Paula Tesoriero: Pacific culture is New Zealand’s culture, so let’s treat it that way

Paula Tesoriero: Pacific culture is New Zealand’s culture, so let’s treat it that way

October 2, 2018

New Zealand is an island in the Pacific, shaped and defined not only by its geographic location, but the people and cultures of the Pacific.

To say that the Pacific Islands do not matter is to undermine the basic human right of Pasifika people to be free from discrimination and to overlook the contributions of an entire region. We would not be the country that we are without the contribution of Pasifika people both at home and internationally. 

When we use dehumanising language to describe our Pacific communities we perpetuate racist attitudes and harmful stereotypes that have real world consequences. We don’t need to look far back to see the result of the overt racism perpetuated in the media in the 1970s that led to the dawn raids.

One would hope that we’ve moved past this hurtful language to describe our Pacific communities as our shared history and experiences have become more widely understood. Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go. As Toeolesulusulu Associate Professor Damon Salesa said in his book, Island Time: New Zealand’s Pacific Futures, the Pacific is New Zealand’s gateway to the world. He says that New Zealand matters in a way a small country of its size typically does not. 

The New Zealand economy has benefitted from the hard work of Pacific migrants who came here. It drew many Pacific young people and their families away from their homes to service New Zealand’s booming economy during the 1950s, 1960s and part of the 1970s when the country needed a mostly low-skilled labour force. New Zealand is still drawing young Pasifika people away from their homes and families to work here via New Zealand Immigration’s Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme for limited seasonal crops work contracts. 

The vibrancy of Pasifika people, their languages and cultures make a tremendous contribution to Aotearoa New Zealand being an inclusive and super-diverse place. Pasifika people have forged ahead in this country with very high profiles shining the spotlight on New Zealand in sports, film and television, the creative arts, politics, and in community and volunteer services. 

Service to family and others is crucial to the Pacific way of life. Pacific cultures thrive on respect and shared traditional values that represent the strong bonds of family and community. Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban, New Zealand’s first Pasifika woman MP and Cabinet Minister stated that for Pasifika people “a slight on one is a slight on all” because they are connected through bonds of ancestry, history and herstory across the Pacific Ocean.

Over the past couple of weeks there have been reflections on the value that the Pacific countries bring to New Zealand. We need to remember the power of diversity and that together we are stronger.

Pasifika people are an integral part of New Zealand’s society and have contributed to all facets that make up Aotearoa New Zealand today.

It’s time we acknowledged our shared history and experience by throwing away the racist stereotypes and dehumanising language that have characterised times of hurt for our Pacific communities by reminding each other of our basic human right to be free from discrimination.

Ma le fa’aaloalo lava – with the deepest respect (Samoan)

Faka’apa’apa atu – with the deepest respect (Tongan)

Fakalilifu atu – with the deepest respect (Niuean)