To centre constitutional transformation for Asian ‘Tangata Tiriti’

Art by @fufighterarts

By Mengzhu Fu and Mahdis Azarmandi

Waitangi Day feels like a timely moment to reflect. In the last decade, we have seen increased interest from tauiwi Asians to understand Te Tiriti and our relationship to it. This is a huge positive change from the previously dominant perspective that Te Tiriti is between Māori and Pākehā, where Asians often saw Te Tiriti as irrelevant to us. Thanks to many people before us who have instigated this change, from Māori and Asian perspectives, we’ve seen younger generations of Asians not even questioning the relevance of Te Tiriti to them. We’ve seen a growth of engagement with Māori culture through learning te reo Māori for example and with questions about what it means to be ‘good tangata tiriti’ [1]. 

While these are signs of wanting to respect tangata whenua, to strive for Te Tiriti-based futurities, we have to go beyond cultural gestures and individual actions. We have to centre the goals outlined in the Matike Mai report for constitutional transformation. Without this, the structures of colonialism will remain intact. 

When we think about the context for the signing of Te Tiriti in 1840, we are reminded of Professor Margaret Mutu’s writings that describe the barbarism and lawlessness of the Pākehā population at the time. The first permanent Pākehā settlement at Kororāreka was deemed the “Hell-hole of the Pacific”. Granting ‘kawanatanga’ to the Crown was to essentially delegate responsibility to Pākehā to hold their own people accountable. There was never consent for the Crown to govern Māori. The call from Māori activists for Pākehā to educate their own communities, like Te Tiriti, was for Pākehā to deal with their people.

The basis of Asians Supporting Tino Rangatiratanga’s (ASTR) work around treaty education is inspired by this same call to take responsibility for educating ‘our own people’ as complex as that category is. The work starts with ourselves and our communities as well as requiring us to also connect across groups and build relationships for change. 

It is in this spirit, we write this at a critical juncture to deepen our understanding of what solidarity requires of us as ‘Asians’. It’s a result of many private conversations, of analysing ‘where we are at’ and observations of contemporary Asian discourses and media around being ‘tangata tiriti’. It’s a result of making and witnessing mistakes ourselves and learning from them, especially when tangata whenua have pointed them out to us.

To be transparent, we are writing this based on reflections on our experiences as members of Asians Supporting Tino Rangatiratanga but we are not writing on behalf of ASTR, so our views are not necessarily representative of the whole organisation. 

Limitations of being “good Asian Tangata Tiriti” 

After we are exposed to Te Tiriti and the historical and contemporary processes of colonisation, the question of ‘how to be good tangata tiriti’ might be a stepping stone to thinking about our responsibilities to tangata whenua. Increasingly, we have seen this question centred in media, some academic writing, and in responses when critical feedback is offered to Asian peers who see this as an identity to strive for.

While this introspective internal work of putting your values into practice is a necessary part of it, we’re worried that this focus on the self or decolonisation work as a ‘personal journey’ ends up having no real power or teeth. It becomes an individual moral identity, a brand that you put out in the world to separate yourself and distance yourself from presumably ‘bad tangata tiriti’ or tauiwi who do not want to honour Te Tiriti. It misses the bigger picture and political goals of decolonisation. 

Much in the same way, the focus on ‘white privilege’ has become central in anti-racism discourse, the focus on how to be ‘good allies’ or ‘good tangata tiriti’ is limited when thinking about systemic change. White privilege was first coined to render visible the advantages white people enjoyed in a racist system. While useful at times, it frames the conversation about colonialism and racism at the individual and moral level. Recognising our privilege then translates into becoming good allies.

However, what is often described as privilege is rarely a perk, but rather deprivations of rights of Black and Indigenous peoples (and people of colour). Even if more of us strive to be ‘good tangata tiriti’ as personal self-development to better understand and build better relationships with tangata whenua, this in itself does not change the colonising structures that shape our contemporary world. It does not address the material conditions in which we exist nor the differences within our own group as ‘Asians’.

What good is ‘recognising our privilege’, or our positionality as ‘settlers’ or ‘tangata tiriti’ if it stops short of organising toward political change? 

We’ve found the late bell hooks’ work useful for thinking through this problem. She makes a distinction between the statement “I am a feminist” and “I advocate for feminism”. The former, she presents as being an individual identity where feminism is treated as a lifestyle. The latter is a political commitment to praxis (the unity of theory and action) that aims to ‘end sexist oppression’. Feminism as a lifestyle is not going to end sexist oppression.

