Showing Up

What does it mean for non-Black POCs to show up for Black people in Aotearoa? Friends Litia and Rita chat about solidarity, cultural appropriation and everything in between.

Posted on
25.07.20

In the ten years of Rita’s and my friendship it hasn’t been uncommon for people to assume we’re sisters or, at worst, the same person. We first realised this in high school when an English teacher called Rita aside and spoke to her at length, believing it was me, before Rita frustratedly told her she was not Litia.

Such instances of mistaken identity were rife at our predominantly white high school and at university. Our identities became interchangeable under the label of “those two Brown girls”, with little regard for the fact that Rita is mixed Sierra-Leonian/British and I’m Fijian/Tongan/Pākehā. Yes we were together a lot, but we didn’t, and still don’t, look anything alike. It also didn’t help that neither of us was particularly confident in our respective cultural identities and most of our teenage and university years were spent marinating in internalised racism. We’ve since evolved from accepting the homogenous “Brown girls” title to realising our differences as mixed-race Black and Pasifika women, respectively. 

Embracing my own Pasifika culture(s) involved a lot of self-directed forensics about how I, as a Pacific person, uncritically consumed and appropriated Black culture by virtue of my melanated skin and proximity to my “Black best friend”. By detangling my identity from the sameness imposed on Rita and myself, I uncovered a lot of racial blind-spots and anti-Blackness ruminating within. As tangata o le moana, our relationship to Black culture is complex, nuanced and demands discussion. So, doing what we do best, Rita and I sat on my bed for a little over two hours to talk about it. This talanoa is our attempt at unpacking some of the nuances in that relationship to consider how I, and my Pasifika community, can be better allies for Black lives. 


Litia: I’m interested in exploring how Pasifika people engage with Black culture, particularly in this moment. There’s a lot to unpack but I thought a good place to start is how you define Black culture, particularly in Aotearoa?

Blackness has become so erased

Rita: I think that Blackness is immensely personal and encompasses incredibly rich, diverse and fluid notions. My own ideas and perceptions of my Blackness have radically changed over the years, particularly as a third culture kid. Being mixed, my Blackness is often challenged or erased by others. People think saying “Oh you’re not that Black” is a compliment, but it’s not. I have no problem with being Black, I have a problem with the way people conceptualise Blackness. It’s important that we as Black people take control of our narratives because so often we have to deal with Blackness being dictated to us by non-Black people and that can be really damaging. 

Black culture has become so commodified and fractured, as though it’s a separate entity from its origin. For example, people often talk about hip hop simply as a music genre, which it is, but it has a really distinctive history in social movements and Black resistance. Despite the diversity within African culture, what we’re most exposed to, particularly in New Zealand, is African American culture. 

Litia: And many Pacific Islanders in Aotearoa have a really strong affinity to African American culture both historically and currently.

Rita: Definitely – it’s the most accessible and visible. In a way, society doesn’t see it as ‘Black culture’ specifically, because Black culture has become mainstream culture. It dominates so many areas of popular culture it’s nearly indistinguishable in the public eye. But as a Black person you can clearly identify its origins. 

Litia: It’s a paradox where there’s a simultaneous erasure of Blackness in society but a knowingness that a proximity to Blackness is seen as cool. I see that within my own community, particularly in aesthetics, art, music, style.

Rita: That’s what’s hard to ascertain, whether people are associating themselves with something that’s seen as the peak of cultural expression or with Blackness. I don’t know if people specifically think that it’s Blackness that they’re aiming for, or if they think they’re aiming for the best of popular culture. I think non-Black people, especially non-Black people of colour, don’t realise that these things come from a very specific group of people. Blackness has become so erased. That erasure aids and abets its appropriation because it’s not seen as something that belongs to us. With heightened visibility, our identity is stripped from it. 

Litia: I want to touch on that point of visibility of Black culture, particularly African American culture, and the way we both engaged with it in high school. Do you remember when it was just a thing to call any Brown person ‘Black’? I remember Pālagi girls being like “haha you’re Black” and I was like “yeah ok whatever guess I am?!?”

