gender equality in France; the flag; cultural diversity in France; being a waka-blonde in France; western superiority + decolonisation

I’ve been meaning to write about a whole range of things recently but I never seem to find myself with the time to just sit down and go for it.  So as I sit down to write this, I’m not even quite sure what I’m going to write about yet.

The main issues I’ve been pondering about lately are:

Gender equality in France.

My husband’s two year contract came to an end mid-March, so he’s currently on the job hunt. The situation is complex and there are lots of things to consider in making any decision right now.  To further complicate things the French feel its their right to give you their opinion on your life (and when they dont have all the facts, it is hella frustrating to deal with).  So anyway, it feels like everyone is rooting for the hubby to find a fulfilling job, without the least amount of concern for my potential – in terms of earning capacity or career progression. When I challenge people by suggesting that I could have a fulfilling job too, or that we could have an earning capacity that rivals France hands down (albeit, in NZ), its like they think I’m crazy.  Why? Because people still think men should be the primary bread winner and that women should just follow, no questions asked.  Someone even used this analogy on me, ‘imagine if you had a capacity or skills which would allow you to have a fulfilling job, but you’re stuck doing a job just to pay the bills’. Ummmmm I don’t have to imagine because that is exactly what I’m doing by teaching english in France.  But thats ok.  You see it’s fine for a woman to have a job that isn’t fulfilling in order to pull in the money. But a man, well thats a different story. Men deserve to have jobs they find satisfying.

It seems that this is a closed issue. And it annoys the hell out of me.  It’s so backward.  And barely anyone seems to appreciate my perspective.  I’m not saying that I want to go out and be the bread winner, not at all. But I am saying that if that is what we choose to do, it is possible.  But no-one seems to agree. More specifically because the hubby holds a fancy title ending with ‘phd’ which apparently trumps my degree in social sciences and my various (and gratifying) work experiences.  Case closed apparently.  But is it really that cut and dry? I dunno……. I hope not.  It raises some existential questions about what it is to be a woman in this day and age, at least in France anyway.

The NZ flag debate
The flag.  You know what, if I’m to be completely honest, it’s a piece of material that waves in the wind.  While NZ is my home, and I am quite possibly one of the staunchest and proudest Kiwi’s there is, I am by no means patriotic.   At the end of the day, if the country really wants to change it, then I suppose I have to accept it.

But I do have a couple of issues with the whole idea.

Firstly, shouldn’t we become a republic before we change the flag?  Oh…. but the logistics, the politics, the mess, nah. She’ll be right.  Let’s just change the flag aye?

Personally I wouldn’t mind New Zealand being a republic some day.  I wouldn’t mind seeing it in my lifetime.  But, and this is a massive BUT, I honestly don’t think we’re ready for that move just yet.  We can’t even talk maturely about the New Zealand land wars.  How the hell do we think we can move forward, write our own consitution, which will have to recognise the place of Maori as tangata whenua, when people can’t get beyond this ‘we are all one’ business? We can’t. But I do think we are ready to start having conversations about our history and about our national identity. I think we are ready to prep the ground, and i think its rather exciting.  But I honestly don’t think that we are ready to cut out teeth just yet. Coz seriously, if we can’t even talk about our past with any sense of integrity, how can we set out a consitution, a guide for our future?

Secondly, the referendum is set to cost about $25 million dollars.  Wouldn’t that be better spent elsewhere? Like alleviating poverty?  Or i dunno, making civic education or Treaty education compulsory.

France STILL doesn’t get the whole cultural diversity thing
I attended one of the monthly sessions for the Cafe Citoyen association I’m part of.  At some stage, someone was trying to make the point that we’re all human and we all have the same needs.  But what he actually said was that he’d been to Africa (coz it’s a country you know?!), and the only difference between ‘them’ was that one lot were browner than another.  While I might appreciate the overall point he was trying to make, that we are all human… it was just so Euro-bloody-centric and ignorant… god I’m getting sick of this. It’s really tiresome.  So I felt angry enough to suggest that yes, we are all human and that we ultimately have the same needs, but that we can’t trivialise our differences because those differences shape the very way that we meet those needs.  As an example, I explained the differences between Maori and Australian Aboriginals, and how the relationships that each respective group has with the power structures today is partly a result of cultural differences.

