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Mā te Whakamā: culture shaming & the China syndrome

Mā te Whakamā: culture shaming & the China syndrome

It was the feeling of dread that first alerted me. A post had slipped by on my feed, a beautiful young woman with a moko kauai, on one knee, glaring at me through my screen. “Miss New Zealand performs haka in China.” Hmm, beauty pageants and haka. ‘This might not end well’, I thought to myself. After some initial reluctance I gave in, and watched it. I actually hid behind my hands and peeked, so convinced was I that the performance would make me cringe; that I would feel embarrassed by it. Watch it here; you can judge for yourself, it is not up to me to tell you how you ought to think or feel about Dr Deborah Lambie’s performance. That is not the point of this post. What interests me instead is the response she has garnered from many Māori, and what that response may or may not say about our differing levels of cultural security.

Science can explain some of my initial reaction; a phenomenon sometimes called vicarious embarrassment, whereby the observer can put themselves in the shoes of the person embarrassing himself and imagine some of his forthcoming mortification. The Germans even have a handy word for it: fremdschämen, or ‘external shame’.

Cringe factor aside though, my own ideas of “proper”,”correct”, “authentic” or “tika” culture certainly played its part in my response. I was deeply afraid that one Pākehā woman on her own performing a haka, or even just part of a haka, for a panel of beauty contest judges in a faraway land would be very risky for that woman at least on social media. Haka are usually (but not always) performed in a kind of group context, so those weak in performance derive a level of protection from those around them, even if only a share of the blame if it all goes wrong. Haka are usually performed for some kind of defined reason: challenge, political expression, part of a ritual of encounter; acknowledgment, or for competitive performance. Many haka are considered preserved for male-only performance. I worried that a young woman performing alone & unsupported would thus become a target of cultural shaming.

How right I was, even as I am aware that commenting here is quite possibly adding to the problem that now exists. But I think looking at the responses to Dr Lambie’s performance (rather than at the performance itself) might be useful to gauge our own responses to such events.

So follow me, if you will, into the murky world of FB comments and cultural shaming. It was an uncomfortable read for me, so likely to have been a very painful one for Dr Lambie. Here there be [a selection of]  taniwha. You can read them yourself, all 650-odd comments here.

‘Waiho mā te whakamā e patu – ‘Let Shame Be Your Punishment’

What is going on in the posts is obviously a form of public shaming; whereby the observers unleash disapproval on the person or persons who have overstepped the socio-cultural line. The effect of the shaming is expected to be that the person or persons don’t do the sanctioned behaviour again, and her punishment constitutes warning to all others to not do the same lest they also be shamed.

In recent months and years there has been considerable focus on what has been termed ‘slut-shaming’. One simple definition of this kind of shaming is: ‘making a female feel guilty and inferior for behaving in a way others deem to be sexually inappropriate.’ More than this notion of making females ‘feel guilt’ for perceived behaviour, slut-shaming is a method of social control;  indeed, a mode of displacing blame for the actions of others on to women who may are perceived to dress provocatively, or engage in extra-marital sex. Don’t blame the rapist for raping, blame the victim for her social boundary crossing. In the process the woman as she really is effectively eradicated from consideration; and reduced to a collection of bad behaviours and body parts.

Now the shaming in regards to Dr Lambie’s performance is different, and, because most of the comments have come from Māori, offers something of an insight into a more collectivist notion of using shame as a method of social or cultural control. (Recent study has confirmed Māori exhibit higher degrees of collectivist thinking than do Pākehā, although the differences are not perhaps as stark as some might like to think). Social media now offers an immediate way of shaming, one as divorced from its cultural context as Dr Lambie’s performance was alleged to be by some of her most ardent critics.

As Joeliee Seed-Pihema identifies, when discussing the whakatauakī,  Waiho mā te whakamā e patu – ‘Let Shame Be Your Punishment:

Shame was often used as a form of retribution or utu and social control. Māori prided themselves on their image and the opinion of others greatly affected their behaviour and mana. This shaming process was very effective due to its public nature; the offender was put on trial in front of the whole hapū and/or iwi [.]

There is a lot of social retribution going on in the FB critique of Dr Lambie that marks out a particular kind of cultural shaming. Going by these comments as a reasonable example of the type, cultural shaming requires:

  • a firm belief that there is a ‘right’ way to present and portray Māori culture;
  • there is collective responsibility for any given portrayal of Māori culture;
  • the largest share of shame ought to be directed at those with knowledge rather than those without; and
  • that women and men have defined roles that ought to be upheld, for women to step outside of those roles can be dangerous.

A right way of doing things

Many posts made clear that the writers considered that a cultural standard had been breached, and that they knew the standard, and the gravity of the breach. There was a ‘tika’ or ‘authentic’ or ‘correct’ way to perform a haka, and by presumption, an accompanying duty to uphold that standard. Even supportive voices acknowledged the existence of such a standard, but did not see her breach as problematic.

