The politics of 'us'

A lot of things have asked us to question our identity lately. And by 'us' I mean New Zealanders. Kiwis. Land of the Long White Cloud-ers. Enter stage left - the flag referendum and the Kiwimeter. Oh, mate. 

Actually, I wouldn't say these things asked us to question our identity (which is a good thing), but rather sought to homogenize it. Perhaps more directly, to whitewash it. The supposed end result of both of these catastrophic failures of national self-reflection is to reveal who 'we' are as a nation. Well, to be honest with you, I've never felt myself and who 'I' am to be particularly reflected in popular media portrayals of who 'we all' are. At the moment it's telling us that we all really like flags designed by House of 90s Clip Art and silver ferns and rugby balls. And it's telling us that if you think Māori get special treatment, well then, you're probably a Patriot.

So I was all set for another week of feeling that rage; for feeling despondent about the level of compassion and regard for diversity of expression, and diversity of being, in our country. At least as it is portrayed in popular media. I began to feel that banal, weak tug of homogeneity....we're all one people (read that in a spooky ghost voice please)...are we? No. Nope. No way.

I think the (predominantly Pākehā) desire for homogeneity is driven by a feeling of 'cultureless-ness.' I understand that feeling. I think it’s symptomatic of being part of a colonising majority; you’ve lost those old, long-standing roots and the new ones don't feel that strong. So there’s a desire to homogenise and assimilate. And to make everyone else do the same. 'Cos in that context no-one should be 'special.' 

With those concepts come a kind of anti-history rhetoric that gets played over and over again in the media…what is in the past has passed, so what’s the point in banging on about it? We’re here, now, in this place together so let’s get on with being ‘Kiwis.’ But that’s not reality. Nor is it a reality I want. Because as the flag and Kiwimeter debacles make starkly clear, a ‘majority rules’ pretty much always means silencing a minority. But we are a composite of so many parts. To deny history and the diversity of identities and lived experiences that comes with that history is to walk into the future blindfolded. With earmuffs on.

The GLAM sector has the power to unlock that multidimensionality. There is such immense power in our communities and collections and stories. A power to redress past hurts; to re-present and re-interpret history to include forgotten histories and marginalised voices. There is such power in the kaupapa to present alternatives and to challenge traditional or limiting concepts of identity and who ‘we’ are. Because ‘we’ are so, so many things. The action of standing beside (or behind) to allow communities to speak for and represent themselves is living proof that acknowledging diversity does not divide. It empowers.

This power also comes from museums acknowledging their own histories of exploitation and silencing. Museums have a long way to go and still make mistakes (I would point to a previous Fast Five here), but I truly believe that (if done right) they can not only provide a space for exploring diversity of identities, culture, and ideas but can work to provide a framework for society. As enraging as the Tiffany Jenkins knowledge-hoarding, European-centric, ‘museum as God’ furor was, my heart sung as I watched the live stream of Te Papa finalising the repatriation of Kalani‘ōpu‘u's ‘ahuʻula and mahiole. I resisted the urge to angrily tweet at Jenkins – ‘See! Look, you ignoramus. Look at this beautiful, healing, source-community driven mahi.’ Look what can happen when we acknowledge difficult histories, when we work together but acknowledge difference, when we acknowledge that we don’t all have the same needs, that we are part of a broader and (yes) diverse national and international community.

So instead of getting rage-y about Kiwimeters and flags (for too long anyway), I went into my cultural sector happy place. I thought about museums and galleries and archives as sites that let diversity flourish. That present alternative identities and challenge the idea that there is one way to be a New Zealander. 'Cos there ain't. And for me, that's where we can come together. Not in sameness and homogeneity, but in respect and acknowledgment of difference.

So, we happily present Tusk's third theme – diversity. We hope you will keep checking in with us as we explore this theme. We think it's kind of important. (Cue 'Kumbaya' playing on repeat in my head.....)


Nina Finigan