One evening, a few months ago I found myself sitting on the couch opposite my son. We were both filling out a Harvard University online test, testing our unconscious biases. These tests , which make you hit specific keys in response to images of faces and words, are fun, and maybe not very accurate. At any rate, it turned out that I had a moderate unconscious biases against African-Americans and women. Oh bloody marvellous. All my carefully nurtured social liberalism and bleeding heart centre-leftism (with dashes of deep orthodox conservatism, truth be told) was rent asunder and I was left with the fact that, underneath it all, I remain a bundle of automatic reactions I can’t control. As are we all, I guess.
My son though, showed a moderate unconscious bias towards African-Americans. He couldn’t be bothered with the gender test and loped off to play Fortnite with his teen male mates, but still, he gives me hope. A hope that something in his growth and development, and in the images and people that he sees around him in his teen world has gifted him better soil in which to nurture a more open view of people that look different to him.
Perhaps my (almost) relentlessly Pākehā-centric upbringing in 1970s Christchurch gifted me a different kind of soil. One that grew me into a person who has had to learn to not be afraid of difference. Hell, let’s not beat around the bush, of course it did. It took years of very conscious effort for me not to be afraid to walk into a room full of people darker than I was. Despite my strong matriarchal upbringing and all-girls state education it took years too, to realise that male leadership and breezy male authority in all matters are not written in the stars. I still have to fight to over-compensate, even today, the day I turn 48, for my own simple sexism and racism.
I think background is one thing, but also what really matters are the stories we tell ourselves, and the stories we hear or read. When I think back on the stories I immersed myself in as a lonely bookish kid, they were the staples of what I imagine a 1960s English childhood would be: Famous Five, Secret Seven, Billy Bunter, the Hardy Boys, Bullfinches’ Greek myths, Narnia, Corrigan, and the occasional AW Reed story. My imaginary friends all had English accents and said “My hat!” a lot. We watched a lot of Queen’s Christmas Messages when I was growing up.
My movie memories are largely the black and white and sometimes colour ones I’d watch with my mother on Sunday afternoons while she did hours and hours of ironing. I just don’t remember, in the main, any stories with brown or black faces, unless they were the occasional Louis Armstrong or Sidney Poitier moment. I don’t remember female book heroes either (except for George in the Famous Five and Lucy in Narnia). I lived in a Pākehā visual bubble, with occasional Māori guest appearances from Prince Tui Teka and Billy T James. There was simply no narrative of Māori life that I ever saw until I was an adult, and my own post-urbanisation family story was simply too remote to create images in my head.
Things are different for my boy and I think his assumptions are different. He knows, very early in his life , where he comes from and that he is Māori, which is just how it is. The predominant mode of visual story surrounding him is still a Pākehā one, but Boy, Dark Horse are (boy-centric) stories that he will watch again and again, even as he pretends to do his reo Māori homework for school. Neither film reflects his own life really, but to him, they are just normal stories, just part of the Great Story of Everything. Perhaps his openness to diversity won’t last. Who knows. Part of my job is to make sure he continues to see the world outside the bubble we have no doubt created for him.
So ever since he heard about this year’s Māoriland Film Festival up in Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga country in Ōtaki from 21-25 March he’s been keen to go. Actually he’s not that interested in going to the movies of this festival, in its fifth anniversary year, the ‘most significant indigenous film festival of the southern hemisphere’, according to the blurb. To him, stories made by and about Māori or by and about other indigenous peoples perhaps don’t sound all that different to anything else, really. I think he wants to go because he’s just never been to a film festival before; his uncle and aunty run it, and his Aunty Hinemoa will be down from Auckland. That’ll do. What more do you need?
So after work today (Friday, as I write) we’ll drive in. There’s a doco on late this afternoon, Defending the Fire, that promises to be a layered look at what we mean when we speak of a ‘native warrior’. Maybe we’ll sneak in to catch some of the Ookie-Spookies short films, perhaps the one about the Stállu a Sámi monster who is an outcast in society (Slincraze Stállu) or about a young Aboriginal tracker hunting down criminals on the Australian Western frontier (Blight).
Actually we’ll probably dine out on ‘Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, a feature documentary about the role of Native Americans in popular music history. The funny thing is that this movie will no doubt be revelatory to me, but not for my seriously musical son. My guess is, he’ll be utterly unsurprised that there has been such an extraordinary Native contribution to popular music. He’ll just enjoy the tunes, and effortlessly add this information to what he already knows is normal. We probably won’t be there for the closing day on Sunday, but the programme, with 100 movies in total, is full and rich right up until Sunday night.
Knowing my luck and his personality, my son will probably declare himself absolutely bored at some point and go find somewhere to hang out on his phone, while I’ll continue to bask in images and sounds different to the ones I grew up with. Normal, but enhanced, transmission after all, then.
[This post has already appeared in a very slightly edited form on E-Tangata.]