Afterwards, a couple of people said that I should try to find work as a cultural mediator of some sort.  I said that this is exactly what I’d like to do, but that I believe the only place I could do this with any sense of integrity is NZ.  What they said specifically, was that I could help migrants integrate better in France.  And while they were well meaning, I couldn’t help but feel so patronised.  These people know me, so they understand very well that I identify as Pakeha/Maori, which ticks the ‘ethnic’ or ‘exotic’ box.  To them, this means that I am qualified to mediate other migrant experiences in France, particularly as people often consider my integration story as realtively successful.  But through their innocence, they’ve overlooked a whole raft of issues.

A) It doesn’t matter how I identify myself in France, first and foremost, I am white.  And whether you want to accept this or not, this makes life a hell of a lot easier for any migrant.  I look like any other French person.  This means that I get a free pass where other ethnic minorities don’t. This makes a MASSIVE difference to my integration and that of someone from North Africa or the Middle East.

B) I come from the Commonwealth, which essentially means that – to the average French person – I am English.  Even if it is not how I see myself, this is how they make sense of me.  So I am English.  And while the French/English might have their rivalries, in the scheme of world affairs and on the superiority-complex measure, the English aren’t far off from the French.

C) I grew up in the urbanised, western world.  So life in France really isn’t too different from life back home.  There isn’t the same level of culture shock that exists for other migrants.  Furthermore, I’ve had a western education and while I come from a low-socio economic community, it’s nothing comared to the poverty that other migrants have faced in their lifetime.  I also come from one of the most peaceful and least corrupt countries in the world, and our administration is one of the most efficient (way, way better than France). I understand how to deal with the administration and how to navigate the system.  All of this makes a difference to my integration in France.

D) Perhaps the biggest difference of all is that I chose to come here, and I want to learn as much about the language and culture as I can, for the sake of my husband, his family and any family we might have.  This was a choice.  It wasn’t forced on me by outside forces; I didn’t flee from a corrupt government; i didn’t flee from war; i’m not an economic refugee.
To put it simply, even though I am a migrant, I hold a very privileged position compared to many migrants who have very little, or no choice at all. For many migrants it is often about survival. Add the fact that I can read (only 3% of the world are literate), the fact that I’ve grown up with so many different cultures and that I like learning languages, and it all means that i’m just one big weird anomaly.  I adapt well, I’m curious about my adopted home and I enjoy the challenge of integration.  I’m the model migrant in the eyes of many Francais de souche. I’m the perfect person to ‘help’ migrants integrate more sucessfully, right?

Ah, not quite.

While my Maori values play a huge part in who I am and how I see myself in the world, I also recognise my objective reality as compared to others.  And I am in no position to be a voice for others, least of all help them to ‘integrate’ according to French values.  Of course I am hugely curious to know about other migrant experiences, and i would be happy to mediate on their behalf, but any request to do that must come from those people themselves. For the moment, I’ve barely engaged with migrants beyond the West, nor with ‘les gens defavorisees’ (disaffected communities). While I might assume what their experiences in France have been like, I don’t actually have any idea about the reality.  And I am sure that in those communities, there are people with strong voices who are more than capable of being a mouthpiece for their people.

But this is what the French don’t get. They are always delighted to tell others how they can improve things.  They’re sticky beak know it alls!  A perfect example of this was a couple of nights ago.  The hubby and I were interviewed for a short documentary about culturally diverse communities and how we can live together peacefully.  Afterward I got talking to a Syrian guy of Kurdish descent.  I was really interested to hear his opinion on how the region might find solutions to the current conflict, but every time he tried to tell me his perspective, this lovely, albeit frustratingly French know-it-all kept giving us her opinion. She kept cutting him off…. god it was pissing me off, especially as she readily admitted she didn’t know the half of it!  I really wanted to tell her to shut up!!! He is from Syria, he knows better than anyone else in the room whats going on and what the solutions might be. I wanted to hear his perspective of his homeland. Not a French persons ill-informed opinion.

