By Hayley Patrick
We as a nation are very different when it comes to race relations and in most ways contrast what African Americans or Australian Aborigines have experienced in their histories. This is primarily due to the way that these societies were socially constructed and have experienced cultural exclusion and social integration. Compared to a lot of other nations in the world, New Zealand has recognised the importance of accommodating different cultures in most sports which has been represented in our history. However, can it be suggested that Maori men in particular have dominated and been over-represented in most sports such as Rugby Union and Rugby League? Sociologists call this, racial stacking, whereby a certain racial group will be over-represented in team sports and at certain positions. This leaves some people, like me, asking questions about whether these pathways into rugby have played a part in contributing to racial stereotypes around ‘big tough’ Maori men being good at these sports.
Questions are raised about what our youth are learning in schools and at home and the value that it is bringing to their development. A Maori academic by the name of Hokowhitu discovered that assumptions made by the world at large around Maori potential were limited and he realised this at secondary school when he was told that he would never amount to anything that does not involve running around or jumping. Therefore does this mean that people are assumed ‘dumb’ if they are athletic and of Maori or indigenous cultures? The majority would say that it is the educational system reinforcing the notions of Maori being masculine and physical therefore these assumptions are made by society regarding Maori potential being limited to sport. Hokowhitu encountered a major breakdown in the system of the school he was teaching at in that “an environment had been facilitated around Maori students abandoning any academic pursuits and teachers were forcing their attention on physical education classes, netball or rugby practice”.
In comparison to Pakeha (white) men who are very much valued in society, are more likely have more opportunities open to them because they have not been limited by people in society therefore there are few barriers in the system to deter them away from any ambitions that they might have. Management and coaching of rugby union and rugby league is still very much dominated by Pakehas. However, topics within the New Zealand Herald have stated that “because a lot of Maori and Pacific Islanders possess fast-twitch muscle fibres this makes them genetically predisposed towards building a large mass around critical joints (meaning they can take hard hits) and being quick over short distances”. So is this supposed to make society focus in on how it is a process of white people rearing black athletes into their sports or how Maori are forced into the sport because of how they are genetically built? The stereotypes of Maori being savage like, aggressive, violent, reliant on physicality, emotionally immature, lazy, unintelligent, inarticulate in voice and wanting in communication skills are constructed because it reflects how Pakeha men have maintained power because these stereotypes inherently define Pakeha as civilised. I believe that many years ago when Pakeha realised how they could benefit financially from recruiting minority players, such as Maori, without giving up power and control they began to do so. Jay Coakley calls this “a built-in incentive for eliminating racial segregation” with the incentive being minority competitors signing contracts under the authority of Pakeha.
The modern notion of masculinity could also position Maori sportsmen as a huge spectacle because it has been a site for traditional Maori masculinity and commercial use of their culture, such as the haka. This warrior symbol is present at every rugby union and rugby league game as a way of laying down the challenge to the opposition. However this symbol has been commercialised with brands such as Adidas basing their brand around the All Blacks and the haka as a means to promote products around the world. According to researcher Hokowhitu, brands like Adidas formed an identity around the haka because it derived meaning from New Zealand Maori history that they felt fitted well with their brand such as Tane (man) as unenlightened, Tane as practically minded and physical, Tane as natural sportsmen, Tane sporting success as a matter of evolution and genetics and the channelling of Maori boys into sport. This is an example of how Pakeha have used Maori masculinity and culture as a means to promote their brand and sport around the world and how they view Maori men.
It could also be argued that although the mainstream interpretations of Maori can be viewed as great attributes, many are then forced to live out these expectations because people begin to think no more is capable of Maori. Therefore are Maori ever given the opportunity to live beyond the somewhat barriers of Maori masculinity. If society wants to deny Maori the same opportunities as non-Maori because people choose to be stereotypically racist then not only are Maori bound to look for success through a sport avenue but they also become the subjects of limited opportunities in the education system and therefore the work force. You could go even further to say that Maori men are probably expected to do hard physical labour if they do not choose sport as a career path because according to some, there is no way that they could sustain or even attain a job that involves using their brain. Jay Coakley suggests that many professional athletes have short sport careers or play at levels in which they do not make a lot of money therefore they must deal with the challenge of finding another career path in order to make a living. There is nothing wrong with this for a lot of athletes; however what would happen to Maori athletes in this situation compared to ones that are of non-Maori decent? Would the same opportunities arise for either cultures or more specifically who would take those opportunities based on the way society is constructed? According to Hokowhitu, Maori men have often been faced with a double edged sword in the sense that they have had to struggle with a lot of limiting discourses based on race and working class constructions.
These racial dilemmas that Maori face mean that they do not have a voice in a society that is based on the white man’s class system. As a result of this silencing, Maori men are often looked at as being staunch but some may also express signs of humility because of this. This has become evident to me throughout my schooling years whereby many of the Maori students in my class did not want to look smart by putting their hands up to answer questions nor did they want to look dumb so most, if not all chose not to put their hands up to ask questions. Pakeha and some Maori females did most of the question asking and answering. This, in my opinion, has led many to construct these stereotypes about Maori in that they are not intelligent and the staunchness that they may portray makes them seem aggressive and physical.
I do not believe the stereotypes of Maori are something that Maori are just born with. Maori often develop these characteristics because society thinks little is to become of them and their culture. Pakeha have been brought into a world that is very much dominated by their cultures therefore everyone else is trying to find their way in society.
Because of this Pakeha often lead the way for many other cultures by opening up avenues that they see best fit, such as Maori being forced away from academic pursuits to pursue careers in sports. Just like any other culture, you have those who choose to be free minded and want to move beyond stereotypes but for some those stereotypes are reinforced on a daily basis, mirroring what happened with Hokowhitu when he attended school. Although we are more accommodating of different cultures in New Zealand sport one wonders if this is only because Pakeha see Maori as a financial asset because of how they are genetically built. But, are there other ways that Maori are valued in sport and society? Some would argue that Maori representation in New Zealand is largely based around a physical domain because they are often forced into labour-intensive work because they have been the subject of limited opportunities in the education system. In that respect, Maori are not offered the same opportunities as Pakeha to make a substantial living. Many Pakeha would argue that everyone has a choice to make their own futures but are the futures of Maori pre-determined for them when society places a huge emphasis on Maori being simple minded? I feel that the limitations of opportunities for Maori is why we see sports like Rugby Union and Rugby League so heavily dominated by Maori men, to some it is their only way of feeling worthy and successful in society.