Beyonce's Lemonade album cover

Rita: I remember that. Back then I was moving deep in internalised racism and I made a conscious effort to distance myself from Blackness. I even made a rule, no hip hop. But you’re caught in a catch 22 – cos once you tell people you like the Arctic Monkeys and Florence and the Machine, they’ll say, “Oh you’re so white.” Growing up in New Zealand my only exposure to Black people was through the media. Much of this was because I was the only Black person in my family, and it was just me and Mum. And our portrayal in the media was pretty shit. Black girls, particularly, were always being abused or made fun of and side-lined as the sassy/angry best friend to the white-girl lead. The Black people society put on a pedestal, like Beyoncé, seemingly superseded their Blackness, if you get what I mean.

Litia: Yeah, but white people loved Beyoncé till she made Lemonade.

Rita: Then it’s that joke about the day Beyoncé ‘became Black’ and white people got mad that she’s talking about her negro nose. Being Black didn’t seem aspirational at all. Distancing myself from it was a protective mechanism. Coming into high school, I was coming out of the worst years of racial abuse, and there was so much hurt. To me, identifying as Black wasn’t an option. That’s really why it’s so painful seeing people engaging with Black culture because it’s ‘cool’ now, especially via performative activism. Many of us Black kids had to go through many years of hurt, abuse and struggle to accept and cherish what we’re born with.

Litia: At that very impressionable age I didn’t see a lot of Pacific Islanders in popular culture, particularly Pasifika women, that I aspired to. My logic was, “Well Beyoncé and Rihanna are hot, I wanna be like them.” It was as though I gave myself unmitigated access to participate in Black culture because I was Brown. You called me out on this when you found my Tumblr account a few years ago.

Rita: That was interesting because you posted a lot of content Black content – Black Models, Black artists and a lot of social justice content. I found it confusing because I was like, “Why doesn’t she have this same energy for Pacific culture?”, which itself is rich in its own cultural diversity and imagery.

By default of being Brown, there can be an unconscious assumption we’ve got unmitigated access to Black culture

Litia: I didn’t even provide you with a decent response. I just shrugged it off like “it is what it is”. My non-answer reflected my ignorance and my deep internalised racism towards my Pasifika ancestry. For myself, and others of my generation, Tumblr was an entry point into social justice discourse. I have a vivid memory of first learning about Michael Brown’s murder on that site. I became engrossed in the BLM movement and I felt like I found my ‘cause’. I think a lot of Brown kids are introduced to issues about racism and social justice through Black politics. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s problematic when you’re in the midst of an identity crisis and don’t understand yourself, first. Even my Mum said, “Why are you going so hard for this, you’re not Black?” But it was coming from a place of trying so hard to gain a sense of belonging with a community (albeit online), because I didn’t have that engagement with my Pasifika community at home. It’s only with time and reflection that I understand how problematic my behaviour was. 

Rita: It’s so easy to latch on to things that are there because they’re comfortable and relatable. Even for myself, I’m Black but my Dad is West African. I’m Black British. And Black British history is exceedingly rich, yet the culture that’s most accessible is African American culture. In many ways, I’m still very unaware of aspects of my own cultural background. My Dad is Krio, an ethnic group who are descendants of repatriated slaves from the United States. I’m proximate to Black American culture but it’s not really my history, either. And while I can’t speak for Pacific Islanders, I do think that when your own cultures have historically been so erased and disrespected I understand why you’d want to attach yourself to a culture that’s seen as cool and popular in this white world… maybe you gain some leverage that you wouldn’t have otherwise?

Litia: I think for the Pacific community in New Zealand much of our representation is replete with racism and stereotypes. Growing up I never felt it was cool to be Brown and I actively disassociated from wanting to be seen as a ‘Pacific Islander’. It was easy to look at popular Black figures in the media, especially famous Black women, and try and ‘see’ myself in them. I cringe in hindsight, but that thinking became so entrenched.

Rita: That’s a natural response, though, and I think there’s something positive and meaningful in actually seeing Black figures as inspirational. But there’s a line, and I think, internally, many non-Black people of colour have used this admiration to give themselves a pass to partake in these aspects of Black culture. But if you’re gonna turn around and be anti-Black, I can’t help but feel as though your use of Black culture is purely for clout. Fundamentally, if you can’t respect the people who created it, how can you truly respect that art itself?

