I’m also Pakeha. I’ve been told not to say I’m part Māori, just to say that I’m Māori. But I don’t see it as fractionalising my heritage, but rather that I’m giving equal acknowledgement to both sides of my whakapapa.” Leah Wyatt, Ngati Maniapoto, Ngati te Puta i te Muri.

This whole concept of quantifying your blood and race is weird. You can be Māori and not be dark brown, you can be Māori and not speak Te Reo.
— Brent Norling, Ngai Tahu

I don't know many of the people who took the time out to engage with the post. In fact of the three quotes from fellow New Zealand Māori, I have only met one of them. The variety of commenters and depth of insight tells me this issue is not only puzzling but prolific.

I also recognise that for some people, their own political allegiance manifests a strong reluctance to acknowledge what is a relative success for Māori: that to acknowledge the leader of the biggest Party in Parliament is Māori, might somehow mean they tautoko (support) a party that has a historic policy of not contesting the Māori seats. For these people, I just want to point to the likes of Kiri Allan (Labour Party List MP based in East Coast) who openly put her own politics to one side and told the man congrats. Ka rawe Kiri, that is leadership we can all learn from!

Commentators ramped up the idea that Simon Bridges should now be working for Māori, rather than for New Zealanders. Lizzie Marvelly penned in the Weekend Herald that Bridges' “mana will be judged not by the position he holds, but by the changes that he makes for his people.” What continues to puzzle me about saying that Maori will be proud of him for what he does, perpetuates the suggestion that we (Māori) all think the same. Māori are not a homogenous group and no one Maori will ever have the mandate to represent all Maori.

Bridges is now the leader of a party that commands 56 out of 120 seats in Parliament. It is a fact that Māori voted for National in the 2017 election, and there will be Māori who will vote for them in 2020. Just as there will be Māori that will remain more comfortably aligned to Labour, or prefer the policies of the Greens. Some New Zealanders who voted for National in the past (Māori and non-Māori) won’t vote for National under Simon’s leadership, just as there will be new voters that will align to his values. None of these groups are more correct that another. They are all just exercising their part in democracy.

Māori are not a homogenous group and no one Māori will ever have the mandate to represent all Māori.
— Holly Bennett, Head of Government Relations

I wholeheartedly believe in judging politicians by their policies and what they do, not by their persona or likability factor. They say a week is a long time in politics, so with 663 days until election year, the political climate is going to be an interesting one. Plainly put, when they chose their leader, I don’t think the National Party Caucus ever anticipated what a catalyst it would be for putting Plastic-Māori-itis where it belongs: in the rubbish bin.

Holly Bennett is of Te Arawa descent (Ngati Whakaue, Ngati Pikiao) and ticked both the Māori and New Zealand European boxes in the 2018 Census.