Image: Māori carvings at Waitangi / Wikimedia Commons
First published on Saturday the 24th of July, 2017, this piece comes in at number 13 in the top 30 most read Villainesse stories of 2017.
On Thursday morning, a Pākehā right-wing blogger said that foreign students that had been accommodated at a marae were staying in “slum accommodation”. Throughout that same day, the mainly US students who had applied to take part in an internship programme run by people associated with the Labour Party were described on social media as “slaves”.
Slaves. Living in slums.
When I read such characterisations, my eyebrows rose so high on my forehead that I was concerned they were about to revolt, liberate themselves, and disappear into my hair.
How US college students voluntarily choosing to travel across the world to take part in an unpaid internship scheme associated with a political party can be somehow be connected to the vile and devastating practice of slavery, I’ll never know.
Of course, a little thing like centuries of horrific injustice wasn’t going to get in the way of a bit of political point-scoring. Oh no. Not in an election year. Common sense promptly shat the bed when this story broke and all bets were off the table.
The “slum” the students were supposedly accommodated in was Auckland’s Awataha Marae. Photos emerged, not of a group of mattresses set up “marae styles” (nestled cosily next to each other in the same room - the whare moe) but of a group of small, detached individual sleeping quarters and dormitories separated by partitions. Not exactly the standard of a 5-star hotel, but decidedly not a slum. It was later reported by Radio New Zealand that the interns were staying at the marae for free. I do have to wonder exactly what kind of accommodation they expected.
Another photo showed one out-of-order shower cubicle, while articles spoke of construction materials being present near sleeping areas and some broken bathroom cupboards. One of the students told the media that some of her fellow interns had been tasked with cooking, likely unaware that it is customary and entirely normal for people staying on a marae to be asked to help in the kitchen.
The problems with this story are numerous. The Labour Party became implicated in a scheme involving unpaid foreign interns when it has spoken out against the exploitation of immigrant students and workers. Concerns have been raised about the legality of such a scheme under both immigration and employment law. The students involved received an experience that was very different to what they expected. The list goes on. But the thinly-veiled glee behind the descriptions of slaves and slums betrays an ugly underbelly of New Zealand politics that slithers out from under a slimy rock everything three years. Come election time, there are people who will stop at nothing to land a blow on the party they most hate.
And somehow, inevitably, someone will aim a kick at Māori.
Insinuating that the conditions at a marae are “slum-like” is both deeply offensive and staggeringly privileged. It is galling to hear Awataha Marae characterised as such when the harsh reality is that historically many marae over the years fell into disrepair as Māori communities became more impoverished. Any “slum-like” conditions at marae (of which there was little substantial evidence at Awataha) were likely due to the harsh effects of colonisation and the many decades of oppressive Government policy that followed.
How’s that for a scandal?
That marae have survived at all is a testament to the tenacity of the Māori people. For Māori, marae are taonga at the very heart of the community. Yet, for some Pākehā commentators, it seems that marae are just collateral damage in their quest to fling mud at their opponents. Māori deserve better than to be caught up in the middle of a political scandal they have very little to do with.
The people who are so quick to use words like “slaves” to score political points and create clickbait should stop to think about exactly whose history (and, sadly, in some regions of the world, present) they are appropriating. Meanwhile, those who seek to cast marae as slums for their own political ends should a) visit a marae and b) pick up a book on New Zealand history.Support Villainesse