Many of us don’t interrogate the way we uphold anti-Blackness in more insidious ways.

Litia: That’s something I’ve been reflecting on lately, there’s this notion that since Black culture has become so popularised we don’t think of it as sacred. I think that many of us Pacific Islanders hold our cultural traditions so close to our hearts and treat them with the sanctity they deserve. But I feel we haven’t closely interrogated how we mindlessly appropriate Black culture on the regular. Is this something you’ve noticed?

Rita: I should preface that I’ve never grown up in areas heavily populated by Pacific people. But in the last few years I’ve been noticing it more, I think that a lot of the vernacular, the music, the style are the clearest examples of Black culture visible in the Pacific community.

Litia: Exactly, and although they are the more superficial examples, they’re important because the way we present ourselves to the world says a lot about our identity and how we want to be seen.

Rita: But I also know that relationship runs deep, and I’m aware of your deeper affinities with Black civil rights movements and that speaks to the inter-connected struggles with oppression, injustice and discrimination.

Litia: For some of our Pacific community in Aotearoa, that strong affinity with Black American culture and political resistance is best exemplified with the Polynesian Panthers, where the Black Panther Party was explicitly used as its blueprint. Some of our people identified with their activism and saw that it could be applied here. Because we have that historical affinity, many of us don’t interrogate the way we uphold anti-Blackness in more insidious ways. By default of being Brown, there can be an unconscious assumption we’ve got unmitigated access to Black culture/struggles/identity, etc.

Polynesian Panthers

Rita: It’s not enough to just have a similar history, to feel like, “Oh yeah I relate to that, therefore I can have that.” Similar doesn’t mean the same. The differences are important, especially when talking about discussing what’s important to individual cultures. With the Polynesian Panthers movement, that’s a clear example of identifying similar struggles and exploring how your community could fight its oppression in the New Zealand context. 

Litia: And there was a huge mutual respect there.

Rita: Yeah, and when you’ve gone to the people that create the thing and you say, “Hey, we’re going through that too, can we link up?”, there’s a mutual reciprocity. That’s very different because you’re all having that conversation. It’s different to feeling entitled or deciding you have a free pass to Black culture simply because you’re Brown. The mutual element is really important in these contexts. I’m not suggesting we need informed consent for everything, but basic acknowledgment and respect is lacking.

Litia: I’m curious about this notion of reciprocity between minorities. It links into a discussion of cultural appropriation. If you, as a Black woman, were wanting to get a traditional tatau, some people from that culture might see that as problematic.

A lot of Black culture isn’t seen as sacred because it’s ‘contemporary and urban’

Rita: I think they definitely would, and for good reason. But that’s my main sticking point. If people are gonna say they feel an affinity with Blackness and hence why they use it, why is this such a one-way street? I mean I don’t want to get a tatau, and I’m quite clear on why I shouldn’t, but it’s an interesting hypothetical question. Cultures evolve, that’s what culture is all about. But, using that example, we have to ask why Black culture is seen as up for grabs, and taking from it, especially by Brown people, is somehow unproblematic? 

Litia: I know my community is swift to call out cultural appropriation of our taonga, and rightly so, but do we keep that same energy for Black culture? I’d say no. I think a lot of that is because we categorise our cultural taonga as sacred and traditional…

Rita: … and a lot of Black culture isn’t seen as sacred because it’s ‘contemporary and urban’. The African American culture we’re exposed to is largely born from an urban setting and I think it changes the way it’s perceived. People think because it has urban origins that denotes free access. Maybe there’s also a deeper misunderstanding about how it got commodified. That’s not something Black people did. It’s white studios, producers, financers, investors, coaches, owners, etc., who mainly profit from it. We were white people’s first capital. 

Litia: This brings up this idea that there’s a fine line between inter-group solidarity and co-opting the Black struggle. Speaking specifically to the current political climate, there was an unprecedented urgency in Aotearoa to support BLM – which is great – but in same breath we said, “Let’s not pretend that racism and police violence don’t happen here against Māori and Pasifika people”, with no mention of Black people in Aotearoa within that discourse. I found that disconnect quite jarring. But it’s complex, too, because I understand why many Māori might question why people are so willing to suddenly galvanise for Black Lives Matter but not keep that same energy for issues that have affected tangata whenua for centuries. How can we better hold space for everyone without talking over one another?