Maybe whoever taught you, should teach you about the maori culture. As for the “elders” who agreed for you to do this, is appalling. You haven’t and are not appreciating the Maori culture, you’re embarrassing it and just plainly rubbing it in the dirt.

…if you want to represent Maori culture you might want to try respecting tikanga.

Check out all these Maori experts.. Good on you for giving it a go Lady.. Maori Culture will get nowhere If one of our own wants to learn her culture and is ridiculed for not being up to standard..??Who are you to judge?? she just learnt it, She didn’t claim to be an expert.

Collective responsibility for performance, and the greater responsibility of those with the requisite knowledge

While almost all comments were directed at Dr Lambie (this being her Facebook page, and all) the harshest critique was often reserved for those who advised her, rather than Dr Lambie herself. These tutors have also had to defend themselves in the media against questions of their own cultural integrity. Several of the posts also focus on Dr Lambie’s apparent isolation; while haka is a collective enterprise, she performed on her own, without visible assistance.

Nga mihi girl.At the end of the day some Maori would have taught you .It’s a shame they didn’t teach you something more appropriate. All credit to you for giving it your best shot .Come on people give the girl a break !!! A bit of encouragement or constructive criticism would have been more advantages to the young lady.For those who have just outright critisised her,I think you are all just as bad.

I’ve never seen a haka solo before? From what I’ve learnt you embrace the power of a haka from the surroundings of those around you do yes I think a poi or song may have been the better option but hey good on you for putting yourself out there snd giving it a go.

Is anyone going to call out those who taught her??? Man!! Nā rāua te he!! They should have known better… Oh well MA TE WHAKAMA E PATU! Aua atu mo te kuware o te kotiro nei…

Can’t really blame the girl.
Her kapahaka tutors taught her & her haka is the result of their work with her.

Roles of men and women ought to be upheld

One of the strongest themes in the comments was significant unease that the haka chosen was one composed to be performed by men, or at least that the style of performance was ‘unfeminine’, and somehow dangerous. You can see an example of a ‘feminine’ haka here.  That’s an interesting notion; that being feminine represented safety, being perceived as masculine however, was dangerous, even justifiably so:

Should’ve done a poi song or tititorea to be on the safe side..
We mana wahine have grace and do not need to put ourselves in a position such as she has done.

I’m all for wahine doing haka but why was this girl taught to do this paticular haka? There are “haka wahine” made specifically for wahine…

I grew up living and breathing haka, it would have been much more pleasurable had you done a soft sweet waiata instead of trying to express it in such a manly way. We women never stand as a man in the haka but we do show as much mana as our men. I believe you misinterpreted the role of our wahine in the haka and displayed only what you expect the world to see from our haka.

Well I’m a traditionalist and our women like bak in the old days should not be preforming the haka it is the last resort befor going to war for us men she should have done the poi more women like

 [reply] But traditionally the poi was a mans weapon??
     Yea but the hakas not for the women isn’t it jus like everything in        the world wanna be equal to men that’s y they get the jake the         muss treatment.
I don’t want to over-egg any puddings, and it may be that what one commenter described as the “horizontal violence” directed at Dr Lambie is just evidence of bad internet behaviour, or the usual shaming without a special ‘cultural lens’ at all.
Nevertheless I thought there was something distinctive at work, perhaps if only because I have felt the sting of cultural shaming myself, on a smaller scale, so it feels familiar to me. I know what it feels like to be blasted by a Tūhoe male for leading a whakaeke in the wrong gender. I know what it feels like to get our own karanga tikanga wrong. I know the shame of providing insufficient kai for visitors and bearing collective responsibility for that. I know Mortification well, and she me.
Those of us who have had to learn to be Māori, and those of us to-the-marae-born have all experienced degrees of such shaming; it’s what moulds us into some kind of cultural shape. Some of us, after a shaming experience, never return to the culture or the language. And that is a great shame and loss in itself. But then without cultural shaming how are we to know what is tika? How are we to know what the boundaries of Māori culture are? If all is acceptable, then nothing is.
And for completeness, the entire whakatauakī, nō Ngāti Awa, is:
‘Waiho mā te whakamā e patu; waiho hai kōrero i a tātau kia atawhai ki te iwi’ ‘Let shame be their punishment; let us be renowned for our mercy toward the tribe.’
This is what the tohunga Te Tahi-o-te-rangi responded to a suggestion that the culprits who committed a hara ought to be turned out of their canoes. Nothing more than whakamā was necessary to return to equilibrium.
The real (perhaps answerless) question here is instead: just how ought we in Māori communities, virtual or otherwise, seek to police the edges of Māori culture? Surely the better path would be for us to grow and develop tikanga and culture to such an extent that such distinct act to create shame are simply un-necessary. The shame exists, and fulfils its function, but because of a shared understanding of what was breached, not because of any kind of public word-stoning.

