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The curious case of Korotangi Paki and inherited privilege in modern New Zealand.

The curious case of Korotangi Paki and inherited privilege in modern New Zealand.

The news today that Korotangi Paki has now had a conviction entered against his name for Excess Breath Alcohol reminded me of a conversation I had with my mother a few months ago when the news broke that he had, at that time, escaped conviction.  “What!” She yelped. “How did he get off? That’s not bloody fair! And anyway, the Kingitanga’s not even bloody REAL!” My Mum’s Pākehā. I’m pretty certain my Dad (nō Te Rarawa), were he still alive, would have had pretty much the same response. That Korotangi Paki’s story has had legs for a large chunk of this year is in part because of a powerful idea in the mainstream New Zealand public imagination. People with privilege should not be treated more gently than the rest of us plebs, especially when such privilege is based on birth and inheritance. Every so often some issue such as this swells in the public consciousness and has people claiming loudly and broadly about equality for all. On a good day I can see that kind of response as some kind of evidence that the reputed strong egalitarian streak in the New Zealand psyche is alive and well in our heads if not in real life, and some degree of disdain for inherited privilege is pretty healthy.

Privilege is an interesting topic as it has so many manifestations. And of course, the slightly notable thing in Paki’s case is that the charge has always been that he was was a Māori supposedly claiming inherited privilege.  The general tenor of this kind of criticism on a popular, dedicated Facebook page is easy to spot:

This is an outrage! […] This shows the Kingitanga as an excuse for featherbedding and protection of tribal privilege. The rest of us would have to take our lumps!…


Unfair justice. No matter who you are or where you come from, If you do the crime, do the time!!! Is it fair to say, if we got caught for theft, burglary & drink driving we can ask the Maori king to get the case DISCHARGED without conviction too? FAIR JUSTICE for all…just saying..

Of course, this criticism is also interspersed with even more comments bemoaning so-called racial (as opposed to inherited) privilege. and, curiously, many, many comments scorning King Tūheitia for being a truck driver with that fact being held up as evidence that the Kīngitanga isn’t a real monarchy anyway. Hmm. Well, be that as it may… Certainly, in Māori thinking, often lineage does count for something.  This fact is often perceived to be in direct tension with New Zealand’s long-lived love affair with the idea (if not the reality) of classlessness/equality. Focus on lineage is often easily conflated with the presumption of inherited privilege.

Lineage is extraordinarily important in Māori thinking, but not so much because it comes with attendant wealth, but because whakapapa (genealogy) is the pre-eminent organising principle of Māori life, even among many Māori who profess no Māori cultural life otherwise. Māori commonly seek connection with each other on a familial basis for any number of purposes; to decide on the speaking order on the paepae, perhaps, to help a therapist and client create a good therapeutic relationship, to make slyly apt jokes hidden in the lyrics of a particularly lascivious haka, to smoothe the way in creating a relationship between newly introduced strangers. Whakapapa, as the basis of collective action, is now commonly referred to as a teaching tool and necessary focus in some rehabilitation frameworks.  Whakapapa can help determine those who might best serve on a hapū negotiating team, given the connections that could be created with other hapū to get the most combined traction. And obviously whakapapa can determine ownership of land. Like the gossamer threads of the spiderweb, whakapapa, is everywhere, connecting pretty much everybody and everything. This is no misty spiritual abstraction; whakapapa is a bloody useful tool.

Undoubtedly, whakapapa can, sometimes, bring with it wealth and influence, and opportunities not open to others, which is why the privilege presumed to apply to Korotangi Paki, as the second son of King Tūheitia, has received such a public airing. This idea of privilege based on whakapapa, although relatively less exercised among Māori, is probably quite familiar to most New Zealanders who recognise, and deeply distrust, lineage-derived privilege. But how deep does this distrust really run, I wonder? And can we see it in our own mirrors, I wonder?

I wrote two wills, this year. One for an older female relative on the Pākehā side of my whānau , one for one of my older whanaunga in my Dad’s family. In doing up these documents I got a pretty clear idea of how inherited privilege can work even just within my own family. Although my Pākehā relative has been a beneficiary (DPB and Super) for more than 40 years she inherited some money from her stepmother when she died, and when she received a similar amount from her own mother who passed away, that was enough to pay the remaining mortgage on her home, about 12 years ago. So all she has in her house, but she owns that, and absolutely nothing else. When she passes away her adult children will inherit some part of that legacy which will then bolster whatever they have managed to accrue for themselves over their adult lives. A smaller share of her legacy will also be divided between the grandkids to be held on trust until they are old enough preferably for use in tertiary study or for partial house deposits. In turn, the grandkids themselves will also inherit their parents’ shares of that legacy providing for some level of economic stability for decades to come, that, most likely will only increase in value and carry on down the generations to come. That’s inherited privilege, isn’t it?