How can we better hold space for everyone without talking over one another?

Rita: For me, if someone’s taking this moment to only post about their adjacent political issue to Black Lives Matter, then that’s a big problem. I’ve seen a lot of people co-opt the BLM kaupapa. I’m not saying your fight isn’t worthy but if you’re coming, at first instance, to a BLM march and it’s not first and foremost for Black lives then you're part of the problem. I understand that other minority groups are affected by the same tree of oppression but it’s not all the same fruit. There are very obvious examples where people aren’t even centring Black lives, such as using the BLM energy for Arms Down NZ. That’s the co-option of an energy and a movement and drawing it into your particular kaupapa. Sure, New Zealand has a history of inappropriate law enforcement, but we don’t have the same history of police brutality as the States. Even as Black people in New Zealand, we have to be aware that we don’t have the same history as Black people in America.

Litia: But when we say, “We can’t forget the issues in our own backyard”, we forget there’s literally Black people in our backyard. 

Rita: I think a lot of it comes from people not communicating with each other. This erasure of New Zealand’s Black community really contributes to this. Forgetfulness is the gateway to ignoring us. And while many of us aren’t African American, we have a better insight into the Black Experience more generally. I’ve never felt seen as a Black person in New Zealand. It’s hurtful to think that people are quick to ignore us. It’s as though racist discourse stops at Māori and Pasifika. But the racism I’ve experienced in this country has been intense. 

Litia: A difficulty I’ve experienced within my own community is how we even start the talanoa about anti-Blackness. We forget that anti-Black behaviours include decentring and misplaced appreciation. For example, I saw a Poly business selling ‘Brown Girl Magic’ t-shirts online and they were called out for co-opting the ‘Black Girl Magic’ phrase. The commentary was interesting, because a few Pasifika individuals couldn’t see that there was anything wrong with that, going as far as to suggest that it showed ‘solidarity’. I know it’s important to hold people accountable, but it feels tricky when some of your own are coming from a really well-intentioned place. 

Rita: Being anti-Black incorporates a huge range of things; it goes from the stereotypes and negative attitudes towards Black people through to systemic racism. Colourism is a particularly visceral example I’ve been privy to in the Pacific community in Aotearoa. Last September I returned from a holiday in Sāmoa. At work, I got several comments from Māori and Pasifika colleagues, saying, “Oh you got Black.” The whole vibe of it really raised these negative connotations about having darker skin. I was like, no I am Black, I’ve just got a tan. I thought, “Why are you weaponising my skin tone like that?” Those comments are just one example of everyday microaggressions some Brown people perpetuate.

Litia: That’s fucked but it reflects the way colourism runs rampant in Pasifika communities. When you said that, I thought how other Pacific Islanders, even in my own family, have commented on my “nice golden skin” and how lucky I am that I’m “not too dark”. As a young girl I thought it was complimentary, now I see how it’s a classic example of anti-Blackness that often goes unchecked.

Rita: Colourism is a complex conversation. Both of us would be considered light skinned so we definitely have a different experience to our darker-skinned sisters and brothers in our communities, because we’re seen as closer to the social ‘ideal’. You’re constantly stuck in this weird space where you’re too light for one group but too dark for another. And that is really insidious, especially because it’s not just an intra-community issue. Colourism is really just racism, so it's rooted in white supremacy and has much wider implications. I think when we perpetuate these ideas between ourselves it really reveals how colonised our thinking is. 

Litia: It’s become more apparent to me how much, as non-Black POCs, we engage in these anti-Black behaviours. Last summer I got box braids, and my logic was “I have curly hair therefore I’m allowed to get braids.” I remember the day I was getting them done I messaged you asking, “Is this ok lol?” Now I’m like damn, that put you in a really awkward position. I just assumed because of my brown skin and 3C hair that I could have that. Now, I’m hyper aware of how many Island girls are getting box braids and I’m thinking, “Oh shit, should we really be doing this?”

