Leigh-Marama McLachlan: What Rawiri Waititi’s defiance over tie symbolises


When my partner Joshua recently exhibited his final installation in Auckland for his master’s degree, he chose to wear his treasured pounamu up high around his neck in lieu of a tie. Such was the occasion, that a tie simply did not feel right for us.

His taonga was a gift from his father for graduating university. His Dad had it carved in the mirror image of his own bone taonga he wears every day. A special connection between father and son.

At the gallery that evening, Joshua looked like a gentleman. People stopped to tell him so. In my eyes, the mana of his taonga elevated his level of professionalism and formality.

So, seeing Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi being booted out of Parliament this week for wearing his taonga instead of a necktie felt like a bit of a slap in the face for us.

While it may seem like a non-issue to some, and a mere publicity stunt to others, Waititi’s defiance is an important and timely stand to make and is hugely symbolic.

If you really think about it, ties are a symbol of colonial power. They represent powerful white men, which makes sense because they are the ones who initially set out the dress code in Parliament to suit them.

Dress codes are racist because they have been used to shut out or dismiss people who look different. They tell us that people who dress in a particular way (for example like white men) are essentially more worthy of respect than others.

Yes, Parliament is a special place with rules and protocols that should be followed, but not blindly.

Just because rules exist, it does not mean that they are fair or right. Parliament’s colonial dress code is outdated and does not reflect the more diverse House of Representatives we have today.

But Waititi’s stance also speaks to an even bigger problem in Aotearoa.

Pākehā culture has designed the status quo for almost everything. As tangata whenua, Māori are constantly having to twist and morph ourselves to be like Pākehā if we want to get so much as a shoe in the door.

I know this well from experience. I started Whanganui High School as a fluent Māori speaker having had a dynamic and fruitful education at Te Kura o Kokohuia beforehand.

I was the only person from my class to go to that high school and the pressure to fit in was huge.

There was no one speaking Māori around the school. No cultural elements visible to me at all. No championing of my world view. Mainstream means Pākehā.

I learned very quickly that my culture was not valued. Soon, the tie around my neck replaced my pounamu, and I dropped the “Marama” from my name and went by Leigh alone.

I learned to be just like my Pākehā friends and family members and was a high achiever, even becoming head girl.

People there used to call me a Kinder Surprise, like the chocolate, because I was apparently “brown on the outside and white on the inside”. What does that tell you?

Within five years, I lost most of my fluency in te reo Māori. I was conditioned to believe that success looked like being Pākehā, and without realising, tragically, I grew a deep resentment for my culture and buried my Māoritanga away.

It took me several years before I realised how I had been influenced by our education system and society, and even longer to overcome the internalised racism it had instilled in me.

But that’s nothing on what some others have gone through too. Mine is just one of so many examples of colonial pressures that Māori have had to put up with for far too long. We must not continue to force people to hide their cultural identity and to look and sound white to be accepted.

It was a small victory later this week when the Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard scrapped neckties in their dress code. Despite how people think Waititi went about it, sometimes as Māori, you have to shake the tree.

This was never just about a tie. This is about understanding and dismantling colonial power systems that have traditionally been used to oppress us.

As Māori, we should be able to express ourselves authentically and still be afforded respect and mana.

Small gains like being able to wear a taonga alone, without a tie, supports us to see our true selves in prominent places like Parliament. To believe that we have a place there too.

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