My whanaunga’s will on my father’s side of the whānau represents an entirely different situation. There is a large amount of land, and a house on its section. Neither is owned outright by my whanaunga. Instead the land is collectively held in different areas around the North Island with literally hundreds and hundreds of other people. The house and section are in a whānau trust under the Māori Land Act. My whanaunga worked all his life until retirement, but there is no inherited wealth, other than his actual lineage and whakapapa connections that already belong to his adult children anyway. Of course there is the wealth of the homestead itself and the landscaping; a wealth of memories and connections that will remain. So much for our dual legal system with ‘special laws’ bestowing privilege on that whānau. There is no increased capital value that will enhance the lives of his children or grandchildren.

I want to be clear that I don’t think I am talking here about ‘white privilege’ per se. While inherited privilege will often accrue to white people, in my unsophisticated view, white privilege refers to a degree of racial and cultural privilege experienced by, well, white people.  I am speaking here specifically of inherited privilege. Often the two will coincide, but not inevitably. And yes, of course there will be a significant number of Māori families who will have exactly the same kind of individual wealth as I described above. Provided, of course, that they have managed to accumulate individual wealth outside of the Māori land system. It is probably also entirely possible now to talk of an inheritable collective privilege, as iwi and hapū develop and grow their asset bases and engage in post-settlement reconstruction. So obviously I don’t consider Māori to be excluded from the notion of inherited privilege. However I consider it far more likely that Pākehā families will benefit more directly and more materially from inherited privilege.

For one thing, I’m pretty sure I see inherited privilege most days I go to work at my university, and I’m the beneficiary of it myself, from the Pākeha side of my whakapapa. I wonder how much outrage generated against Korotangi Paki was created by people who themselves owed something significant to their own inherited privilege. How many of those people end up being somewhat insulated against the possibility of being claimed by the criminal justice system because of their birth privilege, I wonder? Chuck Collins in a post last year identified certain kinds of students whose inheritance determines, at least to some degree, the nature of their futures. This quote is a lengthy one, but worth including (bearing in mind the US context). Collins imagines a scene that could happen in any uni cafe around NZ: two 21-year-old students sit down in a cafe to study for an upcoming test:

Behind the counter, a barista whips up their double-shot lattes. In the back kitchen, another young adult washes the dishes and empties the trash. One of the college students, Miranda, will graduate without any student-loan debt and will have completed three summers of unpaid internships at businesses that will advance her career path. Her parents stand ready to subsidize her lodging with a security deposit and co-signed apartment lease and will give her a no-interest loan to buy a car. They also have a network of family and professional contacts that can help her. Ten years later, Miranda will have a high-paying job, be engaged to another professional, and will buy a home in a neighborhood with other college-educated professionals, a property that will steadily appreciate over time because of its location.

The other collegiate, Marcus, will graduate with more than $55,000 in [student loan], a maxed-out credit card, and an extensive résumé of part-time food-service jobs that he has taken to pay for school, both during summers and while in college, reducing the hours he can study. Though he will obtain a degree, he will graduate with almost no work experience in his field of study, and begin working two part-time jobs to pay back his student loans and to afford rent in a shared apartment. Ten years later, Marcus will still be working in low-paying jobs and renting an apartment. He will feel occupationally stuck and frustrated in his attempts to network in the area of his degree. He will take on additional debt—to deal with various health and financial problems—and watch his hope of buying a home slip away, in large part because of a credit history damaged during his early twenties.

Tony, the barista, has the benefit of not taking on mega-debt from college. He will eventually enroll in some classes at a local public university. But his income and employment opportunities will be constrained by not having a degree. He will make several attempts to learn a building trade and start his own business, eventually landing a job with a steady but low income. The good news for Tony is that his parents, while not college educated or wealthy, are stable middle-class with modest retirement pensions and a debt-free house, acquired by Tony’s grandfather with a low-interest [..] mortgage. They are able to provide a bedroom to their son. That home will prove to be a significant factor in Tony’s future economic stability, as he will eventually inherit it.

Cordelia, working in the kitchen, has even less opportunity than Tony for mobility and advancement. Neither of her parents went to college nor have significant assets, as they rent their housing. Though she was academically in the top of her urban high-school class, she did not consider applying to a selective college. The costs seemed daunting, and she didn’t know anyone who went away to college. There were no adults or guidance professionals to help her explore other options, including financial aid available at private colleges, some of which would have paid her full tuition and expenses to attend. Instead, she takes courses at the local community college where she sees many familiar faces. Cordelia will struggle with health issues, as lack of adequate health care and insurance means she will delay treatment of several problems. Over time, she will have a steady and low-wage job, but she will also begin to take more responsibility for supporting members of her family who are less fortunate.

So while many of us might be pretty happy about Korotangi Paki’s shiny new conviction (or not) I think it’s worth a moment of reflection to ask what role, if any, some manifestation of inherited privilege might play in our own lives. Just a thought. Not a judgment.

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