I’ve never felt seen as a Black person in New Zealand

Rita: For Black people, there’s a lot of hurt that comes from our hair. To be perfectly honest, hair was the first thing – for me – that made me realise my difference in this country. It’s a real trigger point. Women’s hair is a big deal and comes with a lot of cultural currency. Black women’s hair has forever been policed and called really negative things. I’ve had my own family members comment on Venus Williams’ hair, saying it looks like a toilet brush. It makes me uncomfortable knowing people think that about our natural hair. If you say “beautiful hair” the immediate mental image probably isn’t an afro. But with all this hurt behind Black women’s hair you couple it with the long traditions of braiding. Our hair isn’t easy to look after – but there are rituals associated with it that have a deep cultural relevance. Braiding is an important part of that. It’s a long-held tradition of protective styling. It signifies loving your hair and wanting to take care of it. When you’re told all these negative things about your hair, braiding it is a precious art. So, when non-Black people just go through IG and screenshot pictures of Black girls and go “this is cool, I want this too”, it’s a bit mad, really because it just disregards all of these other factors. I know this seems so superficial and, like, “why is this the hill you’re willing to die on”, but it’s an erasure of our history. 

Litia: Oftentimes Brown people don’t conceptualise themselves as racist, we default to it as something only white folk do. But that’s entirely untrue. If we demand of others to not only be non-racist but also actively anti-racist, we must put the same expectation on ourselves. We’re not exempt from having to work at our own anti-Blackness. 

Rita: That’s a good point. This doesn’t minimise white people’s reinforcement of systemic racism, but we all need to interrogate ourselves quite seriously. Particularly, for non-Black POCs, there’s a lot to be done. Oftentimes minorities who feel subjugated within the system believe that in order to gain power, they have to be complicit in Black people’s oppression. 

Litia: And that contributes to upholding white supremacy. 

Hair was the first thing – for me – that made me realise my difference in this country

Rita: In New Zealand it’s hard, particularly with our Māori and Pacific whānau, because your own histories are so fraught and marked with violence that it seems like fighting the fight for someone else can be exhausting. Cos your fight is still happening.

Litia: It’s the idea that because we’re still going through shit and coming to terms with our own issues/identities/decolonising that we shouldn’t be critical of ourselves while we’re still evolving.

Rita: Yeah! This is why it would be good to have these conversations between groups instead of in these silos. We’re fighting for the same goal, really. There are many strands to this weapon. All our cultures are based in community – so why aren’t we moving as one? I’m not suggesting we become this homogenous unit and ignore difference, but we can carve a collective path. That will entail many approaches. But we’re not even having these talanoas. 

Litia: Or even acknowledging Black liberation liberates us all. 

Rita: The liberation of Indigenous and Black people really speaks to the worldwide systemic change we need to see and work towards. Our relationship to this movement in Aotearoa is definitely different but, yes, we need to acknowledge we have a role to play in it and its importance. 

Litia: I’ve thought about the protests and how I, and others, rallied behind Pacific Islanders for Black Lives Matter. It was cool to see the solidarity as a cultural unit. But I also wondered if that kinda language centres us before the Black struggle? Whether our support for Black Lives comes only when we link it back to ourselves? Could we not just say “Black Lives Matter”? I don’t know, I’m still working through that idea.

All our cultures are based in community – so why aren’t we moving as one?

Rita: I guess it comes back to the existing struggles in those communities. When you’re still going through the struggle it’s hard to take on another fight as well. For a lot of community members, you can only mobilise them in that way. If you’re so ingrained in your fight, it would be hard to just pick something else up without connecting it back to you. I think it’s unfortunate and it’s an issue, but I understand the thought process. 

Litia: There’s definitely some strategic value in non-Black POC really rallying behind Black Lives Matter, so long as we don’t make it about us. But you’ve mentioned a few times that you often feel like there’s an absence of inter-minority solidarity in this country. Do you still feel that way?

Rita: Yeah. I think that comes back to the way Black people are made invisible in Aotearoa. There are many factors to that. If you talk about Māori and Pasifika, is there an inter-solidarity there?

