Learning to Shut Up this Election: An Ironic Reflection

Words by Esmé Putt
Volunteer and All-round GB


Sometimes, I feel a great deal of shame.

This shame surfaces every time I write 'Kia ora' in a work email or when I Google which letter the macron sits above when I sign off ‘Ngā mihi’. Or, more broadly, when I am forced to admit the fact that I can barely speak Te Reo Māori.

This shame surfaces every time I talk to a friend or family member who agrees that, in the wake of an election, who we let into the country should be prioritised towards those who can perform  ‘high skilled jobs’ or contribute to ‘our’ labour force.

This shame surfaces when I hear someone argue that New Zealand has one of the strongest economies globally, yet in the same breath, speaks against immigration in fear of the dangers of sharing it. When politicians use the media-perpetuated fear that refugee populations may use their culture to rob us of ours.                                               

This shame surfaces when election promises imply that the raising of our refugee quota to 1,000 or 2,000 or 3,000 is enough to appease compassion. When speeches and official statements imply that because we have a ‘quota’ we fulfill our ‘obligation’ to hospitality. Where we consider our relatively passive provision of safety as miraculous humanitarianism.

This shame surfaces when we are too scared to sacrifice any of who we are, or what we have accumulated, in order to welcome those who truly need it.

This shame surfaces when we scroll parties' policies to find the ones that protect and enrich us first  - and only accept superficial policies aimed at minorities, safeguarded by promises that there’s something in it for us too.

But I shouldn't be surprised. Because we know to tread lightly when opening our borders and homes. 

We’re bound by a history warning us to be careful when making way for something new. Because, when a Pākehā New Zealander expects refugees to move to New Zealand and speak ‘our’ language, learn ‘our’ culture, participate in the jobs ‘we’ need, we’re asking them to do the very thing we couldn’t.

When we picture a group of people moving to our country and taking the land, power, resources, language and culture we’ve ‘worked so hard’ to build, we’re looking in a mirror.

I’m picturing my heritage.

I strongly believe that the secrets to unlocking the future are hidden in the past. They are found when we unwind the colonial binds I have subconsciously used to tie up the people who have looked after this land long before I was even thought of. So when we have conversations that conveniently forget our colonial history and discuss ‘solutions’ that continue to ignore the agency of people actually harmed by the problem; we let our whiteness perpetuate more damage.

I have an incredible Māori sister who shares a room with me. She shares laughter, advice, but beyond all she shares the most incredible wisdom. When I look at her I know that her voice needs to be heard. I know that, to hear the words of my sister (and her brothers and sisters around Aotearoa), I need to shut up and listen.

I am neither a migrant or indigenous to the land I stand on, yet my identity is the one I see everywhere around me. My culture has expertly oppressed and consumed all in its path, yet fears the opportunity for another to see light. I descend from a people who have so cleverly built a world where we are not the oppressed - where we have control, safety and the loudest voice. Where we have crafted a consciousness too fearful to acknowledge the voices coming before or after us.

We are running an election tasked with tackling some of biggest issues the world has seen, yet find ourselves unwilling to relinquish control of our own Pākehā-dominated mindsets and worldviews. What if we don't have all the answers?

If we want to address many of the problems faced in the twenty-first century, we need to hand the microphone to tangata whenua.

This election gives me a chance to be radical. It gives me a chance to stop talking about global and local issues in the safety of my academic classroom and instead make a decision that can does to change them. Most importantly for me, this election gives me a chance to be silent.

Because, if we’re serious about change, this election isn’t about the Ardern’s or the Bennett’s. The loud, personal brands that are dictating this election. The policies delivered to me on graphic billboards and contained in inspiring speeches - that promise me, a Pākehā New Zealander, a better life.

This election is about what’s lingering in the silence. The parties, the politicians and the dedicated organisations already quietly fighting for a country that, despite all promises of free healthcare and education in New Zealand, is yet to have one of our core founding documents acknowledged.

It is easy to pick and choose the issues you care about when you’re not the one directly facing the consequences. Easy to be vocal about climate change when you’re not the one sinking underwater. Easy to argue for the economy when you have the education to understand the policy. Easy to debate which party is better for New Zealand when you know you’ll be okay regardless of who gets in.

It’s harder to be silent. To relinquish your voice when it has never been easier to be heard.

This election, I’m voting for the Māori Party. I’m voting so that the underrepresented voices may be made louder.

I can’t decide what is ‘best’ for Aotearoa/New Zealand when my own lack of knowledge, and of Te Reo, means I can’t engage with a large portion of it. I can’t decide which policies matter most when I am failing to personally reconcile with those who are most affected by my own heritage of colonialism.                          

I can’t decide, but I’m giving my vote to those who can and should.

This election, the voice I'm voting for doesn't sound like me

But I'm all the more confident for it