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  • Dani Maylam

Plastic Fantastic: Navigating Māori Identity in a Synthetic Society 

Dani Maylam, (She/Her) | Ngāti Porou 


Whakataukī: 

“Nāku te rourou, nāu te rourou, ka ora ai te iwi.”

With your basket and my basket, the people will thrive. 



We’re all aware of the phrase, ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. How about 'don't get duped by plastic's façade; the real party is happening on the inside!’. Doesn’t seem to have the same ring to it, unfortunately. 


Words often conjure different meanings across time, for better and for worse. There has been a new connotative meaning behind the word ‘plastic’ floating around in recent years—the term is sometimes used in reference to someone who is seen as not authentically themselves, due to their appearance and mannerisms. The term ‘Plastic Māori’ has unfortunately latched itself onto Aotearoa’s conversational dictionary, a way to determine who can be Māori through appearance and personality. Clearly the best way to assign culture. 


Growing up, in the whitest possible suburb of Tāmaki-makau-rau, I fit right into the cookie-cutter model of a ‘white girl’. My pale complexion, combined with the yo-yo-ing phases of brunette to blonde hair (even accidentally ginger at one point), really sold the part I felt I had to perform. Yet I always felt a need to somewhat reconcile with this hidden element of my heritage, despite not knowing what that looked or felt like. I took Te Reo Māori throughout high school, as well as joining Kapa Haka and attending many Māori student hui, which opened my eyes to a side of myself that felt unconfident, yet increasingly empowered. It was at one of these inter-school hui that I was first exposed to someone using the word ‘plastic’ in the way we’ve discussed. I remember it clearly, sitting at a small lunch table, awkwardly trying to make conversations with other school groups; three people across from me pointed out that I appeared to be “pretty plastic, aye?”, followed by a group laugh. Instinctively, I joined in, agreeing that I was the perfectly plastic person in this particular scenario, the literal embodiment of plastic. This interaction completely confirmed how I had felt entering these spaces, and the word plastic became ingrained in my perception of both myself and my culture. 


Indigenous studies lecturer Dr Rawiri Taonui defines a ‘Plastic Māori’ as a term “used by more culturally nationalistic Māori to refer to Māori who did not know te reo, tikanga or their whakapapa”. The concept of being 'plastic' originates from a rivalry over ancestral knowledge among Māori, which is undeniably the most disheartening aspect of this discourse. It’s giving, “You can’t sit with us!”. Exact, Mean-Girl Plastic behaviour, for real. 


This response, of hostility towards a lack of knowledge, is paradoxical—given the enduring impact of institutionalised racism and colonial structures on modern society. We do not need to look too deeply at history to find illustrations of these structures. In 1867 the New Zealand Government passed the Native Schools Act, under which Māori were compelled to surrender land for school construction, bear financial burdens for infrastructure and educators, and adapt to an English-centric educational system. Repercussions of this single Act alone persist to the present.


I’ve heard stories from my tūpuna about being abused for speaking Te Reo Māori, their cultural existence in schools forbidden. These histories have severely impacted and aided the loss of Māoritanga. Even now, the gap of knowledge is still prominent, and our attention shouldn’t be on who is ‘the most Māori’, but rather on how we can tautoko each other, and reclaim what has been stolen through colonial crimes and erasure. 


Conversely, it is important to note the privilege I do have as a pākeha wahine. I truly will not face the level of discrimination that many Māori face in Aotearoa, nor any person of colour. I am well aware that many see the idea of being plastic as being white-washed, as people only using their culture as a means; I know too that these views do not go away overnight. I have often struggled with the fact that I did not grow up around my iwi, nor my marae or hapū, and the estrangement has aided the alienation I feel from being Māori. If anything, it was my whanau that kept me aware of my whakapapa, particularly my nana, who herself doesn’t reside by our iwi or hapū. If anything, she has shown me that being Māori transcends mere geography; it's about embracing one's identity wherever you may be, and taking pride in it, along with cherishing connections with whanau through kōrero. Te Reo Māori is the most beautiful language, is a ‘taonga tuku iho’, and is not something seen—much alike to being Māori for someone of my appearance. I prefer the term that Dr Taonui uses: “kōtuku mā’ (white herons)," used to “describe Māori with non-traditional colouring such as fair skin, blonde hair and blue eyes.” This term, while it does highlight the differences in physical appearance, forms a sense of mana and reclaims this feeling of otherness and illegitimacy that being ‘plastic’ creates. 


I believe a lot of the issues at hand are due to hesitation.


Terms like plastic can form an apprehension in embracing and learning tikanga Māori, which is a big issue in younger generations. From stories I have heard, some tamariki aren’t connecting with Māoritanga because they fear being ostracised by their peers, or because it’s deemed ‘not cool’.


Personally, I have internally battled with this notion—various friend groups and comments question why ‘I would bother’ impacted me more than I’d like to admit. When something isn’t seen as cool or necessary, or is seen as different from the god-awful Euro-centric schooling system, people like to jump the gun and reject it. Maybe it is a result of unconscious racism, but attitudes such as these are detrimental to how future generations will view Māoritanga, and risk continuing the cycle of oppression, no matter at what scale. Terms and societal views such as ‘plastic’ have created a deterrence from learning about our Māori whakapapa and we need to protect both our tamariki and end the colonial cycle. 


From my experience, I think the best possible outcome is to continue to be open to what culture can teach us, irregardless if we are biologically connected or not. My beautiful kaiako in college (shoutout to Whaea Sarah! <3)  once told me that blood quantums have historically been used in Aotearoa to negate our connections to whakapapa and our tūpuna. Being considered ½ or ¾ or whatever of a race is a colonial view that continues to perpetuate the idea that Māori are ‘dying out’ and are less important than other counterparts, or blood amounts. Dividing blood particles in our bodies does not make you more or less a part of a culture. If you are Māori, you are Māori. Plain and simple. Biology isn’t culture, and culture isn’t quantified. 

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