About Sparrowhawk/Kārearea

Legal academic and writer, Wellington. (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Pākeha. Nō te Hāhi Mihinare hoki)

22 responses »

  1. He pai ki au tēnei pūrongo.
    Not a fan of shaming. I guess that for me I have noticed that an act (even one that appears wholesome) can be done out of love or out of fear. Shaming would tend to produce the latter (I think).
    Arohanui Graham / Kereama


  2. Interesting, necessary post. And you’re the best one to have written it.

    (Yeah, posted by a white guy 😉 )


  3. Chur Sis. An important post. As I watched the doctor, I was impressed that she let go. Emotionally and physically she put her all into it, yet kept it under control. That’s one essence of haka to me. Although not the work of an adept, it was nothing like many haka ‘on the edge’ as you suggest, where it may a drunken mob fart, or a brainless lampoon. Personally I’m not worried about her or her performance. I felt her attempt was honest and she clearly had some expert guidance at some point. She’s a young woman extending herself. Chur to that. And I think ‘shaming’ is important too… but here we encounter yet again the defficiencies of English to render Maorispeak. To me, whakama is also an imperative to make clean. And the perception of the people for right or wrong is a part of what needs to be dealt with, to be I guess, cleansed. Oh and I just loved the line: “I know Mortification well, and she me.” True that. I’ve met her once or twice too. Got over it though. Love U. Love ur work xxxx


  4. Fascinating read. I see many similarities with how “shame” is used in our Samoan culture to teach/sanction/punish. Theres been some recent social media happenings with Samoans where the internet has been used to take cultural shaming to a whole other horrible level – ie its one thing for your village/community to witness and participate in your shame, but multiply that by many thousands of Samoans worldwide…. Its very disturbing and is most often being used to shame women for their “bad behaviour” or “poor understanding and adherence to cultural norms and traditions.” Im thinking here of several hair cutting/shaving punishments that were filmed by family members as a parent or guardian punished a “naughty” young woman, and then were posted online to further call her out. When the videos were reported to FB for abusive content etc, FB didnt see them as such. But in our cultural context where women have their hair quite forcibly cut as public punishment – the videos were pretty awful.

    Back to the topic at hand tho of Miss World’s haka. The fact that many are more condemning of her tutors or those who taught her the haka – could that be more sexism (and race stuff) at work? Like “Shes just a stupid/ignorant girl…and a Pakeha one at what do you expect? Its the (male?) teachers fault because they know more etc”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tēnā koe e hoa! thank you for your observations, yes the internet is pretty blind to cultural nuance in this kind of thing, T&A bad, no room for much else. In regads to your last sentence..I didn’t get the sense it was a male/female thing (ie, male teachers fault cos u r a stupid girl), of course it may have been…it was more the level of knowledge thing..the person with knowledge being responsible for the person without. And I think many commenters actually assumed she was Maori, but I suspect it wouldn’t have made a difference if she wasn’t…it’s not that unusual to see Pakeha do haka/cultural performance…hard to tell tho…mihi nui!!


  5. Kia ora i have just finished reading your article, analysis of the Haka debacle running rife through Facebook and other media avenues. Some of the comments were fierce in berating this wahine and her performance. Some were encouraging, some were sympathetic, but mostly highly critical of her and anyone associated with her. Your article personally for me gave a constructive view point and in depth analysis of the bigger picture, as opposed to just focusing on a part of it.I thank you for that. My view point now is for thy betterment. Mauriora Regards Erina


  6. I liked your article, it has made me reflect on when I first watched this beautiful young woman perform the haka. My initial thoughts were, I wish her tutors had shown her how to rise higher onto her toes, to extend her legs so they would look longer like a kotuku stepping through the waters edge. I could see she was nervous but she held her positions for a reasonable length of time and did not drop her eyes during the challenge. Her voice was strong for one doing this on her own and I felt a flutter of pride that in the vastness of China there was this small manu yelling in their face… at a beauty contest no less. And fleetingly I thought many of the other thoughts you mentioned and then wondered if I was allowing myself to succumb to the narrowness of thinking which comes from fear or arrogance. She is a breaker of calabashes and all credit to her inner strength and that of her tutors.


  7. William Winitana

    It’s not that this is a Haka!! Nor is it, that it is in Te Reo.
    But the fact that it is bad, or of poor quality, lacking in finesse, and executed in an amateur way.
    She would receive the same critique if she were singing, reciting a poem, rapping or dancing badly!!!


