I had a meeting with some students recently and one of them cried. She cried because there was so much she wanted to say about what was happening that she couldn’t say it. Instead of being able to say what she wanted to say she found that tears came instead and she became choked off.
It’s hard to be that way in the world, but it’s to the benefit of the world. It’s a benefit that the systems and institutions don’t like, and reject. They prefer silence or for you to kick back. If you kick back you can be punished. Tears are complicated.
When I started teaching in 2006 I started my own education. Working in Japan from 1998 to 2003 taught me some things about life but I think it mainly opened me up to one big idea, the idea that “normal” is cultural, and shifts and changes across time and place.
My first teaching job was in a decile three school and it was the first time I had ever met people from that socio-economic class. About three years into that process the day-to-day walking alongside them had changed me. Permanently, I think. I came to have some insight into what it was like to be poor and brown in New Zealand and it disturbed me. It was the beginning for me of seeing New Zealand in a whole new way. It was the beginning of my alienation from myself: the typical perspective of my race and gender in the country.
I can’t possibly capture in a paragraph all the things I learned at that time. I learned from the students, and from their parents, and from my fellow teachers. I saw self harm up close, I was sworn at, physically threatened, and swirled into a mass of fighting bodies at lunchtime. I saw my students cry, and hang their heads, and laugh, and take the piss out of me. I shook hands with them, and hid from them. It was too hard, it was the only challenge I wanted. I was, in the end, overmatched.
The students I saw most often were not straightforward. They were articulate, funny and smart, on the whole, and bitter, angry, and afraid too. Most of them couldn’t really read, write or do much maths. Their parents weren’t around. They moved house a lot. Sometimes suddenly. Sometimes to different towns or Australia. There were drugs and alcohol and cigarettes at home. Violence. Gangs. Indifference. All that, mixed in with fierce, desperate, exasperated love. Damaged family looking after damaged kids. Welfare. Odd jobs. Chronic unemployment. A loss of language and culture. For some a real fury at charity, and the voice of the pakeha teacher offering help. Fuck help and fuck you. Pride. That’s what that was. Someone trying to hold on to some dignity in an undignified world.
I’m angry about Metiria. I’m angry at all the white men who lined up to tut tut and wag their fingers whichever card they played: she’s a liar, she’s immoral, she was politically naive. Different notes in the same melody. It’s the song about what is ok and what is not ok. Whatever we like to think of as ok, and normal, is just a construct, remember, and we need to pay attention to who is saying it. Pay attention to the hierarchy of crime that people have to account for when it is matched to their skin colour and genitals.
The questions I have heard about her circumstances and who she was or wasn’t living with seem ridiculous to anyone with any idea about how family structure can work in different cultures, or in impoverished circumstances. Accommodation and living circumstances are far more likely to be fluid. All those questions are based on the premise of middle-class white “normality” and “stability”; things that poor people often don’t have in their lives. Housing changes. Phone numbers change. Sometimes the kids are at an aunts, sometimes a friend, sometimes nana. It’s complicated, right?
It reminded me how elitist our parliament is. How unrepresentative. How alienating and pompous all the ceremony and rigmarole of it appears. How white, male and affluent. Just last week, the indignation that a female PM might go on maternity leave. Are we a representative democracy or not? What that sounded like was a way to keep women under 40 out of the top jobs in parliament. Now we have people sniffing around the benefit history of Metiria and Paula. Women, of course, being the ones who overwhelming claim the DPB and so another way to question women in power. Not to question where all the fathers are, but to question women on their benefit history when raising children by themselves.
If you have find yourself outside the narrative of normal that has been written by white men for centuries, be prepared to be scrutinised and attacked as an outsider. It is normal for a man in a suit to be in parliament. It is normal that his wife is raising the family. It is normal that he was university educated and worked in some kind of acceptable field (without requiring a benefit) until he decided to get into politics. It was a “natural” progression except natural just means: the norms we are conditioned to accept. Like it is normal for the affluent to write off their taxes and contribute nothing to the very society that privileged them. Like it is normal for the privileged class in parliament to be tough on crime which means: tough on poor people, tough on brown people. Like it is normal for the political class to be tough on benefits and tough on ACC and tough on who gets on a waiting list. These colour-blind policies that ignore the reality of race and poverty are exactly how colonisation continues to maintain power for the coloniser in the 21st century.
But all we hear is from the gatekeepers of privilege: on almost every TV channel, every radio station, every internet site – white, male commentators telling us she was either dodgy or naive. The system is preserved, the anomaly is expelled, and I feel the rising urge not to vote at all.