Likewise, ‘being a good tangata tiriti’ as work on the self or as a lifestyle, is not going to end colonial oppression. While this work happens at intra- and interpersonal as well as collective levels, it is above all political work to dismantle political systems. These systems are not changed merely by placing ourselves as good or the best allies as if competing in some kind of reality show like Aotearoa’s Next Top Tangata Tiriti. 

How do we practice our politics to have real material change rather than wear them as a marker of identity or as a distinction from ‘those other Asians’ to make ourselves feel better about living on lands still undergoing colonisation? How can we mobilise strategically along our commonalities without implying an essential identity of what it means to be tangata tiriti (or any identity marker)? 

Rejecting liberal multiculturalism & liberal antiracism

The trends of opting for cultural learning and questions of being a ‘good tangata tiriti’ can be explained as liberal frameworks of engagement. Liberal multiculturalism as a framework for the incorporation of racialised communities and cultures has been a way to recognise cultural difference at a superficial level, to promote an image of peaceful cultural diversity. It tends to be the consumable, commodifiable aspects of ‘culture’ that are ‘celebrated’ with the purpose of ‘enriching’ the dominant white culture.

Liberal multiculturalism sees tangata whenua as just another ‘ethnic minority’ within the nation-state of New Zealand rather than as Indigenous peoples who have rights to land and tino rangatiratanga. This is still a colonising and white supremacist framework where Pākehā and the Crown still decide what and how cultural differences are included in the nation-state. It does not challenge the colonising structures of the nation-state itself.

Liberalism emphasises the notion of ‘equal opportunity’ for individuals within the dominant system. For example, those who are marginalised should have the opportunity to join the oppressor class – to join the police force, the military, become CEOs, and also enact violence. It looks like diversification of the institutions of power and control. Inclusion and diversity are not liberation, it’s recruitment into maintaining an ongoing colonising state, and that diversity can be used to legitimise its existence [2].

Racism has never just been about exclusion, it has been about a relationship of power and control. Racism is not rooted in cultural ignorance, but colonial racial capitalist projects of conquest and domination. It has always, always been about power. 

Neither increased representation of tangata whenua nor of ‘good Asian allies’ in colonising institutions will create meaningful change as long as racial capitalism and settler colonialism persist. 

Writing about policing in the United States Yannic Giovanni Marshall poignantly sums it up: 

“Liberal language is the armour one puts on if one is to remain good while complicit in the preservation of the anti-Black institution, or worse, supports it and seeks its reform. It launders support for racism as optimism….Liberals suggest that we must “begin to have conversations” as if freedom, anywhere, has been brought about by a well-intentioned chat. “Begin”, “begin to build trust”, “begin to understand” sell hope in some revolutionary idea or breakthrough moment. If only we could have the right conversations, change the nature and temper of our interactions, a solution to settler-colonial racism might be stumbled upon.”

– Yannic Giovanni Marshall

In the New Zealand context, it is suggested that we are ‘on a journey’ or ‘on the waka together’ often leaving out that when some come on to this journey, others have already been traveling for centuries. The metaphor of the journey thus works to pull back those who have been leading, working, and talking about systems change by suggesting that they ‘begin’ when white people (as well as people of colour who are complicit in white supremacy) are ready to do so. 

Neoliberal colonialism will always try to dilute, coopt and depoliticise radical demands. Angela Davis once said, something doesn’t become radical just because you put the word ‘radical’ in front of it. Neither do we decolonise institutions by simply saying ‘decolonise x’. Some institutions are also not meant to be reformed, redeemed and decolonised. Some systems need to be abolished entirely. Sina Brown-Davis often says, ‘you cannot reform a piece of shit’. 

Similarly, liberal ‘anti-racism’ promises us a solution if only we celebrate our cultural differences, learn about each other’s cultures, and become ‘culturally competent’. Liberal anti-racism tells us ‘unconscious bias’ is the problem, not racial capitalism and ‘settler’ colonialism. If only we learn enough tikanga or reo, if we celebrate each other’s holidays and food and engage in conversation, we can overcome the moral failure of racism.

But racism is not the failure of an otherwise just, non-racist system. Racism is the fabric of the society we live in, it is the system working as it was designed to. It is a political problem that requires political solutions.

