Racialism, advocacy of violence in poetry and mātauranga Māori

It was a pleasure to read a recent opinion piece by Giselle Byrnes and Meihana Durie on research funding for Māori.  It responded to a piece by former academic Dr Steve Stannard.  While I largely agree with Dr Stannard, both pieces were written in a civil and respectful way.  How depressing then that race brings out the worst in us, as shown by a “poem” from Tuisata Avia, and another flare up in the debate around mātauranga Māori, this time featuring Dr Tara McAllister.

Tuisata Avia’s poem is entitled “250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in New Zealand”.  It reads:

Hey James,
yeah, you
in the white wig
in that big Endeavour
sailing the blue, blue water
like a big arsehole

I heard someone
shoved a knife
right up
into the gap between
your white ribs
at Kealakekua Bay.
I’m gonna go there
make a big Makahiki luau
cook a white pig
feed it to the dogs

Hey James,
it’s us.
These days
we’re driving round
in SUVs
looking for ya
or white men like you
who might be thieves
or rapists
or kidnappers
or murderers
yeah, or any of your descendants
or any of your incarnations
cos, you know
ay, bitch?
We’re gonna F… YOU UP.

Tonight, James,
it’s me
Lani, Danielle
and a car full of brown girls
we find you
on the corner
of the Justice Precinct.

You’ve got another woman
in a headlock
and I’ve got my father’s
pig-hunting knife
in my fist
and we’re coming to get you
sailing round
in your Resolution
your Friendship
your Discovery
and your f…ing Freelove.

Watch your ribs, James
cos, I’m coming with
who is a god
and Nua‘a
who is king with a knife.

And then
we’re gonna

Freedom of speech is a fundamental right to defend, however Tuisata’s poem comes close to incitement to violence against a specific racial group.  Complaints have been laid with the Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon, however he sees racism as a white problem and is unlikely to take meaningful action.

Tuisata has effectively weaponised poetry for a racialist purpose.  However, good poetry shows you how others cut up the world, and also how many others have faced similar challenges to you and overcome them.

The great American writer Maya Angelou felt that a little black girl must have written Shakespeare’s sonnet 29 . as it so reflected her feelings as a destitute child, victim of racism and of child abuse, crying out alone before a deaf heaven.  Angelou later wrote Still I rise .  The VUW academic Māmari Stephens, with words as much poetic as prose  wrote of the transformative impact on a lonely child of reading Bulfinch’s Age of Fable .

Māori have composed some of New Zealand’s finest poetry, ranging from Rihi Puhiwahine’s work in the 19th century  to Hone Tuwhare’s fine works and beyond.  Such poetry does not gloss over brutal realities.  Puhiwahine wrote of the impacts of conflict in New Zealand:

Who can raise my fallen ones again? No one but Almighty God, who reigns above us all. All about is now a void; an empty void, a dismal void— Tell me, who caused this void? For seven long years the patu has opposed the sword and loaded gun. Be prepared, be prepared! The worst is yet to come…

Hone Tuwhare’s No Ordinary Sun alluded to the horrors of nuclear weapons.

Poetry including song lyrics has provided a route through which the mana and visibility of the Māori language has been enhanced:  Examples include Lorde and Marlon Williams sing Stoned at the Nail Salon and George Henare and Jennifer Ward-Lealand read sonnet 18 in English and Te Reo.   What I would give for Henare’s voice and elocution!

Dr Tara McAllister is an Auckland University academic with a doctorate in freshwater ecology.  By all accounts she is intelligent, and is well-respected as an ecologist.  From 2015 to 2019 her and her colleagues published papers in natural science, including ecology and toxicity in water environments.  In recent years her published papers have been mainly on racial and gender equity issues and on mātauranga Māori.  

Dr McAllister reacted angrily to Richard Dawkins recently criticising proposals to give mātauranga Māori equal standing with modern science in our science classes.  Her tweets about Richard Dawkins included: “Oh not that fucking twat Dick Dawkins again.  I will not read his fucking white supremacist reckons (stet) on mātauranga…

In a 3 March tweet McAllister wrote:

Of course, the Listener 7 (now the Listener 5) had lunch with Richard Dawkins while he was in NZ. A bunch of sad racist dusty dinosaurs…

Tara McAllister seems unaware that Garth Cooper is Māori, has had a stellar career including advances in diabetes research of particular importance to Māori, and that he has mentored hundreds of Māori and other New Zealand science students.