Litia: Well, yes, our relationship pre-exists colonisation as we are all tangata o le moana. Māori are Pacific Islanders, too. For Pasifika peoples living in Aotearoa, we must acknowledge that Māori are tangata whenua and anyone who’s a settler on stolen land dispossesses its Indigenous people. When we first migrated here, many Māori were concerned that our presence would derail their fight. I can understand that concern, even now. Our relationship wasn’t, and still isn’t, sunshine and rainbows. Unfortunately there's still a lot of division within our communities and many Pasifika still express anti-Māori sentiments. I do think, though, particularly with the younger generations, our work towards decolonisation means we are bonding with a mutual goal of abolishing white supremacy. But I wonder whether, and when, we could include others in that process.

Rita: The way we effectively engage with these kinds of issues as interlinked communities is something we have to continually work on. I see the outpouring of support for BLM from a lot of people. It’s cool, but I’m also interested to see how that support translates into everyday life in small, less politically charged examples that really contribute to you feeling seen and accepted in society. 

Acknowledging Black liberation liberates us all.

Litia: What do you have in mind, on a more everyday level?

Rita: Like, normalising men in New Zealand – and I include Māori, Pasifika and Asian guys in that – dating Black girls. I’ve yet to see it. It might seem silly, and there are lots of other things too, but something like that really reflects how you’re regarded by people in a broader sense. We still have so much work to do in removing harmful stereotypes against Black women. The way we’re seen as undesirable, loud, angry, sassy or grossly fetishised. We just can’t be normal, regular bitches, it’s like we gotta be these magical unicorns to even be considered. Not being seen in your individuality makes you feel that people only see you as a political object. When everyone’s like “yeah Black Lives Matter”, I think, are you talking about Black lives or are you just bandwagoning? Are you keeping that same energy for your everyday life?

Litia: Exactly.

Rita: And this goes into the fact that communities still aren’t interacting with Black people on a regular basis. So many conversations recently have just been about politics. People see me not as a person but a political movement. I can’t separate that, as a Black woman, my existence will always be political, but it’s as though people only wanna talk to me because of what’s happening. What happens when this blows over, how will you treat me?

Litia: It’s less about speaking to a platform or having a hot take on Twitter, right? The ‘work’ is often a lot of self-directed forensics on how one’s actions uphold white supremacy. 

Rita: That’s really important. Systemic change takes time. If we look to that as the only thing we can do, we forget that small, everyday interactions could be better. I think that’s important for others to be doing. Just sitting and learning. We need to stop looking at things in these weird segmented ways. When there’s a tragedy we blow up. But every tragedy is underpinned by the same system. If we learn about the system and engage in activities to subvert the system in our daily habits, we’d be going a long way to making some ground for change. We don’t need to wait for an eruption and do it all at once. If we’d built this momentum on the daily, maybe we’d be somewhere better? For me, I want to feel safe talking to my Māori and Pasifika e hoa about these issues. But as of right now, even those I acquaint with, I still feel uncomfortable raising issues the Black community faces around them a lot of the time.

Litia: If you feel comfortable saying, what has been the response when you raise these issues?

As a Black woman, my existence will always be political

Rita: It just feels like they don’t get taken seriously. It’s not a case of imported rage, I’ve experienced visceral anti-Black racism in this country. But often when I’ve had these conversations with Māori and Pasifika people about my experiences, some have tried to fight me on it or just brush it off. Like, how are you as a non-Black person gonna tell me what I’ve been through? It’s that sort of response that makes you feel like there’s no solidarity. 

Litia: A hefty question, but how could the Pasifika community better support the Black community in Aotearoa?

Rita: By really becoming allies and learning to love and respect Black people, not just Black culture. Building solidarity can only come from actually communicating with one another and interrogating the anti-Blackness within yourself and your communities. Y’all gotta be willing to be wrong, be open to listening, learning and being uncomfortable. 

Litia: What about those who wonder how you balance the “Don’t expect Black people to teach you everything” with the notion of “Talk to each other”?

Rita: I think you can ascertain quite quickly when someone is being genuine in their intentions coming into these conversations. But start with Google. Don’t come in totally uneducated. If you realise you have these blind spots, start doing the work on your own. It’s so easy now. And what you’ll find at the end of that is that you’re missing the lived experience. And I think, then, you can engage face to face. It’s not a game of finding a random Black person, because these are incredibly personal issues so there needs to be a level of trust there. But it’s about holding that space for that to happen. And just support the local Black community, now and forever.

Litia and Rita