Pitfalls of Asian te reo Māori speakers upheld as model Tangata Tiriti

Recently, Dr. Veronica Tawhai in her kōrero on constitutional transformation also emphasised how Pākehā culture can tolerate and embrace te reo Māori and tikanga, but not Māori people. New Zealand nationalism selectively incorporates Māori culture to ‘decorate’ the bicultural image of the nation-state while denying Māori tino rangatiratanga and mana motuhake. Tauiwi Asians, too, can participate in this type of selective engagement with Māori culture for our own benefit.

To provide an example of how language and cultural knowledge does not necessarily translate to political praxis, we can reflect on the valorisation of Asian te reo Māori speakers, even if they have made decisions or acted in ways that undermine tino rangatiratanga or have sidelined critical Māori perspectives. For example, it is not something to be celebrated that the first te reo Māori speaking mayor was a Chinese person. That is a sad indictment of colonial relations. 

Te reo Māori is a taonga and colonisation has actively worked to suppress it. The survival and revival of te reo Māori come from the activism of people like Hana Te Hemara and Ngā Tamatoa, the kohanga reo and kura kaupapa movement. It has come out of struggle. When tauiwi learn or use te reo, we have to understand that many Māori have been alienated from te reo, through no fault of their own. 

What does it mean if the ‘go-to’ solidarity action for tauiwi is to learn te reo Māori? What other aspects of colonisation are ignored when/if this becomes the dominant response? And how can it actually be re-colonising when many Māori do not have the resources, time, or opportunities to learn their own reo? What happens to classroom dynamics if tauiwi are there who do not share the trauma of losing their language? Awanui Te Huia’s work reflects on some of the dynamics at play with Pākehā in the classroom, like how often Pākehā experiences are centred in discussions and the time taken to attend to their questions. 

When Eve Tuck (Unangax̂) and K. Wayne Yang argued that “decolonisation is not a metaphor”, they also highlighted several ‘settler moves to innocence’. They use this term to describe the “strategies or positionings that attempt to relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility without giving up land or power or privilege, without having to change much at all” (p.10). Is the ‘go to’ act of learning te reo Māori essentially a move to innocence? How can a focus on te reo evade the hard conversations about land dispossession, class struggle, and access to resources?

How does te reo Māori get weaponised, monetised or used for individual career advancement for tauiwi? If you are learning or have learnt te reo Māori to a degree of fluency, what are your responsibilities to tangata whenua in dismantling other aspects of colonialism?

As Tina Ngata shared in her blog, “learning te reo is not your get out of Treaty free card.” There are responsibilities and considerations that go along with learning te reo as tauiwi.

In many ways, our position as Asians, especially those who are East Asian has been constructed as a model minority, one used to shame tangata whenua and tangata moana if we excel in colonial education institutions. This dynamic too can manifest in reo education. We can probably understand from some of our own experiences of language loss how it would feel to see white people speak our mother tongue or ancestral language better than we can or (think they) know more about our culture than we do. 

Furthermore, there is the danger of cultural appropriation when te reo Māori is taken out of context and used to profit tauiwi whether socially or economically. We are also wary of the dangers of creating celebrity status for the few, whether that is the single hero-saviour narrative or the influencer-activist that encourages celebrity culture and pedestalling. We have been forewarned from Indigenous peoples in other contexts on the ‘ally industrial complex’ and how allyship and ‘solidarity’ can be exploited to further capitalist interests, to gain social capital. We do not believe in building brands, we believe in building relationships & movements. Language and cultural knowledge, therefore, have to be connected to political education and action to end racial capitalism and colonial dispossession.

Solidarity, for what? 

Language that comes from radical social movements often gets coopted and depoliticised as they become more popular. The term ‘solidarity’, too, has become thrown around as lip service without engaging in a deeper understanding of why do we need solidarity? Solidarity requires a shared political vision, not only cultural similarities. You can build solidarity even through cultural differences. We do not have to be the same to care about each other and struggle together. Early on, Annette Sykes asked, “do we actually align together because of economic inequality, or are we aligning together for political expediency?” This question requires continual reflection as alignment with Māori becomes more trendy. Solidarity cannot just be performative, and has to address the economic and class inequalities inherent in colonial capitalism.

Solidarity is not just about being nice to each other. It is not charity work and it cannot manifest as saviourism. It’s about understanding how our oppressions are intertwined and therefore so is our liberation. In a capitalist, white supremacist colonial system that continues to affect the majority world, relationship-building between different movements and peoples is a method to regain and build power. It is to build power to be a force to be reckoned with, because no oppressor has willingly relinquished their power without a struggle. 