But this is France, and that is the perfect example of a French person.

Oh and my last point on this issue is that I’m not as interested in being a voice for migrants, as I am interested in challenging the French to consider their behaviour when it comes to the successful integration of migrants. That is where I think the real problem lies.  Not in the migrants and their efforts at integration, but rather with the French and their expectations of migrants to abandon their culture, their values, and their norms on arriving onto French soil. And while I whole heartedly respect republican values – what’s not to love about the principles of liberty, egalite and fraternite?  The problem with the French is that they cannot conceive of dual identities.  And this is not an over-statement.  This is the concrete reality of life in France.  You are either French, or you are not.  You either accept the republican values, or you don’t.  And this is the root of the problem, because unfortunately for the French, we migrants can’t and won’t abandon our roots to allay their fears.  Sorry guys. You need to learn to accept us as we are and make room for our dual identities.  Which brings me to my next point…..

Being a waka-blonde in France
In NZ being a waka blonde, aka a fair skinned Maori, was never an issue for most people.  Yes there’ve been some people (ALWAYS and exclusively non-Maori and mostly during my time as a Treaty educator) who wanted me to explain my heritage, or who wondered how I lived with a dual identity. But for 99.95% of people that I’ve come across in life, it’s never been an issue. Therefore it’s never, ever been an issue for me. I even enjoyed how every now and then a perceptive Maori would ask out of nowhere if I was Maori or where I was from.  This even included Dr. Makere Mutu who, while in the midst of giving me a tongue lashing in the Treaty exhibition, turned to ask ‘he maori koe?’, which eased the tension.  As far as most Maori are concerned it’s a given, no questions asked…. well, except of course the oglibatory ‘where you from’, ‘who’s your whanau’ etc etc.

In France it’s a whole other story and I’m getting sick of it.  My Maoritanga plays a huge part in who I am as an individual. Yes I am Pakeha, and obviously I don’t need to state that since it is bleedingly obvious. The fact I’m from NZ – a commonwealth country that was colonised by the English, the fact I have green eyes, fair skin and blonde hair should give a pretty good indication of my NZ European heritage. But being Maori isn’t obvious, so I will often make a point of explaining that I’m also Maori (i’m learning to decide who I tell/don’t tell).  I tell people because, as i stated earlier, people often put me in the ‘english’ box.  And it irritates me.  Often when people find out i’m from NZ, they’ll tell me about a trip to England, or how much they’ve always liked English culture or blahblahblah.  If i’m lucky they’ll tell me about a distant relative in Australia.  And if I’m really lucky, then someone will say they love the All Blacks and especially the haka (those are my favourite people).

A further point is that I really enjoy having conversations with people, but it can be difficult to have a good, meaningful conversation when someone can’t quite place you nor understand your world view.  Like i said, talking to me about English culture and how awesome London is, well it isn’t really going to grab my attention.  So if I explain where I come from and that I’m Maori, it makes conversation more relevant and interesting for all parties involved (not all the time, but sometimes).

The problem is that, as I’ve mentioned above, France doesn’t recognise ethnicity as an important part of one’s identity, nor do they understand dual identities, multiculturalism and so on and so forth. In France you are French.  Your ethnicity doesn’t matter and people can be offended if you ask for their origins – which is quite right given their French heritage might go back for hundreds of years, but also wrong when you consider that their heritage might be very rich and quite different to the mainland French culture.  Needless to say that people are challenged when I make the point of saying I’m Maori.  To them, I am from New Zealand and as far as they’re concerned, that is all they need in order to make sense of me as an individual.  Stating my ethnicity challenges their world view in so many ways, especially when I don’t sport tatoos, didn’t greet them with a haka nor wear a grass skirt.  Because of this I’m often asked to defend my statement, ‘Why do you ‘say’ you’re Maori’, they ask. They find it difficult to accept that it’s not simply something i ‘say’, but that it’s what I ‘am’.

