Sarah Florence and Taylor Tutawa share their stories of living as mixed race people in Aotearoa.
Illustration by Kat J. Weiss
Growing up I hated getting tanned. I wore a wetsuit all summer and piled layers of sunblock on top of one another to try to stop myself getting too dark. I sat there jealous of all my friends with their blonde hair and fair skin while I sat there with black hair, the beginnings of a moustache and skin that wouldn’t stop getting darker. Even my cousins - who have the same amount of Indian blood - are much fairer, with hazel eyes and lighter features.
I was crushed by it. I lived in Fiji for two months but felt even more conflicted there than in Auckland, as I was laughed at by relatives because I couldn’t speak Hindi. I never knew where I stood. Every time a survey came round I dreaded the “tick one box” question. Do I tick European? English? Kiwi? Scottish? Pākehā? Indian?
I cringed every time I received the question “Where are you from?”. So often it went along the lines of: “Where are you from?” “Auckland” “No, like where are you FROM?” “I was born in Tauranga” “No, like your parents” “They were both born in Auckland” “What about your Grandparents?” “Three are Scottish/English/Kiwi with blue eyes like my Dad; and one grandparent is full Indian from Fiji. Mum is half Indian so I’m a quarter” It often made me feel like I didn’t belong in the country I was born in or the country my parents and grandparents were born in. When my Dad used to pick me up from school the kids would sometimes wonder who he was, not realising it was my Dad.
It’s hard growing up mixed race in a black and white world. I’ve been called a mongrel by a random lady at a shopping centre and been so insulted by racist comments from people, even friends, who didn’t know my family background.
One night at church I felt sick, so I went out the back for a bit. I sat on a couch in the foyer, directly between the European service in the auditorium and the Indian service in the chapel. As the services started the doors to both rooms were closed. I couldn’t help but laugh about the position I was in. It was a metaphor for my life - the doors to both sides were shut and I sat stuck halfway between the two. Too dark for the Europeans and too light for the Indians. Years ago, I was waiting on MRI results from an injury when everything hit me. The neurosurgeon wrote on his findings “I cannot seem to place Sarah into a box.” That was it. That was the answer. Although he was referring to a completely unrelated topic, it was that one little line that sparked something. I finally realised I would never fit into the box because I wasn’t made for one. I suddenly felt so much freedom. I could spend my time being miserable and feeling left out or I could stop trying to fit in and just live. In the words of a woman who knows this all too well; “so you make a choice: continue living your life feeling muddled in this abyss of self-misunderstanding, or you find your identity independent of it. You push for colour-blind casting, you draw your own box” - Meghan Markle.
We will never fit perfectly into a box, so we need to stop expecting to. The moment I realised this my self-esteem grew like crazy because I stopped comparing myself so intensely to others. I’ve begun living with the confidence that I don’t have to be one or the other. I can now step out every day and draw from both sides of my racial background. Although the pages of my family history are smeared with racism, poisonings, death threats and curses, these have all been rendered powerless by rich blessings, love and grace. We’ve been trying to squash people into boxes for centuries and when we use boxes or labels to judge others, we end up doing the same to ourselves. An unending oppressive spiral, where everybody is left wounded. People end up more deflated and meeker than ever. We were never meant to live suppressed by these boxes. I wonder, if we take the first step and stop labelling ourselves, how much easier it will be to stop labelling others? I encourage you to take the first step and give yourself the grace you deserve, before taking the second and third and demonstrating it to others.
Martin Luther King Jr’s words are echoed once more, “when will the time come when we aren’t known by our race but by our hearts and character?”
I am a white man. I am a brown man. Or am I both? This is a question I have asked myself too many times to count. As a mixed race person of Māori and Pākehā descent in Aotearoa I have the distinct privilege of walking in both worlds. Yet it always felt that my existence was never enough for either side. Never brown enough to be anything but the token white guy to the Island boys back in school, yet apparently too brown to kick it with the white folk (because liking gangsta rap and Dave Chappelle is bad). It can be hard to figure out which culture you belong to when you don’t identify with one over the other and this applies to all mixed race people no matter what your ethnicity is. Growing up in the cultural melting pot that is Auckland, I was continuously exposed to a plethora of cultures through the people I met, the friends I made, the events I attended and most importantly all the amazing cultural food I would eat. It was easy for me to get washed away in it all and just as easy for me to neglect my own culture for the sake of another. Being a mixed race kid raised by a single brown woman was a unique experience for me. Lacking a male role model, my mother took on both roles and showed me te kaupapa o Te Ao Māori (The principles of being Māori). I learnt to speak Te Reo Māori, and also the customs and traditions that came with the culture. But after years of not practising Te Reo, I lost most of my understanding of it and I’m only recently starting to regain everything. For the longest time I was like a blank canvas, trying to colour myself appropriately. I idolised the African American culture with their larger than life celebrities and take-no-shit attitude. I obsessively studied Japanese culture and had a whole crew of Asian bros to hang out with. All the while I was imitating other cultures in an attempt to grasp my own.
Mixed raced people have the unique experience of being part of multiple cultures but the flip side of this is the difficulty in trying to find your place within these varying cultures. Other mixed race people I’ve met have had similar struggles with finding their identities. The worst story I’ve heard was of an individual who was rejected by their family because they weren’t a ‘full blooded’ member of their specific ethnicity. Some people see their mixed background as a burden but speaking from personal experience I can tell you that it is a wonderful gift which should be used to your advantage. I am privileged with my mixed blood to be welcomed onto a marae and be able to bust out my Reo, while also being able to walk the world as a light skinned man and not experience the BS that other minorities can face. As mixed race people, we get to see the world from a different perspective and our very existence is a special thing that should not be taken lightly. I finally understand that I can only be myself and I must maintain who I am regardless of anything else. I’m proud to be a mixed race person of Māori and Pākehā descent. I’m proud that I have a love and passion for other cultures while still being true to my own. But most of all, I’m proud that I no longer struggle with my identity and can firmly say that I live with pride. And hopefully so can you.