What if honouring Te Tiriti means prison abolition? What if honouring Te Tiriti means ending dairy farming and industrial animal agriculture? What if honouring Te Tiriti means land back and ending the commodification of land, abolishing the capitalist idea and practice of ‘private property’? The roots of colonialism go far deeper. Dr. Pounamu Jade Aikman has pointed out the etymology of the word “colony” in the Roman word, colonia, for farm, cultivation. Colonisation was a process of staking claims to land through cultivation, changing the land, and planting the crops of the colonisers. Any land that was not farmed would be considered “waste land”. This idea was a basis for the mass confiscations of Māori land since the very beginnings of British colonisation. 

Towards constitutional transformation 

We are incredibly lucky thanks to the work of the late matua Moana Jackson (may he rest in love and power), Professor Margaret Mutu and Dr. Veronica Tawhai that a vision for constitutional transformation has been laid out in the Matike Mai Aotearoa report. This is a vision of transforming the way we make decisions in this country based on tikanga, He Whakaputanga, Te Tiriti and UNDRIP. Critically, it is not reforming but transforming the current political system. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, there is a vision and a goal. Our role is to figure out how to get there based on the values that have been synthesised from hundreds of hui with Māori around the country. Of the many values stated in the report, speaking to the value of place by a hui participant:

“The most important value of all is love for the land…everything else depends on it. Unless we get the relationship with Papatūānuku back in balance and maybe have it in a constitution then there’ll be no other relationships at all…no politics, no economics, no anything”. 

We are reminded of the words of anti-colonial scholar Frantz Fanon who writes “For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.” This is what many Indigenous and colonised peoples around the world have been repeatedly saying and warning as extractive and polluting industries continue with business as usual in the destruction of the earth. If the flooding in Tāmaki Makaurau has taught us anything it’s that the climate crisis is not an abstract warning of future catastrophes, but a crisis already here. And that the current Crown structures of crisis management are sordidly inadequate to meet the needs of communities. To have a chance of survival, to have a shot at achieving climate justice, is not possible without constitutional transformation.

As matua Moana Jackson has explained in relation to the ‘ethic of restoration‘:

“the practical steps involved in this envisioned ethic are necessarily political and constitutional because decolonisation cannot occur within the systems and institutions which colonisation has established. The restoration of place in a non-colonising future can only be assured with the recognition and effective exercise of iwi and hapū self-determination — not as a structural subset of colonising government structures, but as the basis of constitutionally independent polities.”

Moana Jackson

Matike Mai is also an invitation for tauiwi to dream outside the colonial confines of a British-derived political system. We can run wild with our imaginations as to what kind of system of decision-making is liberatory for everyone (including non-human life). We’ve been told that the kawanatanga sphere does not necessarily have to look like the parliamentary system.

What does self-determination for tauiwi Asian communities look like in the kawanatanga sphere? What would it mean to take accountability and responsibility for ‘our own’ people with all the intersectional inequalities that exist within this category? How do we organise collectively that reflect and already practice the relationships envisioned in Matike Mai?

We are still figuring all this out as we go. There is no blueprint or perfect path, but as things start to shift and change, we have to be reflexive and responsive to the changing landscapes, to not be stuck nor settle for liberal cooption, but to grow, and to bring ‘our own’ people closer to this vision. 

While we learn from and appreciate te ao Māori, we cannot lose sight of the political goals of decolonisation and the restoration of tino rangatiratanga, which involves a radical transformation and undoing of colonial power relations and Crown control over Māori land and peoples. So we need to be serious about preparing for and organising collectively towards that future. Let’s keep organising.

Special thanks to Dr. Arama Rata, Kassie Hartendorp and Tina Ngata for looking over, suggesting edits, and providing feedback on earlier drafts of this piece. Ngā mihi nunui ki a koutou!

[1]  We understand the term ‘tangata tiriti’ to be malleable, it is used differently in different contexts. Some use it to refer to all non-Māori and use it interchangeably with ‘tauiwi’ to centre our positionality in relation to tangata whenua, for others, it’s a more aspirational identity as someone who seeks to honour Te Tiriti. However, this term might not be relevant or gets complicated in places where Te Tiriti was never signed. We are also aware that our shared experience of racism and colonisation does not necessarily mean that we experience the world in the same ways and many of us can still be complicit in perpetuating anti-Māori racism.

[2] This approach is exemplified in the funding for initiatives aimed at developing ‘leadership’ within ethnic communities.

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