Its getting tiring having to qualify being Maori (as a waka-blonde; I’m sure that a more melanin-blessed Maori wouldn’t have the same issue?!).  It’s hard to explain. I honestly don’t mind explaining when people show that they’re genuinly curious to know about me and my culture.  But more often than not, they feel the need for an explanation because I don’t meet their expectations.  They look skeptical, as if I’m trying to pull the wool over their eyes with such wild statements. This is what I mind. Having to justify myself to them.  Thankfully I’ve come to realise that I don’t actually owe explanations to anyone in this world, not about my whakapapa anyway. I know who I am, so do my people, and those are the most important things. But it is difficult because the French demand an explanation or rationale for everything and anything under the sun. So this is what I’m finding difficult trying to answer without feeling like i have to justify myself in the face of their skepticism. Honestly, it would be a hell of a lot easier if they just accepted how I identify myself and instead of asking me to justify why i ‘say’ I’m Maori, I wish they would ask me questions about the culture, values and traditions themselves. I would love if people were more interested in the culture itself.  But they’re more interested in me proving my whakapapa. Which is ashame, because I have a wealth of knowledge to share about my culture and i love talking about it.

How someone identifies themselves is one of the most important things in this world, and the French have a hard time with that concept. They like to put labels on everything. Which brings me to my last point: self determination.

The mess in the middle east and elsewhere + colonisation
I’m getting sick of the arrogance and superiority of the western world.  They don’t seem to recognise that people – anybody for that matter – are more than capable of identifying their own issues, they will undoubtedly have their own, well formed and interesting opinions on things and they may propose their own solutions. Problems might not be sorted out in the way that the West prefers, but who died and made the West king of the world?

Europeans still think that their way of seeing and managing the world is the most valid/legitimate. But I truly believe that we need to trust that, if given half a chance, that people can find genuine and long last solutions according to their values and needs.  The problems arise when the West intervenes and tries to implement solutions that aren’t in accordance with the affected parties.  The Islamic State is a perfect example of the consequence of this arrogance.

I also think we need to be fair about accepting the West’s role in creating so much of the problems that exist today.  For some reason everyone wants to have discussions about all the woes in the world without actually acknowledging the massive elephant in the room:  That until 60 odd years ago, and even more recently for other countires, the whole world was colonised by Europeans.  Since decolonisation there has been a lot of mess and turmoil, but shit, if you ask me, that is only natural and was always bound to happen after hundreds of years of colonisation.  These countries are trying to find their feet with the West constantly meddling, what with their puppet regimes and the raping of land for resources and so on and so forth.

So honestly, I’m truly very curious to engage with more authentic material from affected peoples. Of course I’d prefer to talk with people, but thats a bit difficult since I can’t really rock on up to someone and be all like ‘hey tell me about your culture’.  Like i said, in France asking about someone’s origins is a big no no, especially when you’re a white girl :-p  So as a start, I’ve bought a book, ‘thoughts and politics in the arab world’.  It  might not be much but I need to school myself and gotta start somewhere.  I am sure that there are thinkers, wise men and women who know better than the West how to solve their own problems.

And hey, I’m not saying the West doesn’t have any role to play, quite the opposite in fact.  They took on a MASSIVE responsibility in colonising various countries for hundreds of years – alienating people from their culture, from their language, from their land and by imposing an economic system that creates massive levels of inequality. The West made their bed and they best continue to lay in it. They have a responsibility to recognise that the effects of colonisation didn’t just end like magic with the granting of independance (in the case of the boat people who risk their lives to come to ‘the motherland’, for example). So no, they don’t just get to walk away, guilt-free, but they do need to take a back seat and follow the lead of the affected peoples.

Self-determination. Thats what it’s about.  

Anyways, thats enough ranting for one day.

Peace out 🙂


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