Dr McAllister also told the media that “Dawkins’ comments are, however, a great example of how clearly white supremacy is ingrained in Western sciences globally, and how colonising scientists continue to attempt to undermine the global resurgence of indigenous knowledge, which I will incorporate into my teaching and research.”

She also said Dawkins’ comments were damaging and – like the public letter from the University of Auckland professors – they “function to embolden other racist scientists in Aotearoa”.

Dr McAllister’s comments inflamed social media outlets.  One typical critic said:

“It disgusts me that people like McAllister keep referring to science as “Western Science”. As a non-white male of South East Asian descent, I’m really [expletive deleted] that this [expletive deleted] would like to refer to science as being a white creation. My ancestors and all their efforts in furthering science mean nothing to her? My people contributed to science a –[expletive deleted] ton. All she’s doing is showing how little she knows about science. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that referring to science as ‘western science’ is racist towards all non-white people who contributed to science.

McAllister, you’re an industrial strength idiot.”

Crude and uncivil language as bad as what we have heard from the other side in this debate!  The tone in social media needs to be softened if its messages are to be discerned and respected.  However, one message has got through.  It is now time to impose a rahui on the term ‘western science’ and replace it with either ‘modern’ or ‘universal science’, or just ‘science.’

Tara McAllister has called on the muses for poetic inspiration in her rhetorical war against her real or imagined enemies in academia:

I am your worst nightmare

My existence challenges your racist assumptions

My presence disturbs your whiteness

I stand in the mana of my tipuna

And I fight for the mana of my mokopuna

I have not come for a seat at your table

I have come to destroy it

I will deconstruct your table

Part by part, piece by piece

I will take screws out while you are not looking

Until your table crumbles into nothingness.

Tara’s poem is less hostile in tone and does less damage to the English language than Tuisata’s.  Tara’s poem actually means something.  It implies that there are fundamental barriers in academia to Māori which require radical change to deal with. 

I am aware of some statistical work underway investigating claims of discrimination (or “institutional racism”) that have been made by Dr McAllister and others, so I will not duplicate this analysis here.

A core purpose of education is to help people enjoy the achievements of all cultures.  Mātauranga Māori is both part of and an enabler of this.  Mātauranga Māori is a mix of observation-based understanding and ways of knowing, sound science, metaphor, working hypotheses that may be cast as myths, and cultural or spiritual beliefs.  Mātauranga Māori leaders such as Mason Durie and Georgina Stewart argue that it complements rather than is a substitute for modern science.  This is basically the view in the famous July 2021“Professors’ letter” to The Listener – a view which Richard Dawkins supported.  Given this broad consensus, why does mātauranga Māori continue to be an inflammatory subject?

Few argue that mātauranga Māori has no place in our education system.  The issue is whether it should have equal standing with modern science.  In my view, only its science-based content should be taught in science classes, and other parts may fit within society and cultural educational fields.

Dr McAllister’s poem articulates the importance within Māoridom of whakapapa, and how this anchors intergenerational identity.  However, this requires narrowing of consciousness to focus on genealogical whakapapa rather than a more cross-cultural whakapapa of the mind.  

One interesting field in psychology is terror management theory (TMT) .  This argues that humans perceive their own mortality and insignificance and overcome their fears through belief in things which give continuity with the past and which persist beyond their lifespans.  This helps explain Dr McAllister’s allusions to tipuna and mokopuna in her poem.

There is another way of overcoming existential isolation and its fears.  This is through universalism that focuses on immortal cross-cultural achievements in music, art, literature and science.  This strengthens what people have in common rather than focusing on what divides them.  Universal human identity therefore overrides inward-looking group identities and double standards of morality between in and outgroups.

Under this philosophy a formal meeting might begin with a short karakia or with any other universal cross-cultural product that all can enjoy.  Examples could include Yo Yo Ma & Itzhak Perlman playing a Dvorak piece, or a Finnish capella.  Kept within limits so that local government council or university academic meetings don’t turn into concerts it might tilt Tara McAllister away from breaking the furniture and allow her to focus on becoming the first-class freshwater ecologist she is capable of being.


About Peter Winsley

I’ve worked in policy and economics-related fields in New Zealand for many years. With qualifications and publications in economics, management and literature, I take a multidisciplinary perspective to how people’s lives can be enhanced. I love nature, literature, music, tramping, boating and my family.
This entry was posted in Cultural issues, Learning, education and pedagogy, Maori, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

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