    • Kia ora William, I think you are right, that the judgment of her execution is what has driven most people to comment. But I think there is a little bit more going on…heck we see bad performance stuff just about every week don’t we. And very little of that bad stuff gets the kind of attention this episode got. Sometimes the context or the time or the massive boom-box of social media just combine to create something of a hailstorm. This post has had more views than anything I’ve ever written..and while I’d love to think that’s because of me, I don’t think it is..the interest is about her performance and what it fires up in other people. Thank you for your comment.


  8. Kia ora from Mongolia! I’m a total dud when it comes to the intricacies of the cultures and their gendered expressions in New Zealand, but I thought it was an amazing haka. Of course, the haka performer here is viewed, from your analysis of the fb comments, to have transgressed the gender norms by doing the masculine haka, and that, too, for a beauty contest, and that puts her in the “deviant” category. Without questioning the gender/ed norms, though, without giving the freedom of expression for questioning and therefore re-imagining and recreating comfortable spaces for anyone who wants to, and is able to, as is the example here, claim these spaces, cultures are nothing but dead weight that will ultimately implode. Again, really enjoyed the read and the performance, most importantly.


    • Kia ora to you! I think you are absolutely right about comfortable spaces, and I admire brave people who (as another commenter on this post said) “break calabashes” because they push out the space for the rest of us. Thank you so much for your comment.


  9. Janice Abo Ganis

    Enjoyed the article immensely, although not so sure of the analogy of slut shaming. My immediate response to the Haka in China: whoops a girl doing a Haka in China, gotta watch that. She is so alone. Looks a bit weird. O well she chose to do that. Good on her. Thanks for the analysis.


    • Hi Janice..thanks for that..I don’t think I was so much making an analysis with slut-shaming, I was pointing out how I thought this shaming was different. Although some may well say there is a comparison…thanks for commenting.


  10. I’ve found the response to this interesting because there are so many different takes on it.
    Personally I looked at this and I read the response Kereama Te Ua and I could respect where they were coming from.

    The thing that sticks in my throat is the double think within New Zealand society when it comes to Māori. Things like the haka, pōwhiri, our symbols, our images are celebrated, replicated and sold. They’re our signatures elements ‘Kiwi culture’ and something to be proud of. They’re celebrated globally as symbols that New Zealand is ‘so progressive’ when it comes to our indigenous people – lucky Māori, they did so much better than the Aboriginals across the water.

    That would be beautiful and amazing if the same embrace was extended to our real people.

    But I don’t think closing people out, shaming them will resolve those issues. Rather, it just breeds resentment both among pākehā and those Māori who the only elements of culture they’ve ever had the opportunity to know are those which are currently public.

    Irregardless of that thought above – which I feel is the more sensible one, the hurt is hard to shake and I wonder if that’s what many of those shaming her out feel – is that why we not only rush to protect our tikanga but lash out nastily.


    • Yes, I am absolutely sure that self protection is indeed a motivator. If we were secure in our culture there would be no need to lash out. But then…our culture is not secure, which drives this conservatism; in the sense of conserving what is left, even if our vision of what is left is actually not accurate..thanks for your comment!


  11. Thanks for the post, ‘the shared understanding of what has been breached’ is what I struggle with. As a ‘white girl’ who has spent many years learning Te Reo, Waiata and Taonga Puoro I have come up against this kind of vitriol many times. As an ‘outsider’ I strive to seek out what is tika and what is not and am disinclined to step outside cultural boundaries as I do not want to offend anyone. However increasingly I find that what is tika is subjective and as I look to the kaumatua for guidance it is the younger generations who deride me and the elders who encourage. I can only surmise that this is a necessary stage within the Maori Cultural Renaissance. As younger generations reconnect and grow up strong in their culture, with less of the societal oppression that their forebears experienced, it falls on them to redefine what is cultural normalcy, or Maori, and what is not. I truly believe that Pakeha choosing to learn and identify with Maori Culture is the other side of the screwed up Bi-Cultural coin we have inherited. Just as Maori were disenfranchised so too were Pakeha robbed of a chance to create a unique Aotearoa identity thanks to the ever present ‘yolk’ of the motherland frowning upon all behaviours deemed non-european. So cultural cringe exists on both sides and it will always be the rule breakers and mavericks that challenge this, we need them to push boundaries and make us question our own identity if we are ever to move forward harmoniously. As I have walked on the egg shells of cultural diplomacy I have found it an impossible mine field to navigate and while some will seek to support me others will seek to discredit. While tearing myself apart trying to make sense of this I came to the realisation that I cannot escape those whose subjective opinion is that Women should not play Taonga Puoro and especially not a Pakeha Woman, so all I can do is seek to honour those who chose to teach me, honour their intentions, their legacy and their kaupapa. If Dr Lambie has done this, then in the eyes of those who matter to her, her kaiako, she has done well.



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